Oregon Chardonnay; a product of the people and the place
The U.S. state, which is better known for its Pinot noirs, has the wine world excited about some of the best Chardonnays around. A product of determination, craftsmanship and dedication, the world is starting to take notice of some of the superb Chardonnays from Oregon.
Now and Then
Chardonnay is the fifth most widely planted grape varietal on the planet. This versatile wine grape rose to notoriety in the 1980s in the UK. First planted in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley in 1961, its origins can be tracked back to France, with it transported to California in the late 1800s and early 1900s before arriving in the Pacific Northwest.
The renaissance started out quietly with its introduction to the Willamette Valley, the primary Chardonnay region in the state. It took time to perfect, with producers and farmers having to learn what to plant, where to plant it, how to farm it, and how to make the best. With improved winery practices, experimentation in clonal selection, and site development, it was worth the wait. Huge strides made it the state’s third-most planted variety, grown everywhere from the Rogue Valley to the Columbia Gorge. The increase in quantity, has come alongside a strong boost in quality.
While the environment plays a big part in Oregon Chardonnay, the people behind it are notable too. David Lett is highly honoured not only for the first plantings of Pinots, but the initial plantings of Chardonnay at a nursery site just outside of Corvallis.
Other Oregon vintners followed, including William Fuller of Forest Grove’s Tualatin Estate Vineyards, releasing his first Chardonnay in the 1970s. By the 1980s. His, along with those from The Eyrie Vineyards, were considered Oregon’s best. A true pioneer, Fuller’s 1989 Chardonnay was the state’s first to be named on the Wine Spectator Top 100 list.
While Fuller retired when Tualatin Vineyards was acquired by Willamette Valley Vineyards in 1997, he didn’t really retire. The love of winemaking was in his blood. Sixteen years later, he was asked to assist in the making of wines produced from Tualatin Estate fruit, re-joining the team to create Vintage Chardonnay and Pinot noir that expresses his classic winemaking techniques. Continuing to inspire others, he was still making wine at the age of 82.
Oregon’s Chardonnays differ to the Burgundian Chardonnays, with signature characteristics derived from Oregon’s relatively cool climate. The wines offer pronounced acidity which gives the Chardonnays their vibrancy, freshness, and brightness.
Their acidity is balanced with texture and succulence, and that balance is one of Oregon Chardonnay’s hallmarks. While the Chardonnays vary from the warmer, drier climate in the Rogue Valley to the cooler northern border along the Columbia River, the best versions make them stand out from the crowd.