With all the excitement about Washington Riesling for the past 15 years, Washington Chardonnay has hung around and remains one of the most popular white wine grapes in the state.
Last fall, wineries crushed 42,000 tons of Washington Chardonnay. That’s second only to Riesling, which topped white wine grapes at 44,100 tons. As recently as a decade ago, Chardonnay was at 26,000 tons harvested and was the No. 1 wine grape in the state.
Washington Chardonnay’s history is fairly recent. According to The Wine Project – the state’s definitive history by author Ron Irvine – the first Chardonnay was planted in the Yakima Valley in 1963. The owners of Associated Vintners – now Columbia Winery – planted Chardonnay on Harrison Hill near Sunnyside in 1963.
By 1968, 9 acres of Chardonnay had been planted in Washington, and that grew to 127 acres by 1972. In 1978, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates began planting in earnest in the southern Horse Heaven Hills. That pushed Chardonnay acreage in Washington to 962 acres by 1982. In the 1980s and 1990s, Chardonnay took off in Washington as winemakers wanted to capitalize on the wine-drinking public’s interest in California Chardonnay.
These days, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates continues to lead the way with Chardonnay. Columbia Crest produces more than 200,000 cases of Chardonnay annually, while Chateau Ste. Michelle makes nearly 1 million cases.
Styles across Washington vary widely: oak (light, heavy and none), malolactic fermentation (full, partial and even none), sur lie aging (rich, light and none) and a combination of these styles.
In addition, where the Chardonnay is grown makes a big difference. Little is grown in the Walla Walla Valley or on Red Mountain, while plenty is planted in the Yakima Valley and in the Ancient Lakes. Both of these areas are relatively cooler than much of the rest of the Columbia Valley, which helps Chardonnay ripen a little more slowly. Even then, Chardonnay typically is one of the first two or three grapes picked each harvest (along with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris).
Here are a dozen delicious Washington Chardonnays we’ve tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchants or contact the wineries directly.