I’ve rarely met an Oregon Chardonnay that I didn’t like. In fact, most of them, I love. These wines often have great backbone of acidity and the right blend of subtle fruit and minerality. And thankfully, they’re usually not over-oaked like some other regions can be. At their best, Oregon Chardonnays are a beautiful balance between Old World and New World style wines. But it wasn’t always this way . . .
Time to Corkdork Out! Chardonnay in Oregon has a rather short history – it’s not much older than I am (and I’m far from being Vieilles Vignes!) Chardonnay grapes were first planted in the Willamette Valley in February, 1965 (thank you David Lett for this, and many, many other things!) The original clones were from California and, unfortunately, many Chardonnay plantings ended up on lesser vineyard sites and not given nearly the detailed farming attention that they should have received in order to thrive. So initially, Chardonnay got a bad rap in Oregon due to some vintners not taking the grape seriously and/or attempting to over-manipulate it with oak á la California style.
After a visit to Burgundy in 1975, David Adelsheim brought a number of Dijon clones back to Oregon with him. He was optimistic that these would be a better fit for the region since they ripened earlier, thus avoiding Oregon’s notoriously bad weather that often occurs at the end of harvest. After working with Oregon State University to make these available to Oregon grape growers, these clones went into the ground in 1990 at Knudsen Vineyards.
Today in Oregon, while Pinot Noir is King, there are several white varietals gaining traction in the area – Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Viognier. However, acreage dedicated to Pinot Gris (over 3,600) far outnumbers Chardonnay acreage (around 1,400). But unlike Pinot Gris, whose price point per bottle seems to cap out in the mid $20 range, the sky appears to be the limit for the price of Oregon Chardonnay . In fact, I’d say you’d be hard pressed to find a (good) bottle for under $30. (I welcome being proven wrong on this theory). 🙂
Boss Lady and I have shared a bit of an Oregon Chardonnay obsession these past few months, as well as an ongoing “debate” as to which one is our favorite. For me, I fell in love with Alexana’s 2013 ‘Signature’ Chardonnay when I tasted it over the summer. My Bestie and I visited the Willamette Valley in June and I swear, when I sipped this wine my eyes rolled back in my head it was so delicious! (For $75/bottle, it had better be!) This amount is way more than I usually spend on whites, but I just couldn’t resist purchasing a couple bottles. However, I wondered if it was really THAT much better than other, more mid-range priced Oregon Chardonnays.
So to settle the “debate,” and have a little fun, we decided to have a blind tasting and pulled six selections from our stash to sip and share with the other fabulous Capri Cellars ladies. And (hopefully!) convert a couple of them over to white wine lovers! This was the lineup:
Bottle #1: Alexana 2013 ‘Signature’ Chardonnay. Abv 12.9%. $75
Bottle #2: Shea Vineyards 2014 Chardonnay. Abv 13.6%. $35.
Bottle #3: Dunham 2011 ‘Billy O’ White. Abv ?? $20ish. This was my “surprise bottle” that I didn’t disclose to the rest of the group. I wanted to see if it would blend in seamlessly with the other wines, or stick out like a sore thumb.
Bottle #4: Eyrie 2012 ‘Original Vines’ Reserve Chardonnay. Abv 12.5%. $45. This wine was sourced from the original 1965 Chardonnay vines! So awesome.
Bottle #5: Fullerton 2014 Cooper Mountain Chardonnay. Abv 12.5%. $49.
Bottle #6: Evening Land 2013 Seven Springs ‘La Source’ Chardonnay. Abv 13.3%. $70.
My goal with the Chardy Party wasn’t to go through the Deductive Tasting method learned in last week’s Sommelier class. Since these were all Oregon Chardonnays, and very similar in color and (mostly) comparable in aromas and flavors, I felt that doing the Sommelier tasting grid would be a bit repetitive. Instead, I wanted to determine a few “practical” things for my own edification:
1) Did the $75 bottle really taste like an $75 bottle? Answer: No. Alexana was the first wine poured and tasted in the blind lineup, so my palate was totally fresh and impressionable. Nonetheless, I gave it a “good, but not outstanding” rating. I also mentioned in my notes that Bottle #2 (Shea) had a more interesting spicy character, a longer finish and a more enjoyable, creamier texture. And at half the price.
2) Did my surprise bottle blend in? Answer: No. A resounding No. I’ve had this wine a few times before and thought it was a tasty little daily drinker. Nothing that’s going to change your life, but a nice Chardonnay that’s not too oaky and a little more Burgundian in style for an incredibly reasonable price.
Just on aromatics alone, I could tell that Bottle #3 didn’t fit in. It had almost sour-like aromas and on the palate was very one note. “Not BAD”, I wrote, “but can’t compare to the others.” Like me . . . on my own, I’m not too bad looking. But stick me in a lineup of Victoria’s Secret models and I’m going to look squatty and pasty and old. I empathize you Billy O, you’re ok, but you’re WAY out of your league here.
3) Was the $75 bottle still my favorite? And if not, which one was? Answer: No, it’s somewhat of a tie between Fullerton and Evening Land. Bottle #5 (Fullerton) was lush and riper than many of the others with flavors of peaches that I loved. And Bottle #6 (Evening Land) had more oak nuances, but it worked and made the wine incredibly interesting and flavorful.
4) Am I still in love with Oregon Chardonnay? YES. I would drink any of these wines any day of the week. Some more happily than others. Unfortunately Oregon Chardonnay, like Oregon Pinot Noir, doesn’t fall into the daily drinker price range. I did come away from this tasting believing that some wines (Alexana, I’m talking to you) were overpriced. But on the flipside, Shea was a steal at $35/bottle.
And even though the goal wasn’t to guess the wines correctly, it’s human – or at least Corkdork – nature to try to do this when blind tasting. I’m staying consistent and got 3 of the 6 right. Half. Yes Dad, I know – that’s 50% and that’s an F. Guess I’ll just have to keep sipping. 😉