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Oregon Chardonnay Comes of Age: the New Dijon Clones
[March/April 2003]

It starts out like a joke, but ends more like a bad dream. A man walks into a tasting room and asks to taste some Oregon wines. The winemaker behind the bar offers to start with the Chardonnays, but the taster waves her off. “Oh no,” he chuckles, proud of his insider knowledge, “I never drink Oregon Chardonnay.”

Virtually every dedicated Oregon Chardonnay producer can recount a version of this story. In fact, when something like this happened to winemaker Eric Hamacher, he had to jokingly threaten not to pour his Pinot Noir before one of his tasters gave in. “Then he was blown away,” Hamacher says, “and he took five cases.”

Like some bad dreams, these stories are easy to interpret: Oregon Chardonnay producers face a daunting public relations problem. After 30 years of lean, hard, or overly acidic wines, consumers are not in a buying mood. But happy endings like Hamacher’s also suggest why some winemakers persist, especially now that plantings of new French chardonnay vines have come of age. These “Dijon clones,” they say, offer earlier ripening times, richer, more vivid flavors, and a chance to banish the bad press forever. But will anyone take a chance and taste them?

While chardonnay the varietal continues its global conquest, Oregon chardonnay vines are going the other direction. Chardonnay-planted acreage in Oregon decreased by nearly 25% between 1995 and 2001, while pinot gris and pinot noir acreage nearly doubled, according to the Oregon Agricultural Statistics Service. During the same period, Chardonnay’s share of Oregon’s total case output declined 28% while Pinot Gris rose more than 200%.

On the front lines, Ed Paladino and Richard Elden of E&R Wine Shop in Portland estimate that they sell as much as 12 times more Oregon Pinot Gris than Oregon Chardonnay. “It’s hard even for us to get people to taste through them,” Paladino says.“When someone wants a white wine from Oregon, it’s almost invariably Pinot Gris.”

Some winemakers believe the reason dates back to the very beginning of the Oregon wine industry in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, the Holy Grail of Oregon winemaking was to create wines as good as those of Burgundy, a goal those pioneers thought attainable because of one simple fact: the climates of Oregon and Burgundy are remarkably similar. If pinot noir and chardonnay--the classic Burgundian grapes--excelled there, why not in Oregon, too?

To fulfill their vision, growers planted the best vine stock they could get at the time, which was pinot noir vines from Europe (if not Burgundy itself) and chardonnay vines from California. That’s where some believe the problem started: it wasn’t enough to match the Burgundian climate--they should have planted Burgundian vines, too.

In any case, the critical issue with these first chardonnay “selections” (so called because their origin couldn’t be pinpointed to a single, identifiable vine, which would have made them “clones”) wasn’t just that they came from California: what mattered was that they came from warm, sunny California. In Oregon’s chillier, more overcast climate, they had much more difficulty ripening.

Nevertheless, it took an extended trip to Burgundy in 1974 by Adelsheim Vineyards’ David Adelsheim to begin connecting the dots. “Their chardonnay grapes were being picked at the same time as their pinot noir, and sometimes a little earlier,” he recalls, “a radical contradiction to what I had seen in Oregon, where chardonnay ripened 2-3 weeks later than pinot noir.”

This revelation spurred a decade of effort by Adelsheim and others to reset the course of Oregon chardonnay. After two unexciting clones crossed the Atlantic in the mid ’70s, Adelsheim and a silver-tongued oenologist from Oregon State coaxed a selection of the best chardonnay clones out of the Burgundians in 1983.

For no other reason than the return address on the package in which they were shipped, these came to be known as the “Dijon clones” -- numbered 75, 76, 78, 96, and later 95. Because they actually came from a district in Burgundy about 75 miles south of Dijon, Adelsheim says they should properly be called "Burgundian-origin clones." Not quite as sexy as “Dijon clones,” of course, which explains which term won. “I’ve all but given up correcting people,” he admits.

More important than their name is how they perform, and on that score there’s far less confusion. After just a decade of working with the Dijon clones, winemakers and growers are already extolling their virtues. They rave about the clones’ naturally lower yields, which save vineyard management time, and the smaller cluster size, which facilitates more concentrated flavors as well as more precise control over crop loads. But the greatest advantage of Dijon clones is their earlier ripening date.

“The way to win with the old clones was to pick just before the last rains,” Argyle Winery’s Rollin Soles recalls. “The Dijons get ripe 10-14 days earlier, so you can actually get them too ripe.”

Another advantage is one we immediately noticed as we tasted through these Dijon clone wines: the oak is less dominant and much better integrated. In general, winemakers confirm that the intensity of the fruit means the resulting wine just doesn’t need as much time in new oak barrels, though some counter that’s precisely why the wine can take new oak.

“A lot of people believe that second- and third-year oak is better than new oak if you want to make a consistently stylish Chardonnay,” Lemelson Vineyards winemaker Thomas Bachelder notes. He adds that in some ways, that’s beside the point: “It’s not how much new oak you use, but how much you can take off. The less oak you use, the more minerality you get, but if you take off too much, the wine doesn’t have the viscosity, the seamlessness and suppleness.”

Finally, the fruit just tastes different. When Adelsheim tasted the grapes from the first plantings in the early ’90s, he realized that “they had a totally different fruit quality than the 108 [the most widely planted of the California selections]: more fresh, vivid fruit than tired old fruit, fresh apples vs. apple skins or oxidized apples... and the crispness and raciness are aspects of the fruit quality, not just the acidity.”

All these advantages explain why some winemakers are thoroughly convinced Oregon Chardonnay is finally on the right track. “There’s a niche of people who aren’t being satisfied by standard Chardonnay,” says Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem. “They want more acid, complexity, and fruit flavor.” The Dijon clones answer the call.

