I like big, lush, California Chardonnay as much as the next guy, but there's a limit to how much lobster and swordfish anyone can eat. When I've got a taste for more moderate food, I want a leaner, more versatile wine that won't overwhelm it, and lately I like what I see when looking up from California toward Oregon.
In several respects, Oregon is a likely locale for excellent Chardonnay in a moderate mode. Generally speaking, if you want a break from the riper, more obvious, tropical fruit side of Chardonnay, you should shift your source to a point farther away from the tropics. Moving north in the northern hemisphere will shift your fruit profile from pineapple and mango toward melon, peach and apple-and throw in some refreshing acidity as a bonus. Likewise, you'd get the same result by moving south in the southern hemisphere, as you'll see if you compare Chardonnays from, say, Australia's Hunter Valley to ones from cooler, more southerly vineyards in Tasmania.
Another reason for regarding Oregon as a promising source for tastefully restrained Chardonnay is that the state has produced this result with Chardonnay's famous stablemate, Pinot Noir. These two grapes have produced marvelous results for centuries growing cheek by jowl in Burgundy's Côte d'Or and in Champagne, where they ripen virtually simultaneously. When Pinot Noir made the trip up to Oregon from California, the general result was a wine with greater complexity and more moderate ripeness, so there has always been good reason to believe that this outcome would be replicated with Chardonnay.
However, Oregon's early results with Chardonnay were disappointing to critics and vintners alike. When vineyards were established in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of the Chardonnay plant material was brought from California. The Chardonnay clones and field selections were well suited to California's famously sunny climate, but performed comparatively poorly in Oregon.
Clones UCD 4 and UCD 5 (Collectively known as "Selection 108") were particularly problematic, often ripening a full two weeks after Pinot Noir-if they ripened at all. Complex flavors result only from fully ripened fruit, but waiting for Selection 108 fruit to ripen fully in Oregon often meant courting disaster from dipping autumn temperatures, diluting rains, and fungal diseases.
Vintners knew something was amiss. In 1974, David Adelsheim traveled to France to inquire into Burgundian practices. He observed that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay ripened at the same time in the Côte d'Or, suggesting that Oregon was working with Chardonnay strains that were ill suited to its cool climate. Adelsheim prompted Oregon State University to begin a program to evaluate and import plant material from France.
The resulting process was a protracted one, but French clones began arriving in the mid 1980s, and by the early 1990s, these "Dijon clones" were being planted in serious numbers. Today, over 800 acres of Dijon clone Chardonnay are planted across the state, with roughly 500 of those acres located in the Willamette Valley. Other viticultural improvements (such as narrower vine spacing and devigorating rootstocks) have helped these new vines outperform their predecessors, and Oregon's current crop of Chardonnays is clearly much better than the wines I was tasting a decade ago.
How are they different? Thanks to earlier-and thus often fuller-ripening, today's Oregon Chardonnays are a bit richer, broader in texture, deeper in flavor, and more complex in aroma. They are also more consistent from producer to producer and from year to year. Additionally, winemakers seem to be backing off on oak usage. Since under-ripe Chardonnay is pretty bland stuff, winemakers in the 1980s and 1990s were understandably tempted to gussy up their relatively mute fruit with notes of smoke, spice and vanilla from new barrels. Today, working with riper, more flavorful grapes, Oregon winemakers seem increasingly content to relegate oak notes to a supporting role.
Although the current crop of Oregon Chardonnays is richer, broader and deeper than wines from the past, they generally remain more restrained than their California counterparts. However, this is more a difference of degree than a difference in kind, and you'll find that Oregon's renditions lean more toward Carneros than toward Puligny-Montrachet. Nevertheless, this difference of degree is important, as Oregon Chardonnays are often notably lower in alcohol and less overtly sweet than bottlings from California, and consequently tend to be more refreshing and versatile with food.
