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How to Iron Out Oregon’s Vintage Variations on Choice Chardonnay
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Living in Wine Country
October 2005--Wine Recommendations

Oregon’s large Willamette Valley appellation is known for Pinot Noir, but its Chardonnay rises to the heights as well. Wine Editor Thom Elkjer discloses a strategy for securing high-quality Willamette Chardonnay year in and year out.

Every Year’s A Good Year
How to Iron Out Oregon’s Vintage Variations on Choice Chardonnay

By Thom Elkjer, Wine Editor

For generations, anyone looking to splurge on a renowned or highly rated wine has been given the same advice: make sure you buy from a “good year.” Lately I’ve been questioning this advice. For one thing, a “good year” for a particular grape or region might not be waiting on store shelves or restaurant wine lists when we reach that splurging moment. Just as importantly, it’s not always clear which years really are “good.”

I first noticed this when Oregon wines from the 1994 vintage came out and influential critics praised them lavishly. I went to Oregon shortly afterward, and was surprised to discover that many Oregon vintners shook their heads when I brought up 1994. In their minds it was an anomaly and therefore a terrible yardstick to use for all other vintages.

Their reasoning stems from the geography of the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where most of the state’s winemaking is based. Because of its northern latitude and proximity to the rain-generating Pacific Ocean, Willamette is what vintners call a “marginal” area. This means that if you drew up a list of the conditions that vines require to produce grapes good enough for wine, Willamette Valley would barely give its vines enough sunlight hours, on average, to qualify.

The problem is that nature doesn’t care about “average.” In reality, most wine-growing seasons in Oregon are either a little warmer and dryer, or a little cooler and wetter, than the norm. In 1994, however, nature gave Willamette Valley much more sun and much less rain than usual. The same thing happened in 1998. Critics responded by describing it as “another good year, like 1994,” and the vintners started shaking their heads all over again.

This got me to rethink my splurge strategy. I don’t start with the vintage any more. Instead I look for wineries that have proven, over time, that vintage variations don’t affect them that much. This strategy has paid off particularly well for two types of regions. The first is really famous places, such as Napa Valley, where a “good year” means big price hikes. It’s already a stretch for me to buy most Napa reds, and when they’re from a celebrated vintage, forget it. Buying so-called “off vintages” from wineries that never have off years turns out to be a bargain – at least for Napa.

The other type of place that benefits from the strategy is marginal places, like Willamette Valley. It’s so marginal, in fact, that many wineries are turning their back on Chardonnay entirely. Instead they are grafting their Chardonnay vineyards over to Pinot Gris, a more forgiving grape that can be ripened up more reliably in the vineyard and further fattened up in the winery. In 2001, Pinot Gris passed Chardonnay as the top-selling white wine from Oregon, and it continues to pull away. Over the past ten years, the state’s Chardonnay acreage has fallen 40%.

The problem is, even the greatest Gris will never beat the best Chardonnay for complexity and longevity. So a brave band of Willamette Valley Chardonnay loyalists is not giving in. Instead they are changing their own strategy to minimize the effect of vintage variations on their wine. Their goal, in practical terms, is to provide us with delicious, top-shelf Oregon Chardonnays that we can rely on regardless of the vintage.

The group has given itself a rather grandiose moniker: “Oregon Chardonnay Alliance,” or ORCA. I think of them as the Dijon Committee, because their strategy is to make Chardonnay from genetic strains (known as “clones”) developed at a research station in the French city of Dijon. Willamette Valley vintner David Adelsheim introduced the Dijon clones to the U.S. in 1990, and his eponymous winery is an ORCA member.

According to Adelsheim winemaker David Paige, the Dijon clones change the whole winegrowing and winemaking equation where Chardonnay is concerned. “With Dijon Chardonnay,” he explains, “we get more maturity and ripeness at lower sugars, so we can pick earlier.” Translation: there’s less need to leave grapes on the vine late into the fall for ripening, when a storm could come along and wreck everything.

“And because we’re getting more consistent ripeness and maturity in the fruit,” says Eric Hamacher, another ORCA member with his own label, “we can back off on the winemaking, in particular by using less oak in fermentation and aging.”

Rollin Soles, co-found and winemaker at Argyle winery, sums up the result: “We are much more able to retain Chardonnay’s natural mineral backbone while expressing the specific contributions of our vineyard sites. That combination is what made white Burgundy [Chardonnay] a world-class wine in the first place.”

That combination is also what we should expect when we open our wallets for a special bottle of white wine. Not having to worry about the vintage is a beautiful bonus.

Read Thom Elkjer's Oregon Chardonnay recommendations

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