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Grown Together: The Ascent of Oregon Chardonnay

Grown Together: The Ascent of Oregon Chardonnay

Willamette Vallley, Wine Country | Photo Credit: Allen Gray

Oregon Chardonnay today is unique in all its still and sparkling forms. Thanks in part to the state’s cool climate and particular soil series, it can be simultaneously sleek and creamy, electric and textural,  demure and vivacious. Gently revealing  its cool-climate flavors, it floats between the leaner, crisper Chablis and the rounder, traditional California style. It has Old World texture and New World body, without relying on oak or alcohol for either. 

It was not always this way, however. The story of Oregon Chardonnay’s ascent to the No. 2 spot in Wine Spectator – awarded to Domaine Serene in 2016 – is one of idealistic pioneers open to taking risks, experimenting, and collaborating, all for the greater good, despite headwinds and skeptics. Their story serves as a playbook for producers who are running up against time to adopt new varieties in the face of climate change.  

And while the Wine Spectator award was a tribute to Erik Kramer’s winemaking skills and to the quality of Domaine Serene’s vineyards, this acknowledgement meant more, It reflected decades of work by a community of vintners who banded together to coax new life from the venerable Chardonnay grape. It was, in a sense, a win for all of Oregon Chardonnay.

Today, Oregon’s signature style depends on better-suited clonal material and site selection, adapting to changing consumer preferences, and some luck; but, ultimately, it was the intangible factor of collaboration that made it possible.

A Common Vision 

David Lett in his cellar c. 1970s. (Left) Charles Coury in his nursey c. 1970s (Right) | Photo Credit: Linfield College

Oregon’s modern wine industry began in the 1960s, when a pack of UC Davis students, led by Charles Coury and David Lett, ventured north to find a cooler place to grow Pinot Noir. Other pioneering wine families followed, and the commercialization of Oregon wine gradually took flight.

These pioneers approached planting in a new way. Coury believed it was critical to maximize ripening by matching a grape variety and its clones with the right climate—a radical view, as ripening had never posed a big issue in California. Given Oregon’s latitude, Northern Europe emerged as their model. “We all had a common vision,” says David Adelsheim, an early pioneer and founder of Adelsheim Vineyard. “We weren’t just going to plant whatever. We wanted to make great wine.” Uncertain which varieties would take, the pioneers planted their vineyards to equal parts Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling. 

The Pinot Noir clones they planted suited Oregon’s cool climate, but the heritage Chardonnay clones they chose barely ripened by harvest. “Some of our wines won gold medals,” Adelsheim recalls, “…But they were strange—oaky, olive-y, and in search of what they wanted to be. A lot of us just gave up.”

As Pinot Noir grabbed the spotlight, Chardonnay receded. In 1979, David Lett’s Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir placed in the top ten at the Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiad, catapulting Oregon onto the world wine scene. Pinot Noir soared from 40% to 70% of total plantings in the Willamette Valley between 1980 and 2000. 

To be sure, the heritage Chardonnay clones were not a complete flop. Producers such as Lett, Tualatin, and Shafer (from Forest Grove) crafted spectacular Chardonnays that garnered interest from Robert Parker, Jr. “Oregon is about to catapult into stardom not just for its startling Pinot Noirs,” Parker wrote in 1985, “but also for its Chardonnays.” Tualatin’s 1981 Estate Vineyards Chardonnay and Lett’s 1985 Eyrie Vineyards Chardonnay notably won international awards.

But these successes remained isolated. Most Chardonnay was planted on inferior sites, and winemakers kept trying to replicate  wines that were Californian in style—a futile attempt in Oregon’s cool climate. Eugenia Keegan, Jackson Family Wines’ general manager for Oregon, explains that leaving the fruit to hang longer on the vine resulted in wines with an unsavory taste of apple skin. Consumers balked. “It was difficult to sell Oregon Chardonnay because it didn’t taste like California Chardonnay,” says Adelsheim.

Many growers ripped out their Chardonnay vines to make room for Pinot Noir. Others switched to a quicker cash crop, Pinot Gris, which became the leading white grape and remains so today. Chardonnay plummeted to a low of 5% of total plantings by 2000. But some growers found their way back.  

The Rise of the Clones

Oregon Chardonnay | Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

In 1974, Adelsheim made a fluke observation in Burgundy that would mark a turning point for Oregon Chardonnay. He noticed the French were picking Chardonnay at the same time as Pinot Noir, whereas, in Oregon, they had been picking it two to three weeks later than Pinot Noir. “I realized we needed these Chardonnay clones in Oregon. It took us 10 years.” 

The first “Dijon” clones—so-called because Dijon was listed as the parcel’s return address—arrived in 1984. In total, Oregon imported five Dijon clones (75, 76, 78, 95, and 96), and, by 1990, all five had been released from quarantine and were available to plant. 

Despite their smaller, flavorful clusters, balanced acidity, and early ripening qualities, most winegrowers hesitated to plant the Dijon clones because Chardonnay’s reputation had fallen, and many had pulled out their Chardonnay vines. “We had, in essence, to reconstruct the world of Chardonnay in the Willamette Valley pretty much from scratch,” says Adelsheim.  