“I think that Oregon Chardonnays made from these clones are wines from two worlds,” Adelsheim concludes. “They have the flavors of white Burgundy--the crisp apple, lemon qualities--and the textural qualities of California Chardonnay.” Soles goes even further. “You can divide Chardonnay into two camps: cocktail wines and food wines. Oregon over time can create a wine that does both. We can perfect a style that you can enjoy before and during dinner, and get associated with the best of both worlds.”

If these prophecies sound audacious, it’s because they have to be: the strikes against Oregon Chardonnay are that grave. Because the ubiquitous California style has effectively defined American Chardonnay, Oregon’s crisper personality is by default a flaw. “Two percent residual sugar: that’s what most people know Chardonnay to be,” E&R’s Elden says ruefully. Many serious wine drinkers who associate the California style with sweetness and oak have abandoned the grape altogether for more food-friendly varietals.

“I don’t think anyone’s proposing that chardonnay should be Oregon’s white grape variety.” Adelsheim acknowledges. “What we are proposing is that people who are excited about the kind of Chardonnays being made in Burgundy should take a look at Oregon.”

“If you’re going to be a tiny sliver of the pie, make sure that sliver is top quality, high-scoring Chardonnay,” Soles advises. “I’m glad people are getting out of Chardonnay-making who aren’t serious about it, so if the customer takes a chance and buys some, it will be good.”

Whether Oregon Chardonnay producers can realize this dream will be as much a matter of perseverance as it will be about clones. After all, it°s a quality Oregon winemakers have in spades: just ask Eyrie Vineyards and Cameron Winery, whose Dijon-free Chardonnays earn consistently high Northwest Palate tasting scores.

These wines prove that ingenuity and will are still critical ingredients in any noteworthy wine. Nevertheless, using Dijon clones doesn’t hurt either - and if the number of remarkable wines in recent blind samplings is any indication, these clones are the key to re-casting the state°s reputation and realizing the pioneers° vision of white Burgundy in Oregon.

For savvy food-and-wine lovers, that could be a dream come true.

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The following tasting notes were evaluated through Northwest Palate Magazine’s scoring system, which rates wines as Recommended, Highly Recommended, or Exceptional.

Adelsheim Vineyard
1999 Stoller Vineyard Chardonnay, Clone 76
Willamette Valley, OR $35
Buttery and spicy in the nose, with seductive notes of honeysuckle and vanillin. Spicier in the mouth, but more approachable than the Clone 96, it has wonderful depth and complexity. Highly Recommended

Adelsheim Vineyard
1999 Stoller Vineyard Chardonnay, Clone 96
Willamette Valley, OR $35
Spicy fruit and oak fragrances with subtle notes of honey. Great complexity and liveliness in the mouth, but with a nice mineral edge, a superb oak/acid balance, and a long finish. Definitely needs a year or two more in the cellar. Highly Recommended

Argyle
1999 Nuthouse Chardonnay
Willamette Valley, OR $30
A round, mellow, and caramel-y nose, featuring tropical fruits and creamy, leesy anise perfume. Rich and complex, with a firm backbone, it has a warm, clean toastiness and a racy, lightly nutty, lemony finish. Put it away for a year or so. (Sold out at the winery.) Highly Recommended

Chehalem
1999 Ian’s Reserve Chardonnay
Willamette Valley, OR $36
A bright and focused green apple nose leads nicely balanced flavors, with hints of mineral, spice, and apple pie and a long, creamy but vibrant finish. Plenty of oak but (just barely) in balance. Recommended

Hamacher
1999 Chardonnay Cuvée Forêts Diverses
Willamette Valley, OR $28
A well-balanced, buttery, honey nose with a bit of mint and herb. This is a big, muscular Chardonnay, with lots of spice and fruit, and a kiss of mint and wood. It’s very complex, layered, with a great mouth-filling finish and good aging potential. Exceptional

Adelsheim
2000 Stoller Vineyard Chardonnay
Willamette Valley, OR $35
A seductive, almost Champagne/biscuit nose, with a hint of mint. Acid is high in the mix, but it sharpens and defines the tart apple fruit--ripe, but not overripe, with a good finish. Needs a year or two in the cellar. Highly Recommended

Domaine Serene
2000 Clos du Soleil Vineyard Chardonnay
Willamette Valley, OR $38
Vanilla, apple, pear, and butterscotch in the nose. Pleasant, balanced, and interesting in the mouth, it offers rich apple and spiced pear flavors, with a long, caramel oak finish. Highly Recommended

Hamacher
2000 Chardonnay Cuvée Forêts Diverses
Willamette Valley, OR $28
Oak, vanillin, and succulent pear nose. Arrestingly ripe flavors are rich, intense, and gently propped up by a touch of acid. A powerhouse Chardonnay ready to drink now. Highly Recommended

Lemelson
2000 Willamette Valley Chardonnay
Willamette Valley, OR $20
A seductive nose of toast, spice, and lychee. Very complex and balanced, with great structure and concentrated apple, pear, and spice over a long, creamy finish. Restrained and powerful, but it needs a year or so in the cellar. Highly Recommended

Lemelson
2000 Wascher Vineyard Chardonnay
Willamette Valley, OR $26
A complex if subtle nose of light caramel, toast, mint, and citrus, but once it hits your tongue, it’s big and spicy, with a long, spicy, apple-pie finish. A textbook food and cocktail wine. Exceptional

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©2003 Matt Giraud. This story originally appeared in the March/April 2003 issue of Northwest Palate Magazine.

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