Willamette Valley’s Way with Chardonnay

I haven’t heard much about the Anything But Chardonnay (ABC) rebellion lately. Good. One purpose of this article is to add momentum to the Try Oregon Chardonnay (TOC) movement, which has been growing for at least a decade. While the grape can be found in a few regions in Oregon, 83% of the planted acres of Chardonnay are in the Willamette Valley, according to 2022 figures. Josh Bergström, general manager and winemaker at Bergström Wines, suggests, “I would use the term Willamette Valley Chardonnay over Oregon Chardonnay, as most of the qualitative and stylistic increases have come out of the valley and not from the southern or eastern parts of the state.”

One characteristic of a fine wine is its capacity to age, a quality that shows in many older Willamette Valley Chardonnays. Some remain youthfully fresh, while others become deeper and more complex. There are also many similarities between the style of Willamette Valley Chardonnay and that of white Burgundy. Jason Lett, the proprietor and winemaker at The Eyrie Vineyards, explains, “If you love older white Burgundy, then you’ll find many incredible bargains by picking up old Oregon Chardonnay at auctions and cellar sales.”

Lett’s observation alludes to the second purpose of this article, which is to explore how Willamette Valley Chardonnay performs in the market in comparison with white Burgundy. My curiosity was piqued by a remark Chevonne Ball, the founder of the wine travel company Dirty Radish, made during the 2023 Oregon Chardonnay Celebration Seminar, which she moderated. She commented, “The price and the getting of French Chardonnay is so high that it is less expensive for people in the UK and in Asia to get Oregon Chardonnay . . . so people are buying it because it’s less expensive—but also because it’s delicious.” My investigation revealed a far more nuanced and complex situation.

Willamette Valley Becomes Chardonnay

David Lett, Jason’s father, planted the first Chardonnay vines in the Willamette Valley in 1965 and produced the first wines from them in 1970. It turned out to be a brilliant decision. Situated around the 45th parallel, the Willamette Valley, like Burgundy, is a sweet spot for growing Chardonnay.

Andreas Wetzel, the owner and winemaker at Wetzel Estate Winery, agrees, explaining, “Chardonnay grown in a cooler climate, such as the Willamette Valley, allows us to craft wines that retain brighter finishes. They are refreshing and a pleasure to serve with foods that are full flavored. Furthermore, when keeping in mind Chardonnay’s aging potential, a well-balanced chemistry benefits from the cool winds that we see in the Van Duzer Corridor.”

Though Pinot Gris remains the most planted white grape in the Willamette Valley, Chardonnay has become the one to watch. Plantings of Chardonnay are increasing, and some Pinot Gris vines are being grafted over to it. Chardonnay is finally emerging from obscurity in the region and attracting new consumers.

The Matter of Clones

Discussing the importance of clones can trigger skirmishes among producers. Eyrie grows three clones, primarily a Draper massal selection, along with Wente and Sterling. Other early producers in the valley also planted clones from California with mixed results.

Lett says, “There is a pervasive narrative that Oregon Chardonnay was bad but now it’s good. That is objectively false.” He explains that some notable wine critics recognized the category’s excellence early on, but, at the same time, others denigrated it. Consequently, the overall reputation of Willamette Valley Chardonnay suffered despite the undeniable successes. Many thought that California clones were ill suited to the cooler, wetter climate, so the so-called Dijon clones were brought in from Burgundy starting in 1984 and have been popular ever since. Some still claim that these clones are behind the resurgence of Willamette Valley Chardonnay, but early failures had more to do with site selection, farming, winemaking skill, and excessive use of oak.

While many winegrowers stick strictly to planting a handful of Dijon clones, others favor a much wider selection, including some clones from California. Climate change has greatly reduced the risk of grapes not ripening. Abbott Claim is currently establishing a vineyard with 14 different clones of Chardonnay in Eola-Amity Hills, which is cooled by afternoon breezes through the Van Duzer Corridor.

Simon Davies, the buying director at A&B Vintners, the largest importer of Willamette Valley wines in the UK, believes that site, not clone, is the most important factor. He argues, “Clones are boring.” His opinion seems well founded, as impressive older wines are made from a range of clones. Some rely only on Dijon clones, while others are a mixture of Dijon and California. Vintage, site, and winemaking seem to matter most.