To sell producers on the Dijon clones, seven wineries—Adelsheim, Hamacher, Ponzi, Chehalem, Argyle, Domaine Drouhin, and Domaine Serene—formed the Oregon Chardonnay Alliance (ORCA) in the late 1990s. “We had to stand up and say that we believed in the clones and plant them even though we had never made wine from them,” Adelsheim says. “ORCA was our first attempt to tell the story of what was possible with these clones. The focus on clones was important because we had no idea what that place was. We just had one huge AVA, the Willamette Valley.” 

Around this time, Lingua Franca founder Larry Stone also tasked his consultant, Burgundian winemaker Dominique Lafon, with making Chardonnay from the Dijon clones in the Seven Springs vineyard. Lafon picked early, and the resulting Chardonnay mesmerized. “The first thing that Dominique said was, ‘Larry, we have to plant more Chardonnay…It has tension, vibrancy, length, and lift, but it doesn’t have weight.’” For Stone and ORCA, this was all the evidence they needed to prove that Oregon Chardonnay could be luminous. 

By the late 1990s, the time was ripe for a Chardonnay revolution. To get there would require unprecedented cooperation among the winemakers. “We needed to go from isolated producers, who were focusing on experimenting with clones, to sharing experiences,” Adelsheim says. 

We Lift All Boats 

In 2015, Adelsheim and Sam Tannahill, owner of A to Z Wineworks, organized the Oregon Chardonnay Technical Tasting with 40 winemakers from the nested appellations that had since been carved out of the Willamette Valley. One of these was Stone, who recalls, “We were all willing to share information…so that we lift all boats. We don’t say these are our enemies, and these are trade secrets we can’t share.” While the Chardonnays at the tasting varied hugely, viable renditions clearly emerged from each appellation.   

Over the next five years, the collective mushroomed to 150 winemakers. Members completed a 300-question survey, the data from which was then entered into a large Excel file. The producers could then filter the data to sample the wines by AVA, pick date, fermentation method, and many other factors. “When you get these winemakers together…the learning curve is exponential. It has helped us collectively come up with the knowledge that brings us to the finish line at the A+ level rather than experimenting on our own in our own cellars,” Keegan says. 

As the collective expanded, the stylistic array of Chardonnays converged. “As had happened with Pinot Noir,” Adelsheim notes, “when you taste other people’s wines, you see things you like, and you just try them out yourself.” The winemakers began to pick earlier, at 19.5 to 21 degrees Brix, knowing they could add sugar if they needed more alcohol but would not need to add acidity. “The real key to the shift in wine style in Oregon was learning to pick at a ripeness level that was more about structure and aromatics and less about fruit,” contends Keegan. 

While picking earlier has become common practice, winemaking techniques still vary widely. For example, Shane Moore and Thomas Savre, winemakers for Gran Moraine and Lingua Franca, respectively, flip the typical winemaking process on its head, fermenting and aging the wine first in barrel and then finishing it in tank with the lees – a technique Moore likens to putting a pot of soup in the refrigerator overnight to let the flavors settle. One common thread among producers, however, has been to limit the wine’s exposure to oxygen, resulting in freshness and texture.  

Working Together to Illuminate Terroir

Photo Credit: Oregon Chardonnay Celebration

Having dialed in clones and winemaking, Oregon winemakers now aspire to illuminate terroir. Today, the Willamette Valley is carved into 11 nested appellations based on soils, microclimates, and geology. Some winemakers are even homing in on vine row to express site. Erik Kramer, whose award-winning Domaine Serene wine opened this story, is a great example. Now at WillaKenzie Estate, Kramer uses GPS technology to base harvest decisions on vine health. Using this “vine selection” approach, Kramer can isolate and show the beauty of a specific parcel, down to vine row, at a specific point in time. 

Meanwhile in the market, growing demand for Oregon Chardonnay has coincided with consumers moving away from the “butter bombs” of the 80s and 90s toward fresher, food-friendlier styles. According to Bree Stock, MW, Oregon’s current Chardonnay plantings cannot meet demand and are set to double to 14% of total plantings in the coming years. 

Beyond growing more Chardonnay on better sites, producers are continuing to collaborate through marketing and technical forums. In 2012, Erica Landon of Walter Scott Wines and Paul Durant of Durant Family Vineyards created the Oregon Chardonnay Symposium. Now called the Oregon Chardonnay Celebration, it is one of the region’s largest varietal-specific tastings for educating trade and consumers. 

The technical forum also remains robust, with the possibility of more clones arriving from Burgundy down the road. Oregon Chardonnay producers have never been more resolute: “In 10 years or less, Oregon will be best known for Chardonnay at the highest level,” says 00 Wines owner Chris Hermann.

Perhaps the greatest lesson we should take from Oregon Chardonnay is the power of producers to implement change relatively quickly in an industry where change is often painstakingly slow. What took 35 years or so for producers to achieve with Pinot Noir in Oregon has taken only 15 with Chardonnay. As regions look to quickly adopt new varieties in a warming world, they would do well to model the collaboration that has resulted in a Golden Age of Oregon Chardonnay .