Chardonnay and I have been friends for years. I started by sipping on the buttery and oaky California versions, like many people. However, once I tried the local versions with a little less oak and some acidity, I never turned back. Oregon’s history with Chardonnay goes back all the way to the mid-1960’s, when it was first planted at the Eyrie Vineyards. The Eyrie is known from some fantastic Chardonnay to this day. Their 2012 vintage was even called one of the best in the world – what an honor!
It is because of how successful Chardonnay has been here in Oregon that Stoller Family Estates hosts the Oregon Chardonnay Symposium each year. This event features some of the best Chardonnay being produced right here in Oregon. There is also a technical tasting, which this year featured an amazing panel of wine industry veterans. This event really shined a light on the magnificence that is Oregon Chardonnay.
On a typical Saturday in the Willamette Valley, I made the trek up to Stoller Family Estates for this fabulous event. I was honored to be in the presence of some very knowledgable wine industry folks. If I’m perfectly honest, each of these people could have an article written about just them and their incredible feats! The panel consisted of Jason Lett of the Eyrie Vineyards, John Paul of Cameron Winery, Craig Williams of X Novo Vineyard, Mini Casteel from Bethel Heights Vineyard, and Thomas Bachelder of Bachelder Wines. The whole tasting was moderated by Rajat Parr who has studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park New York, and is a master sommelier. The panel ranged from owners, winemakers, and vineyard operators and was focused on clones. In fact, the event was called, “Attack of the Clones”.
What exactly is a clone? Well, a clone is an exact copy of a “mother plant” vine. They will share DNA and characteristics and be identical. Why clones are important is a big can of worms. However, each clone is slightly different than the other and clonal selection for any vineyard is important. This event focused on clones and how they make a difference. There are many Chardonnay clones planted here in Oregon but the most common are “The Dijon Clones” from Dijon, France. There are a few different types, like Dijon 76, Dijon 95, and Dijon 96. They may sound very similar but they all have distinct characteristics. For example, Dijon 76 is known to produce intensely aromatic and well balanced grapes. While Dijon 96 is known for it’s sharp and elegant characteristics.
Talking about vines, clones, acid levels, and all things wine related are so interesting. Especially when the discussion is lead by such knowledgable company. I haven’t planted any grapes myself yet, but this event really showed me that Chardonnay is a rising star here in Oregon. All of the panelists present had planted Chardonnay themselves and had great success. Clones do matter. Picking one that fits the site and climate will help ensure higher success. More importantly though, is that wineries are making the choice to grow this grape here in Oregon. Just like the Pinot Noir grape, Chardonnay is a gift to Oregon. These grapes are also grown everywhere throughout the world, but here especially we can grow some incredibly complex and beautiful grapes. These grapes are the first step in producing the phenomenal wines that Oregon is known for.
All of this talk about Chardonnay definitely made me thirsty. Luckily, there was a second portion of the event: The Grand Tasting. Grand is a perfect adjective to describe it. There were 60 different wineries present, all tasting their favorite Chardonnays. This grape really shows a “place” well, meaning that each wine gave characteristics of the location that the grapes were grown. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I loved every single Chardonnay that I tried. Each taste I had was distinct, and delicious! The love that goes into each vintage (and even each bottle!) is incredible.
Here are a few shining stars from this fantastic event:
- 2013 Foris Barrel Fermented Chardonnay – $14 (Clones: Dijon and California) This wine is from the Rogue Valley so it really stood out here. It had just the right amount of oak contact, with flavors of crisp apples and a hint of pineapple.
- 2013 Chehalem INOX Chardonnay – $19 What a treat! This wine was aged in steel barrels, and as a result was crisp and refreshing. Flavors of citrus and crisp fall fruits popped. No oak means this wine was not “toasted”, but I loved the nice acidity and balance.
- 2012 Monte Ferro Chardonnay – $20 (Clone: Dijon 76) This was another varietal without any oak contact. It had a richness to it, and was extremely fruit forward. The finish was perfectly crisp though, and was dying to be enjoyed on a sunny day.
- 2013 Seven of Hearts Willamette Valley Chardonnay – $24 (Clones: Dijon 76,95 & 96) Light bodied and crisp, this wine was made with neutral oak and steel barrels. Two vineyards were used in this varietal. Nice balance and perfect acidity.
- 2010 Belle Pente Vineyard Chardonnay – $30 (Clones: Dijon 76, 95 & 96) Made with 100% Estate grown grapes, this wine has some oak (10-15% new oak) but is well balanced. White peach and pear flavors make this wine very fruit forward. A fantastic find.
- 2012 Stoller Family Estate Reserve Chardonnay – $35 (Clones: 76, 95 & 96) This 2012 vintage is made from mostly neutral oak, but some new was used to create a toasted effect. Hints of lemon zest and spice popped on this varietal. The balance was just right with a hint of crispness on the finish. Delicious!
Tasting wines back to back like this can be an eye opening experience. Each nuance is pronounced in a way that is harder to see when tasting individually. Delicious food was provided during the tasting as well, which helped neutralize the palette between sips. Recipe provided the delicious bites that included house made charcuterie and various canapes. The selections were beautiful!
An event like the Oregon Chardonnay Symposium is an excellent opportunity to taste some of the wonderful Chardonnays coming out of our beautiful state. Doing a technical tasting is such an amazing experience. Tasting wines while the winemakers and grape growers talk about the process (and the clones involved!) is awe inspiring. This event is hosted every year in March and is absolutely worth checking out. The technical tasting and grand tasting both leave you with an excellent sense of the high quality Chardonnays being produced here. Cheers to a Oregon wine, and the future of this wonderful grape!