Cream of the Crop Chardonnay, Oregon Style
On the third day of the incredible Oregon Wine Harvest Tour through the gorgeous state I proudly call home, our group of wine writers were lucky enough to sit down with four of Oregon’s top producers of fine Chardonnay: Jim Bernau of Willamette Valley Vineyards, Don Lange of Lange Estate Winery & Vineyards, Erik Kramer of Domaine Serene and Robert Brittan of Brittan Vineyards. These four down-to-earth and totally approachable Chardonnay gurus have literally put Oregon Chardonnay on the map of fine wine.
Once we arrived at Willamette Valley Vineyards, we met with Bernau, Lange, Kramer and Brittan over a glass of Willamette Valley Vineyards 2008 Estate Chardonnay. As I thoroughly enjoyed the full-bodied, lush Chardonnay with aromas and flavors of pears, apples and butterscotch, we were quickly off to walk through the vineyards with Bernau leading the way. We were headed down the sloping vineyards from about 750 feet elevation at the top where Pinot Noir was ripening and readying for harvest, to the bottom where the Chardonnay grapes were big, juicy and sweet – at 500 feet elevation. The sloping vineyards face west to southwest, tilted towards the sun, and are planted on an ancient volcanic flow which is mainly clay loam, consisting of red Jory and Nekia soils. Much like the red soils found in parts of France’s well-known Burgundy region, the Jory and Nekia soils are ideal for growing cool climate varieties of wine grapes; specifically, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Along the way, Bernau shared his story of how he came to be the founder of one of Oregon’s largest and most highly acclaimed vineyards. In 1983, he cleared away the once prune orchard to plant Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. With the enthusiasm and pride that exudes from Bernau, I wasn’t surprised at all when he told us he personally tended to and hand watered all the vines with thousands of feet of hose. The estate vineyard has 50 acres of vines, with mainly Pinot Noir Dijon clones and some Pinot Gris and Dijon clone Chardonnay 76 and 96. Bernau knew the terroir of the estate vineyards he had purchased in 1983 were perfect for growing Pinot Noir Dijon clones; therefore, he knew that Chardonnay clones from the same region would thrive as well.
In 1988, Bernau along with David Adelsheim and other Oregon wine growers, went to Burgundy, France, to discuss bringing the Chardonnay clones into Oregon. After the clones were released from quarantine, Bernau was among the first to plant the Dijon clone Chardonnay in Oregon – planted on the Willamette Valley Vineyards estate property.
Clonal selection is important in Oregon’s history of Chardonnay because it has been perceived as creating an entire new category of Chardonnay, one which clearly expresses the terroir where the Dijon clone is planted. With the delicious, juicy, fruity and butterscotch-y flavors in the ’08 Willamette Valley Vineyards Chardonnay in my glass, I was beginning to understand why Oregon Chardonnays have always been viewed by me, personally, as a cut above the rest. I’ve been hailing our Chardonnays for quite some time now, and I’ve always believed them to be purely true to the varietals characteristics, a purity that I’ve not been able to easily detect in Chardonnays from other regions of the world.
As we made our way back to the Willamette Valley Vineyards event center and tasting room, which is built at the top of the vineyards with an amazing view of the valley below and beyond, I was looking forward to trying some of Oregon’s cream of the crop Chardonnays produced by the four gurus who would be pouring them for us. The tasting was a breathtaking line-up of many stellar Chardonnays, with vintages ranging from 2003 to 2010. Listed below are some that have left a lasting impression in addition to the 2008 Willamette Valley Vineyards Estate Chardonnay mentioned above.
Lange Estate 2006 Freedom Hill Chardonnay: Don Lange and his wife founded Lange Estate Winery & Vineyards more than 25 years ago. Their first vintage was in 1987, which consisted of the three varietals they still focus on today: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. 100% Dijon clone 76 fermented in both stainless-steel and French oak, this wine displayed a gorgeous golden hue. Aromas of pear and lemon zest dominated a touch of cinnamon spice, and flavors of apples, pears and hazelnuts were rich and balanced with a long, lush, yet refreshing finish. An excellent example of fine Oregon Chardonnay.
