Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Oregon Chardonnay Alliance

When it comes to Chardonnay, there seems to be two camps. One camp is squarely onboard with the big, ripe, oaky California style and the other camp appreciates the French White Burgundy style that focuses on a crisper, more minerally style that has a restrained hand when it comes to oak.
To fully understand how the wine gets from vine to glass you need a basic understanding of the grape. As with many grape varietals there are multiple Chardonnay vine clones used to grow the Chardonnay we drink.
In the early days in Oregon the clones selection used was referred to as "Selection 108" (UCD 4 &5). These clones did well in California, but with the cooler Oregon climate the ripening time of these clones lagged into October and getting the grapes fully ripe was a problem.
In 1974 David Adelsheim went to Burgundy and observed first hand that the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay grapes ripened at the same time. Adelsheim realized the need for this clone type in Oregon and he began the 2 year process of importing, evaluating and quarantining that would be required to get this clone selection into Oregon. In 1977 those first clones were planted in Oregon and now are collectively referred to as "Dijon Clones". Today a group of dedicated winemakers have formed the Oregon Chardonnay Alliance. This group shares information and provides valuable feedback with the goal of taking Oregon Chardonnay to new heights and to help people understand that this "new world" Chardonnay is in a class of its own.

I had a chance to sample 8 Chardonnay wines recently. We had 6 wines from Oregon that would fall into the "Dijon clone" category and then we tossed in a French Burgundy and a California Chardonnay for fun. We blind tasted the eight wines together and below are my tasting notes and my group placement.

2005 Argyle Nuthouse: Slight green apple nose that continues to the palate. Creamy and crisp with a nice roundness. Fermented in neutral oak. #6

2005 Domaine Drouhine "Arthur":
Green apple nose with a very bright, crisp, green apple palate. Nice mineral character with a very small touch of toasty oak on the finish. #3

2004 Hamacher:
Apple pie spice on the nose. A softer rounder style wine with good balance and an earthy character that I liked very much. #1

2004 Chateau Montelena:
An earthy nose and a hint of smoke (oak?), tart green apple fruit with a grassy edge. This wine had no malolactic fermentation. This was the California ringer and as a side note their 1973 Chardonnay placed first in the 1976 Judgement of Paris (and basically put California on the world wine map). #2

2004 Domaine Fichet:
This was our French ringer. The wine showed crisp green apple on the nose and it had a fat mid-palate. #4

2005 Adelsheim -Caitlin's Reserve: Creamy nose and a round,fat, slightly buttery body. Just a hint of oak on the nose and finish. #7

2004 Domaine Serene: Prominent oak on the nose a short mid-palate and a funky, earthy, caramel finish. I felt this wine was WAY over oaked. #8 (note, the remainder of the group scored this 1st).

2004 St. Innocent "Freedom Hill":
Spice on the nose, nice apple/pear fruit with a flabby body (if this were a celebrity it would be Britney Spears). #5

What impressed this group was the approach these wineries are taking with their Chardonnay.
Oregon Chardonnay wines are never going to show the exotic fruit profiles of their California cousins and the move towards climate specific clones has done wonders to improve the quality of the wines produced. If you take a look at the links provided above you will see the the winemakers are starting to let the grape "speak" for itself and they are using less and less technology in the processing of these wines.
In learning from the French in regard to clone selection, I believe that Oregon is starting to get its footing in establishing its own style. That is a good thing