DAYTON, Ore. — Chardonnay production in Oregon began its precipitous fall behind Pinot Gris starting in 2000, but a growing number of producers are bullish on the Willamette Valley’s renaissance of Chardonnay — regardless of its style.
There was little mention of the derisive phrase “ABC” — or “Anything But Chardonnay” — earlier this month when the third annual Oregon Chardonnay Symposium in the Dundee Hills prompted a number of the Willamette Valley wine industry’s luminaries to gather for a technical panel discussion. The overriding theme was the call for a diminished level of oak influence in Chardonnay, and that largely carried over into the public tasting, where 40 wineries poured at Stoller Family Estate.
“A lot of these producers that are here in this room will make one that’s neutral oak or stainless steel and then have one that’s aged in oak — and that’s a very easy wine sale right now,” Christine Collier, direct sales manager at Willamette Valley Vineyards, told Great Northwest Wine. “People who are buying Oregon Pinot Noir, they are very comfortable with that oak-style Chardonnay as well, and it makes sense for that price point of our wines to offer that. Our customers are being asked to move up the ladder.”
Chardonnay ‘easier sell than Riesling’ in Willamette Valley
Make no mistake, the publicly traded Willamette Valley Vineyards and its 4,500 owners are heavily invested in Pinot Gris, having produced 14,470 cases in a no-oak style from the 2012 vintage. But founder Jim Bernau and winemaker Don Crank went even further that same year with their award-winning Riesling, bottling 16,600 cases at $14 for what Collier described as “our huge Riesling customer base.”
“I think Chardonnay is the easier sell than Riesling in the high-end luxury market, but Pinot Gris is still our leading white,” Collier said. “Marketing people are always trying to get you to compare your Chardonnay to California. Our Chardonnays are very, very different in their styles, so in the tasting room it’s always about finding the Chardonnay that appeals to that guest’s palate.”
The Turner winery, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, is in the process of expanding its portfolio of Chardonnay under Crank, who took over during the latter stages of Forrest Klaffke’s three-year battle with cancer, Bernau’s longtime winemaker who died Dec. 26, 2011.
Both the 2011 Dijon Clone Chardonnay ($25) and 2011 Estate Chardonnay ($30) are legacies of Klaffke’s final harvest. The 552-case production of the Estate Chardonnay spent 9½ months in French oak, with 25 percent new barrels. Production of the 2011 Dijon Clone Chardonnay was more than triple that — 1,610 cases — and also spent time in barrel. Its heritage is from the Willamette Valley Vineyard Estate and Elton Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills.
“Chardonnay is a wine that you have so much control over,” Collier said. “It is a wine that is made, and our winemakers have developed their styles.”
The one that Collier poured for the public at the symposium was Willamette Valley Vineyards’ newest entry to its lineup, the 2011 Elton Vineyard Chardonnay ($45), which fit nicely alongside the other acid-driven examples at the public tasting.
“We started with our program with the Dijon Clone Chardonnay, then we released our Estate. Now we have a vineyard designate from Elton and one from our Bernau Block ($45),” she said. “And from 2013, we have our Fuller bottling from our Tualatin Estate that Bill Fuller is making. These are being requested, and they are following that mineral-driven, less-oaky path.”
Historical data of Oregon Chardonnay
Symposium co-founders Paul Durant and Erica Landon provided guests with a pamphlet that included some fascinating history, including the listing of Chardonnay plantings and average price per ton in Oregon, according to data compiled by the Department of Agriculture & Research Economics, Oregon State University and the National Agriculture Statistics Service.
The table begins in 1981 with 272 acres planted and the average price per ton of $726. By 1987, acreage more than tripled (1,006 acres), while the price fell to $599 per ton.
In 1991, the price per ton eclipsed the $1,000 mark for the first time. And in 1998, there were 1,603 acres of Chardonnay planted, which commanded only $1,030 per tons. By 2005, there were only 842 acres of Chardonnay reported in Oregon, the fewest since the 1986 level of 873 acres.
In 2012, the total had climbed to 1,160 acres — virtually the same as 1989. However, the average price per ton was $1,746, nearly double that of 1989.
Meanwhile, the price per ton of Pinot Gris in Oregon from 2012 was $1,350. And the reported Pinot Gris plantings in 2012 stood at 3,426 acres, nearly triple that of Chardonnay.
No ‘glass ceiling’ for Oregon Chardonnay prices
David Adelsheim talked of the “glass ceiling of price” of $20 for Pinot Gris during his historical presentation at last year’s Oregon Pinot Gris Symposium, but that barrier doesn’t apply to Chardonnay.
Among those poured at the two-hour grand tasting were the Adelsheim Vineyard 2012 Caitlin’s Reserve ($45), Antica Terra 2012 Aurata, Eola-Amity Hills ($75), Ayoub 2012 Chardonnay ($48), Bergström 2012 Sigrid ($85), Domaine Serene 2011 Evenstad Reserve ($50), Evening Land Vineyards 2010 Seven Springs Vineyard Summum ($90), Soter Vineyards North Valley Reserve Chardonnay ($50) and St. Innocent 2012 Freedom Hill Vineyard Cuveula Liberte Chardonnay ($50).
The average price of the 40 Chardonnays represented was $39, but two wineries served Chardonnays retailing for $20 — Kramer Vineyards 2012 Estate and Walnut City Wineworks.
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Next year’s Oregon Chardonnay Symposium already adopted its theme, “Attack of the Clones,” and look for Adelsheim to be given a leading role on that panel, too.
Adelsheim’s 1974 trip to Burgundy inspired him to spearheaded a decade-long collaborative effort with Oregon State University to study and prepare new clonal material for Chardonnay.
Espiguette 352 was the first clone released by OSU in 1979. One of the two sites to plant that clone of Chardonnay was Elk Cove Vineyards. Ironically, Elk Cove and second-generation winemaker Adam Campbell have chosen not to produce a Chardonnay in recent years.
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