the hunt for oregon’s iconic white wine

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Much of the discussion among winemakers and those in the audience at last Saturday’s Oregon Chardonnay Symposium centered around the idea of defining an ‘Oregon’ style of Chardonnay. Winemakers noted that they sensed a lot of enthusiasm for the grape among their tasting room visitors, but the question of how (or if) to describe a specific Oregon style seemed to be a bit of a head-scratcher.

My take – there is no such thing as an Oregon style, nor need there be. Now, I am the same guy who has spent much of the last two Oregon Pinot Gris Symposiums preaching just the opposite. Stop talking about how your Pinot Gris is Alsatian or Italian in style, I have said, over and over. Talk about the style of Oregon Pinot Gris. So, why should Chardonnay be any different?

It’s different because the market opportunities are different. In Pinot Gris, Oregon vintners have a grape that is clearly theirs to own, at least domestically. David Lett planted the first Pinot Gris vines anywhere in the country more than four decades ago. I’d be hard-pressed to name any significant producer of Pinot Gris in California. It’s a rising star in Washington, but likely to remain a minor player for a long while in a state super-saturated with great white wines. So Oregon has a real chance to claim that niche.

Chardonnay, on the other hand, is the grape that everyone takes to the Prom. Whether it’s dolled up in cheap perfume and too much makeup, or dressed to kill with superb good taste, Chardonnay will find plenty of admirers, and in contrast to almost any other white wine grape, there are few wine regions in the world that don't make Chardonnay.

In tasting through the eight examples being poured on Saturday, the most definitive aspect tying them together was vintage. Six of the wines were 2011s, and reflected that cooler year in terms of high acidity, a steely nervosity to the mouthfeel, and some nuanced aromatics. 2011 is just the sort of vintage that I personally adore, though it may not please most other critics. But this lineup was outstanding, and it was the vivid acidity and pinpoint aromatics that they shared in common.

After that, individual winemaking choices take over. What clone do you use? Wild or inoculated yeast? Malolactic or not? On that last item, Matello’s Marcus Goodfellow rather sheepishly admitted that one barrel of his 2011 Chardonnay was still going through its secondary fermentation – a full 18 months after harvest! “I hate giving in,” he explained. Which is why he was the only one pouring a 2010.

Some quick notes on the 2011 Chardonnays tasted:

The EIEIO opened with lovely floral/clover highlights that carried through in the mouth. The fruit is supple, the details finish with a lick of butterscotch and plenty of juicy acidity.

My other favorite was the Durant, also nuanced with hints of honeysuckle, almond and vanilla, a firm core of tree fruits, surpassing elegance and excellent length. Just one barrel was made, sadly.

Close behind was Walter Scott’s 2011, which also captured some of the floral aspect in both nose and palate. The fruit is firm, apple flavored, and nicely balanced. Overall it showed nice delicacy and length, with a kiss of honey and Meyer lemon in the finish.

The wines from Big Table Farm, Crowley and Division Wine Company were very well made, just a bit less lingering on the palate and complex in the aromas. Jim Maresh poured his 2011 later in the day, and it was outstanding, but I’d stopped making notes. And the 2010 Matello (which had finished fermenting) was also reflective of its vintage, a riper one in Oregon. Round and fruity, it sported appealing fruit notes of apple, peach, a hint of apricot. The finish brings in a bit of butterscotch and toasted almond.

At the end of the day, a consensus was reached, and Marcus Goodfellow summed it up nicely. “Diversity of flavor is what we are all about,” he noted. “We shouldn’t all try to taste the same. A vineyard with multiple clones on multiple rootstock is a more interesting vineyard. I think Chardonnay handles vintage variety; it sits well and expresses itself through vintage variation individually. We have unencumbered decisions, limited selection, and detailed care – that is what unites us [as small producers]. We take whatever we can get; we are really focused on making the best wine possible out of it.”


Katherine Cole said...

Nice post, Paul! You summed up the event very well. Oregon chardonnay has been a well-kept secret, but I think it's time we get the word out.

Katherine Cole

Clare Carver said...

thanks for coming Paul - It was such a nice line of of critics and winemakers. Always learning and striving to make the best wines we can... cheers! Clare - big table farm

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