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June 9, 2013

GRAPE SENSE: Some think Chardonnay is next big thing in northwest wine

Does the wine world need another great Chardonnay region? California has the great big buttery, woodsy Chards while Chablis brings the mineral and acid. There is virtually every style in between from regions across the globe.

Oregon has made its name with Pinot Noir and the white Pinot Gris. Now there are those who think Chardonnay is the next big thing in northwest wine.

“I think Oregon is really well suited for Chardonnay,” said Bill Sweat of Winderlea Winery. “Chardonnay does better in cooler climates. You get that great acidity and brightness, floral notes, the kind of flavors White Burgundy lovers go after.”

Ironically, when the wine drinkers learned Oregon’s Pinot Noir rivaled some of the best in the world, some grape growers actually pulled Chardonnay to plant more Pinot. Chardonnay acreage dropped 25 percent between 1995 and 2001 while Pinot Noir and Gris nearly doubled.

The original Oregon Chardonnay problem was the wine just wasn’t very good. It was all a matter of getting the right vines.

“When I first started in Chardonnay we only hand one clone,” said Lynn Penner-Ash, who has her own winery and consults with others in winemaking. “Now we’re seeing transition to the Dijon clone with better placement and better vineyard management. The Chardonnays coming out of Oregon now are better and better — much better than early years.”

Talking Chardonnay with Oregon producers is all about getting the right vines and a lesson in terror. Most producers agreed the move away from the original vines to the Dijon vines made a world of difference.

“We originally started with some Chardonnay in the vineyard that didn’t do very well,” said Sweat. “But for the last 15 years we’ve been able to bring in some selections from France and they’re doing beautifully.

“I’d say Oregon winemakers are making Chard that tends to skew more toward the elegant style. That has to do with the fruit itself. It’s not going to get as ripe as it would in a warmer climate.”

At a March tasting in Chicago, many vintners were promoting their Chards with enthusiasm normally reserved for Pinot Noir.

“Whether it’s stainless steel or wood fermenting, I think stylistically our wines have an identity of freshness of fruit where the wood balances the wine but never overtakes it,” offered Jesse Lange, Lange Family Estate. “In terms of its attention — grabbing headlines for the Willamette Valley — I think it has really taken off. I think we’re on the cusp of something big.”

Howard’s Picks: Most of the Oregon producers are making small quantities of Chardonnay, but you can find a few in better wine shops. The wines compare favorably to traditionally styled Chablis. The price points are in the $20-$30 range. The best at the Chicago event, and previous tastings in Oregon, were the producers mentioned in this story. The best Chard at the pouring was Evening Land Chardonnay from the Eola-Amity Hills region of the Valley.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, writes about wine every other week for 22 Midwestern newspapers.

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