On the third day of the incredible Oregon Wine Harvest Tour through the gorgeous state I proudly call home, our group of wine writers was 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 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. I thoroughly enjoyed the full-bodied, lush chardonnay that had aromas and flavors of pears, apples, and butterscotch. We were quickly off to walk through the vineyards, with Bernau leading the way. We 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 toward 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 the 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 was perfect for growing pinot noir Dijon clones, so he knew that chardonnay clones from the same region would thrive as well.
In 1988, Bernau, 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 to have created an entire new category of chardonnay, one which expresses the terroir of where the Dijon clone is planted. With the delicious juicy, fruity, and butterscotch flavors of the ’08 Willamette Valley Vineyards Chardonnay in my glass, I was beginning to understand why I have always viewed Oregon chardonnays 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 chardonnay wines 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 and offers an amazing view of the valley below and beyond, I looked forward to trying some of Oregon’s cream of the crop chardonnay, produced by the four gurus who would be pouring them for us. The tasting was a breathtaking lineup of stellar chardonnay wines, 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.
— Julia Crawley, Snooth