Capacity to Age

When asked if anything extraordinary is done to ensure that Chardonnay will age, Véronique Boss-Drouhin, the head winemaker at Domaine Drouhin Oregon, quips, “I would love to tell you that I do something extraordinary, like dance around the barrels once a month on a full-moon night! I believe the aging potential is already in the fruit, but there certainly are some wise decisions that probably do contribute to help the wine age.”

Bergström agrees that aging potential is derived both from the grapes and from winemaker decisions. He explains, “The regional climate of the Willamette Valley ensures ageability in our wines due to the high natural acidity and the fact that we achieve physiological ripeness [and] good flavors at the same time that natural acids are high and potential alcohol is low. But ageability with white wines, especially Chardonnay, [requires] making sure that oxidation does not happen prematurely, so our wines are made in a reductive winemaking style.”

Jay McDonald, the owner and winemaker at EIEIO & Company, takes an opposite approach. He picks at a higher level of titratable acidity and preoxidizes the juice before fermentation, which occurs at colder temperatures. Shelby Perkins, the winegrower at Perkins Harter Wines, has tried both approaches and believes that pick date is the most important factor. “To me,” she wrote in an email, “natural acidity is the essence of the structure in a white wine and should never be adjusted. I began pressing grapes in a protective manner, with oxygen excluded, but have moved toward the brown (black) style of must treatment for ageability.” This method exposes the must to hyperoxidation, turning it dark and, counterintuitively, protects the resulting wine from oxidizing early (premature oxidation, or pre-mox).

Tasting Older Willamette Valley Chardonnays

To consider how Willamette Valley Chardonnay ages, I tasted examples from 1991 through 2017, which ranged from 5 to 31 years old. The experience was a revelation and changed how I determine when to start drinking Oregon Chardonnay.

Older Wines

The Eyrie Vineyards has been producing Chardonnay in the Willamette Valley since 1970. Lett has some from the first vintage, but it’s not for sale. “[The] 1973 is still stellar,” he teases. The nose of the 1991 Reserve from The Eyrie vineyard was juicy and fruity, tilting toward very ripe tropical fruit, with hints of nuts and maderization. While past its peak, it was still drinking finely, with a rich but shorter finish and low acidity. The 1997 King Estate Reserve Chardonnay was a deep golden color with a hint of brown, and had some energy left. The nose showed butterscotch and dried fruit, but the palate lacked acidity. On the other hand, the 1996 was in decline.

A deep golden 2002 Chardonnay from Brick House Vineyards was nearing its end but still good, with some vanilla on the nose and a rich palate of deeply roasted nuts and Madeira. The 2010 and 2011 Cascadia Chardonnays, both from cool vintages, were more impressive and lively.

I also tasted the 2003 Lange Estate Winery & Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay, sealed with a plastic cork, and the wine was maderized. Though in decline, a 2004 Lange Estate Freedom Hill Chardonnay had a fruity nose and an elegantly rich palate, with juicy fruit, good acidity, and a medium-short finish.

Some younger wines, including a 2009 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Arthur Chardonnay and a 2012 Iris Vineyards Chardonnay, were drinking relatively well but past their prime.

The Sweet Spot

A few older examples, however, were still youthful. Not unexpectedly, cooler vintages were showing best. The 2007 Evening Land Seven Springs Vineyard Summum, from the inaugural vintage, was bright, fresh, perfumed, saline, and mouthwatering. The 2010 Evening Land Seven Springs Vineyard La Source offered an intense lemon-lime and mango nose, rounded texture, and great acidity.

The 2012 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Arthur Chardonnay was kaleidolfactic, with hints of butterscotch and toasted nuts on the nose. It had an evolving, fresh palate with a long finish, and the energy to continue to age well. The 2011 EIEIO Yates Conwill Vineyard Chardonnay was also youthful, with green notes suggesting early picking and light toast on the nose. An impressively textured, delicate palate led to a rounded, mouthwatering finish.

Most frequently, wines between 7 and 20 years old showed richness and complexity absent in younger examples, and, in several cases, they still showed ageability. This seems to be the sweet spot for Willamette Valley Chardonnay—albeit with plenty of variation depending on vintage, closure, and winemaking intent.

The 2003 Belle Pente Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay, made solely from estate fruit, was deep gold in color, with a nose that opened to overripe fruit. While the finish was short, the wine was still ageable. The 2008 had a medium gold color with a silvery sparkle; a toasty, nutty nose; and a beautifully balanced, mouthwatering palate with notes of tropical fruit in the background.