Domaine Serene 2004 Côte Sud Chardonnay: Erik Kramer, winemaker at Domaine Serene, is new to Domaine Serene, but not to winemaking. With years of experience, Kramer is a well respected member of the winemaking community in the Willamette Valley. This single vineyard Chardonnay is proof that Oregon Chardonnays can hold their own and age extremely well. With up front beautiful aromas of fall spices, lemon cake and caramel, tropical fruit flavors with a lush mouthfeel and long toasty finish were extremely palatable and ambrosial. I was tempted to ask for a full glass; however, when wine tasting, spitting and pouring the remainder is the proper thing to do as well as being difficult at times.
Tualatin Estate 2003 Chardonnay: Tualatin Estate is one of the Willamette Valley’s oldest vineyards, established in 1973. With a history rich in winning prestigious wine awards, Willamette Valley Vineyards merged with Tualatin Estate in 1997. 100% Chardonnay grapes were whole cluster pressed and aged sur lee in French oak barrels, creating a full-bodied wine with complex aromas and bright, fresh, full flavors that really stood out. I was impressed.
Brittan Vineyards 2010 Willamette Valley Chardonnay: Before sharing my tasting notes on this wine, let me just say I’m relieved my wine geekiness/giddiness did not show too badly when sharing a table with Robert Brittan. He’s a wine making legend out of Napa Valley. For 16 years, Brittan was the winemaker and vineyard manager at the highly acclaimed Stag’s Leap Winery in Napa. Before that, he made wines for Far Niente and Saint Andrews, also in Napa. In my beginning years of enjoying wine, I absolutely loved Napa Valley’s Far Niente Chardonnay. I would scrounge up pennies to put towards a rare purchase of the wine I loved most of all, one that was not easily affordable for a young twenty-something wine enthusiast. With 30 years of experience behind him, Brittan left Napa to fulfill a dream of making Pinot Noir and other cool climate varietals, like cool-climate Chardonnay, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I was about to taste an Oregon Chardonnay produced by legendary Napa Chardonnay producer, Robert Brittan – yes, I was excited. And, the fact that a legendary producer such as Brittan would leave Napa for Oregon…well, that says a whole lot about Oregon and Oregon wine. Brittan Vineyards 2010 Willamette Valley Chardonnay was spectacular. Aromas of key lime pie, caramel and hazelnuts led to lush, rich, complex flavors to match. The balance between acidity and creaminess was outstanding, and a phenomenal structure gave way to incredible zestiness along with a flourishing, elegant finish. I wanted to give a standing ovation, but in the tone of better judgement, I held back; however, I didn’t dump the remainder. Instead, I quietly finished what was left in my glass – a true faux pas in the eyes of my colleagues surrounding the table with me.
After the tasting, we sat down for lunch, which was prepared in the commercial kitchen at Willamette Valley Vineyards by the Executive Chef, Eric Nelson, and his team of culinary experts. Bernau popped the cork on his Willamette Valley Vineyards 2009 Estate Chardonnay which showcased gorgeous aromas of sweet, ripe pears and honeycrisp apples. Velvety smooth in the mouth, flavors of lemon pie and butterscotch were rounded out with bright, lively acidity. It was an excellent pairing with the Dungeness Crab Cakes with Roasted Corn Salsa and Monastery Mustard Aioli appetizer. The main course was Roasted Butternut Squash Ravioli with Duck Confit, Mushrooms, Brown Butter, Pin Nut and Parmesan. Some corks were popped on various Pinot Noirs, but my tastebuds were yearning Oregon Chardonnay. Although some were saying the Ravioli paired better with the Pinot Noir, I poured myself a glass of what I had tried when we first arrived: the 2008 Willamette Valley Vineyards Estate Chardonnay. I thought it was a perfect match with the flavors and texture of the Ravioli. For dessert we each enjoyed a slice of Caramel Apple Cheesecake with Pumpkin Creme Anglaise – a perfect ending to an incredible meeting and tasting with some of Oregon’s finest Chardonnay producers.
Indeed, I agree wholeheartedly with words that were spoken like music to my ears during the wine tasting, “I feel very strongly that within the next ten years, the greatest New World Chardonnays in the world will come out of Oregon.” - Robert Brittan
Special thanks to Jim Bernau, for hosting an incredible day filled with outstanding Oregon Chardonnay. Thanks also to Robert Brittan, Erik Kramer and Don Lange for their exemplary hospitality, good nature, great stories and stellar wine, and of course to Willamette Valley Vineyards winemaker Don Krank III and Executive Chef, Eric Nelson, and team. Cheers.