A decade ago, few wines on the planet were more uninspiring than Oregon Chardonnay. Most were flavorless and simple. Pinot Gris became Oregon’s white wine of distinction, counterpart to the thriving red grape Pinot Noir.
But by all accounts, Chardonnay should be able to succeed anywhere Pinot Noir thrives. After all, in Burgundy, Pinot Noir’s ancestral home, Chardonnay flourishes in the exact same climate and soils. But in Oregon, this wasn’t the case. Many Oregon vintners just gave up on it. In 1994, Oregon had almost 1,500 acres planted in Chardonnay. By 2004, that number had dropped to just over 850.
But some Oregonians were convinced that Chardonnay could produce good wine in Oregon and were determined to fix whatever was wrong. The problem, one of Oregon’s pioneering vintners suspected, was the clone. David Adelsheim Vineyard, a member of the Oregon Chardonnay Alliance (ORCA), had studied winemaking in Burgundy, and he knew that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir ripened at the same time. In colder Oregon, Chardonnay ripened later. It was always harvested about two weeks later than Pinot. The later the season runs, the greater the risk of damage by autumn rains or cold. Oregon Chardonnay often had to be harvested before it could develop rich, complete flavors.
In viticultural terms, a clone starts as a rogue vine, a single plant that undergoes a genetic mutation that makes it different from the others around it. After it has been identified and isolated for its unique characteristics, the clone is propagated, by grafting onto existing root systems. The differences may be subtle or profound, and affect things like cluster size, the size of the berries, the tightness of the cluster, the amount of fruit a vine produces, or when it ripens. For centuries, astute grape growers have meticulously sifted through their vines plant by plant, looking for that special mutation with desirable traits. Clones can then be isolated and propagated for the betterment of wine.
The clone that Oregon got, it turns out, was a bum one. For Oregon, anyway. The Chardonnay clone—called 108—that was planted in Oregon in the ‘60s and ‘70s had come from California. It worked well enough in California’s warmer, sunnier climate, where, with milder weather, it ripened late in the season, gaining verve and complexity. In Oregon’s northern clime, the grapes weren’t getting ripe and the wines lacked critical depth and flavor.
So Adelsheim and other wineries, such as Argyle, Ponzi, Chehalem, Hamacher Wines, and Domaine Serene, set about getting better clones, eventually selecting early-ripening varieties from Burgundy known as Dijon clones, named for the city at Burgundy’s northern end. Adelsheim began the long process of selecting and importing the clones in the mid-’70s, with other winemakers soon getting on board. In the Willamette Valley’s long, cool growing season, the Dijon clones thrived, ripening earlier and thus coming to full maturity before they were harvested.
The best results began to appear in the ‘90s. “The differences are clear,” says Harry Peterson-Nedry, the owner of Chehalem. “The wines from the new clones are transparently beautiful in their own right, with no oak or no other flavors to mask it.” Most of the producers are aging their Chardonnays in oak, but Chehalem is making one wine to demonstrate the flavor of the unoaked grape. Called INOX, it’s a Chardonnay fermented and aged exclusively in stainless steel tanks. It’s light-colored and bright, featuring no wood flavors or butteriness. It’s creamy good, with bright acid and sharp citrus and apple notes.
“You have to have great grapes before you can make great wine,” says David Adelsheim. “We feel that we’re finally getting them. Now the trick will be to keep getting better at turning them into wine.”
Most of the Oregon Chardonnays I tasted indicated that winemakers are doing pretty well. With bright acid and intense flavors of lemon, apple, and stone fruits, the Oregon Chardonnays tend to have more in common with the Burgundian versions than the heavier, more toasty and buttery versions from California. “Pinot’s had a big head start in Oregon,” Adelsheim said. “With Chardonnay, the best is still yet to come.