I tasted the 2008, 2012, and 2013 Bergström Sigrid from magnums. All three were very lively, with the oldest emitting rich tropical fruit aromas and filling the mouth with evolving flavors, an impression of tannins, and a long finish.

Other standout wines included the 2007 Carabella Vineyard Chardonnay, the most intense of the winery’s older vintages, and its 2011, which had a lovely nose of butterscotch with ripe tropical fruit; the 2008 Chehalem Winery Ian’s Reserve, with aromas of light toast and fruit and great acidity on the finish; and the 2010 Goodfellow Family Cellars Matello Richard’s Cuvée, which was still showing finely, without a hint of tiredness. The 2012 ROCO Winery Rose Rock West Vineyard had a bouquet of tropical fruit, white flowers, and hints of nuts and oak, with a delicate palate. The 2007 Argyle Nuthouse Lone Star Vineyard Chardonnay, from the ROCO winemaker Rollin Soles’s previous venture, still had flashes of green color, aromas of citrus and bread, and a long finish. The 2006 King Estate Signature Collection Oregon Chardonnay showed a deep yellow color, with some green and faint gold. The palate was nicely balanced and suave, showing its ageability.

A Standout Vintage

In addition to Bergström’s Sigrid, I was particularly fond of several other Chardonnays from the 2013 vintage. The 2013 Brittan Vineyards initially showed aromas of chalk, followed by butterscotch and vanilla wafer. The palate was richly textured with a long finish, showing the wine’s ageability. The 2013 Fairsing Vineyard Chardonnay had a rich honeyed nose with ripe tropical fruit and a rich toasty, nutty flavor, a fresh medium finish, and great balance. The 2013 EIEIO Yates Conwill Chardonnay and 2013 ROCO Willamette Valley Chardonnay were also standouts.

Younger Wines

Not surprisingly, the Chardonnays from the hot vintages of 2014, 2015, and 2016 are generally maturing more quickly. The beautifully textured 2014 Goodfellow Willamette Valley Chardonnay showed its oak on the nose and had a well-balanced palate with excellent length. The nose of the 2015 Chehalem Ian’s Reserve Chardonnay initially had a touch of reduction, then toast, chalk, hints of lemon and butterscotch, and graham cracker. The palate had great texture, excellent balance, and a long finish. The youthful 2015 Dominio IV Imagination Series Chardonnay was surprisingly crisp for a hot vintage and showed lime-inflected brioche on the nose and pleasing palate.

ROCO’s 2014 and 2015 Chardonnays were drinking well and showing ageability, but the 2016 Goodfellow Willamette Valley Chardonnay was nearing its peak, with notes of butterscotch and oak on the nose and a nicely balanced palate.

Most of the 2017 Chardonnays I sampled were still youthful. Tasted alongside older vintages, current releases seemed underdeveloped, shy, and immature. I hadn’t realized what I was missing by opening these youngsters. The 2017 Chehalem Reserve Chardonnay, for example, seemed muted on the palate but had a lovely, seductive nose. The 2017 Dominio IV Imagination Series Chardonnay had a floral nose with more oak, and the 2017 Perkins Harter Wines Johan Vineyard Chardonnay in magnum was intensely citrusy, but both were still tight on the palate.

Willamette Valley Chardonnay vs. White Burgundy in the Market

Producer Perspectives

I asked several producers of Willamette Valley Chardonnay how they think their Chardonnay wines compete with white Burgundy, both within and outside the United States. Winemakers’ opinions and experiences were all over the map.

Lett is characteristically blunt: “Who cares? This is Oregon wine, and [I] hope it expresses itself that way.”

Others wouldn’t mind taking on white Burgundy in the market but find it challenging. Soles noted the wider range of price points for white Burgundy, thanks to the much more extensive Chardonnay plantings in Burgundy compared with those of the Willamette Valley. He laments, “I’m not sure we see our [Chardonnay] as a competitor with Burgundy. . . . It would be beneficial to our style of Chardonnay if retailers and restaurateurs positioned our Chardonnay next to listings of white Burgundies.”

Aaron Lieberman, the winemaker at Iris Vineyards, says, “We still encounter a lot of market resistance to Oregon Chardonnay. In the western US, I think that resistance is because most Chardonnay drinkers have a taste for California Chardonnay. In the eastern US, Oregon Chardonnay might be more accepted as more Chardonnay drinkers there have a taste for white Burgundy.”

