I’ve been doing this for a long time. You know, this wine thing. Seems like almost everywhere I lived I have found myself near “wine country”. And now having spent the last 30+ years in the Willamette Valley… well it doesn’t get much better for a wine lover. So it should go without saying that I have had the chance to taste (read, DRINK) a lot of really good wine over the years. As time goes on it would seem that it should be harder to have those surprising, eye opening, get you thinking moments. You would think that I have tried it all. Thankfully, that is not the case and I love when I am offered the chance to experience something new. That varietal you’ve never had the chance to taste. That region you’ve never been to. That legendary producer you only dream of one day trying… Well this post is not about any one of those. It is, in fact, maybe the polar opposite. It is about a very familiar grape, grown just about everywhere, that you can buy from under $10 to over $1000 per bottle. Yep, I’m talking Chardonnay.
This past weekend I was out visiting the tasting room at one of my favorite local wineries and was privileged to taste through no less than eight very good wines. Not a bad one among them. A couple were a notch above the rest. But the stand out? The one that solicited the most conversation? The one that stuck in my head? Yep, Chardonnay. 2013 vintage from grapes grown here in the valley, produced here in Oregon. Let’s just say it was really, really tasty. I won’t bore you with the geek speak. Whether it is preferable to produce your Chardonnay in oak barrels or stainless tanks. To let it go through malo or not. This particular wine was what I call a 50/50. And I think that is why it has such broad appeal. The Willamette Valley should make great Chardonnay. For all the same reasons that it makes great Pinot. But, like any great wine growing region, it is about figuring out what grows best, which chardonnay clones, which soil types, which micro climates…. And then planting, cultivating and harvesting accordingly. After that, it is all about putting that fruit in the hands of the artists (some call them winemakers) and letting them work their magic. This knowledge and what to do with it comes over time. Therefore, it does not surprise me that some of the more memorable Chardonnays currently being produced in Oregon are coming from some of the oldest producers… wineries like Eyrie, Bethel Heights, Ponzi, and Adelsheim. That’s not to say that you have to have been doing this a long time to get it right. Not at all, there are too many really yummy wines being turned out by some of our newest producers as well. I am simply saying that one of the things we do brilliantly in Oregon is learn. We pay attention to the lessons of time. We respect the path laid out by those that walked it before us. We listen to each other, share and take risks. And having lived in all those places, talked to all those winemakers and drunk all that wine… well that seems to be the universal journey to great wine.
Chardonnay rarely gets it’s due. I totally understand. If I had a dollar for every glass of disappointing Chardonnay… well… But, as some of you know, I have a bit of a history with bubbly. Methode Champenoise to be precise. Which means I have a special relationship with the traditional grapes of Champagne, particularly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And I think that is why I always take special note when some producer takes one of those varietals and turns it into a memorable tasting experience, bubbles not withstanding. So thank you to all of you Oregon wineries who are not afraid to show the world that Chardonnay is for real. And to you winemakers who are not afraid of risking your name and hard earned reputation on yet another Chardonnay. And to all those consumers out there who are open minded enough to give that server in the tasting room a chance when they say “and the next wine you are tasting is a delicious Willamette Valley Chardonnay”… And, finally, a shout out to Jim and Wendy at Walnut Ridge who served me that 2013 Sass Chardonnay on Sunday and prompted this post. Definitely worth a visit by any wine lover. Tell them I sent you! Cheers