Pinot Noir might be the grape that placed Oregon on the map for world-class wine, but Chardonnay arrived first. David Lett, of Eyrie Vineyards, famously brought Pinot to the Willamette Valley in 1965, and by the 1970s it was gaining recognition for its incredibly high quality. The story of Chardonnay in the state stretches back just a few years earlier to 1961, but in the more southern Umpqua Valley. It has taken a few decades longer for Oregon producers to find the right equation for balanced, expressive Chardonnay. Recent vintages from wineries like Adelsheim, Beaux Freres, Eyrie, and Willamette Valley Vineyards, show not just a trajectory toward future greatness, but an arrival. Drinkers will find first-rate wines of class, value, and versatility.
That balance couldn't be found without rigorous work in the vineyard by generations of dedicated growers. The initial plantings of Chardonnay were all based on heritage clones from California, mostly variants of the workhorse Wente vines. These were not of low quality. In the right hands, and in an ideal vintage, these vines could produce some astonishing wines. The California vines were not particularly well suited to the challenges of their new home - colder temperatures and a shorter growing season. David Lett and David Adelsheim both traveled and studied in Burgundy in the 1970s, and realized that the Chardonnay of that region would likely be a superior choice for their home terroir. It took years to establish the relationships between appropriate government agencies, the budding import program at Oregon State University nurseries, and the vineyard proprietors that would eventually plant these new clones, later called the Dijon clones, in vineyards across the state.
It took nearly two decades, but the Dijon Chardonnay clones began to be planted widely by the mid 90s. Often known by numeric designations (95, 96, and 76 are the most popular), these vines produce fruit with great flavor concentration, a good balance between acidity with sugar levels, and most importantly, are able to consistently ripen in Oregon's challenging weather. An influx of winemakers direct from Burgundy helped raise the overall quality of wines from the region, though the market success of Pinot Gris put a roadblock in Chardonnay's ascending path for several years. So important are these vines that sometimes that phrase will appear on the bottle itself, as in the case of Willamette Valley Vineyard’s Dijon Clone Chardonnay. This is a beguiling wine, attractively priced, that shows layer after layer of nuanced flavor. A judicious oak aging regimen in the cellar adds a touch of breadth and richness. This wine is sourced from one of the first vineyards planted to the (then new) clones, dating from 1993.
Having just celebrated their 50th vintage in 2021, Adelsheim Vineyards is a true titan of the Oregon Wine scene. Their exceptional range of wines includes bottlings of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Syrah, and wonderful sparkling wines, but the Chardonnay is a stand-out. Their 2019 Willamette Valley Chardonnay is a perfect example of what this terroir can produce. Here, you’ll find a bright, elegant wine displaying aromas of chamomile and ripe lemon. Barrel fermentation and aging contributes classic spice notes in the form of clove and vanilla. Perfect for the cooling temperatures this fall, paired with some local cheeses and honey.
These wines are a world apart from California Chardonnay, but they aren’t crafted in the mold of Burgundy, either, despite the genetic lineage of the grape vines. Now unique among their peers, Eyrie Vineyard’s Chardonnay vines are mostly older heritage selections from California, known as Sterling, Draper, and Wente selections. These lineages, of course, also trace back to France, but were adapted to California for several decades before being their first planting in Oregon. Jason Lett, son of Eyrie Vineyards founder and true Oregon wine pioneer David Lett, does not mince his words:
“When I hear the comment ‘your wines are so Burgundian,’ I usually wave it off as gently as possible. The reason we grow Pinot noir is that it is a completely faithful translator of climate, site, and soil. If my wine tastes like a Burgundy, that means I’m making wines that do not respect my site—which is actually a bit of an insult.”
Tasting their wines, with a style that can be called nothing but Oregonian, is the best way to understand his meaning. If calling a fine bottle of Chevalier-Montrachet “Oregonian” sounds bizarre, let’s extend the same caution to the “Burgundian” descriptor, as well.