Then there are those who have been finding success in the market, particularly in the UK and in Asian countries. Bergström says, “Our Old Stones Chardonnay was designed to compete with village-level and premier cru white Burgundies, especially in markets like the UK, Denmark, and Scandinavia. That is working very well; however, the export market is still very price sensitive, and most importers will shy away from reserve bottlings of Chardonnay from the US due to price.”

Similarly, Doug Tunnell, the founder of Brick House Vineyards, says, “There is no doubt that, especially for our London importer, Oregon Chardonnay is very attractive to longtime white Burgundy collectors.” He feels that Brick House has a price advantage in the US and Asia.

Ian Burch, the winemaker at Archery Summit, agrees that the value proposition of Willamette Valley Chardonnay is strong, but, he says, “It’s still not well known that Willamette Valley Chardonnay could be a substitute for white Burgundies. . . . The ripeness levels and underlying acidity are not dissimilar. The wines in the Willamette are getting made more and more like Burgundies, with many Burgundians playing in the Willamette now. . . . Both areas embody moderate new oak levels and tightening winemaking techniques.”

Some prefer not to view the two categories in opposition. Boss-Drouhin says, “People who want white Burgundy will buy white Burgundy, but we see fast-growing interest in Oregon Chardonnay. I don’t think of it as competition, just good choices.”

Retailer Perspectives

Davies finds that buyers of white Burgundy are a natural audience for Willamette Valley Chardonnays. Buyers are as interested in Willamette Valley Chardonnay as white Burgundy, with 90% of his customers buying both. Davies notes that some Oregon Chardonnays clearly compete with some village and premier cru white Burgundies and represent an extraordinary value compared with them. On the other hand, a white Burgundy selling for, say, £80 is worth £160 on the secondary market. This is not the case for Oregon Chardonnay.

MW Barbara Drew, the content officer at Berry Bros. & Rudd, also thinks Oregon Chardonnay is progressing in the UK market as collectors diversify their cellars. She says, “This has been accelerated, at least in part, by small volumes of white Burgundy, such as in 2021.” But she agrees with Davies that Oregon is not displacing Burgundy. She says, “[It] is rare to see collectors who are already fans of white Burgundy entirely shifting away from France. Instead, they are seeking out fine New World Chardonnays, such as those from Willamette Valley, to complement their existing collections.” She points to the wines of Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Lingua Franca as popular options. “Given the price point, these wines sit comfortably alongside premier cru Burgundies.”

During a visit to London in June 2023, I visited three retailers. At Fortnum & Mason, displayed in a section for North American white wines, I saw a 2020 Walter Scott Chardonnay for £29.95, a 2018 Gran Moraine Chardonnay for £60.90, and a 2017 Evening Land Seven Springs Summum Chardonnay for £120. I was told that white Burgundy customers buy white Burgundy and not Oregon Chardonnay. The latter is stocked for visitors who want a taste of home.

Harrods carried a 2019 Cristom Chardonnay for £40, a 2018 00 VGW Chardonnay for £105, and a 2018 00 EGW Chardonnay for £130. I didn’t detect any enthusiasm for Oregon offerings.

Hedonism Wines carried the same Gran Moraine and Summum Chardonnays as Fortnum & Mason for the same price. I was told that 95% of the Chardonnay sold is white Burgundy. An Oregon Chardonnay is occasionally slipped into a blind tasting of white Burgundies to generate interest.

While A&B Vintners is having great success in marketing Willamette Valley Chardonnay to consumers of white Burgundy, the London outlets I visited showed little eagerness about it and didn’t appear to give the wines any special attention.

Making the Case for Willamette Valley Chardonnay

The potential of Willamette Valley Chardonnay is significant, even if consumers have been slow to grasp its quality and value. There is a clear space in the market for the category as white Burgundy becomes increasingly inaccessible and expensive, but it can also be a worthy complement to it. Boss-Drouhin, who has a presence in the Willamette Valley as well as Burgundy, says, “I think the most important thing is that the quality of Oregon Chardonnay is incredible, and the wines are delicious and compelling. That’s what matters.”

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Cole, Katherine. “Meet Black Chardonnay.” SevenFifty Daily, August 3, 2017. https://daily.sevenfifty.com/meet-black-chardonnay.

Danko, Pete. “Oregon wine gains ground in UK as alternative to pricey Burgundy.” Portland Business Journal, March 28, 2022. https://www.bizjournals.com/portland/news/2022/03/28/oregon-wine-in-uk.html.

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