Top wines from my recent tastings appear in order of preference below, with suggested retail prices appearing in parentheses:
Domaine Drouhin, Oregon (USA) Chardonnay "Arthur" 2003 ($25): Remarkably delicate and refined, this shows beautiful pear and apple fruit with exceedingly subtle, well-integrated oak that lends just the right accents without any drying or distraction. Really medium-bodied, with fresh acidity that is very well integrated, this is a complete and thoroughly convincing wine. 94
Chehalem, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay "Ian's Reserve" 2003 ($25): With low oak by world standards (much less American ones), this is on the fresh, primary fruit side of the Chardonnay spectrum, and very successfully so, as the notes here are impeccably pure and impressively persistent. A core of ripe pear fruit is the lead attraction, with nuances and layers of flavor that seem to stem more from the multiple dimensions of the fruit than from oak trickery. 93
Chehalem, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 2002 ($19): Surprisingly fresh for a wine from 2002, this is straightforwardly juicy but neither overt nor simple. Notes of pear and mango are vivid and very pleasant. 92
Adelsheim, Yamhill County (Oregon) Chardonnay "Caitlin's Reserve 2003 ($35): Showing admirable balance between primary fruit notes and accents from oak, this complex wine features ripe apple fruit and nice complexities of smoke and spices. 91
Hamacher, Oregon (USA) Chardonnay "Cuvee Forets Diverses 2001 ($25): Now near the peak of its powers, this is rich and deeply flavored, but nevertheless quite pure. Notes of smoke and toast work beautifully with a fruit core of ripe pears and baked apples. Well made from superb material, this is impressive stuff. 91
Ponzi Vineyards, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay Reserve 2002 ($30): Although this wine is on the oaky side of the Oregon norm, it is nevertheless nicely balanced, with ample fruit and fresh acidity working nicely with the smoky accents from oak. 91
Domaine Serene, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay Côte Sud Vineyard 2002 ($40): Ripe and rounded in flavor and feel, this generously endowed wine features lush fruit that is certainly up to the challenge of abundant oak. Powerful but not pushy or obvious, this is showy but stylish as well. 91
Chehalem, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay "Inox" 2004 ($17): Bright and wonderfully fresh, this wine stands as an object lesson in the possibility of attaining great aromas and flavors from Chardonnay without augmentation from oak. Although this is no lightweight on paper at 14% alcohol, it is remarkably fresh and zesty in the glass, and will partner well with a wide range of foods. 91
Brick House, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 2003 ($25): Made from organically grown grapes, this wine is fresh and full of flavor, with subtle accents layered atop a delicious core of ripe apple fruit. 90
Brick House, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay "Cascadia" 2003 ($32): More intricate but slightly less open and juicy at the moment than regular bottling from Brick House, this wine will likely prove the stronger of the two in another year. 90
Carabella Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 2003 ($23): A flashy, fleshy wine with real richness and depth, this could be mistaken for a California Chardonnay. Nevertheless, with delicious fruit and subtle accenting notes, it is impressive and very fairly priced in view of its high quality. 90
Domaine Serene, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay Clos du Soleil Vineyard 2002 ($40): A very well made wine, this is concentrated but still graceful, and complex but still integrated. With fruit recalling ripe pears and baked apples working nicely with accenting notes of woodsmoke and spices, this is an exemplary winemaking effort. 90
Torii Mor, Columbia Gorge and Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 2004 ($16): Juicy and very fresh, with vivid fruit and refreshing acidity, this is a delicious drink at a refreshingly approachable price. 90
Westrey, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 2003 ($18): A surprisingly complete wine in this price range, this tasty bottling offers ripe notes of peaches and pears, along with interesting accents of vanilla and toasty oak. 89
Stafford Hill (by Holloran Vineyard), Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 2004 ($15): Fresh and bright, with excellent acidity lending crispness and clarity to a core of ripe apple fruit, this may not be a profound wine-but it is certainly a delicious drink. 88
Thistle Wines Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 2003 ($14): This wine and its price are both very easy to like. Nicely balanced, it is substantial but still crisp and refreshing, with fine pear fruit and admirably subtle oak. 88
Stoller, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 2003 ($25): This is a bit of an outlier in stylistic terms, with richness pushing right to the line of corpulence. Packing 14.9% alcohol, it is very broad and soft, with ripe fruit flavors. 88
Holloran Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay Le Pavillon Vineyard 2003 ($21.50): Rich and ripe, with a substantial overlay of oak, this wine might not be easy to peg as an Oregonian if tasted blind. Nevertheless, with lots of showy vanilla and smoke notes working in concert with juicy fruit, it is quite easy to enjoy. 87