Is Chardonnay Willamette Valley’s New “It Wine?”

Of the more than 700 wineries in Willamette Valley, just 171 (about 24%) produce Chardonnay. Pinot Noir is king – just look at the homepage of the Willamette Valley Vintners Association website, which boldly says, “We are Pinot Noir.” But I was curious about “the other grape” — Pinot Noir’s Burgundy buddy, Chardonnay. Climate change has come to Oregon with huge heat spikes (and yes, bad spring frost, too) and Pinot Noir happens to be one high-maintenance grape. It’s thin skins make it super-sensitive to temperature extremes, excess precipitation, and smoke permeation. But Chardonnay is a little heartier, with thicker skins. I wanted to take a closer look at Wilamette Valley Chard scene in and several wineries graciously sent samples.

For decades, Chardonnay has been the most popular white wine in the world. It comes in a wide spectrum of styles, from racy, mineraly Chablis to rich and buttery California Chardonnay. In the kaleidoscope of Chardonnay, there’s a wine for almost every palate.

Of the 11 nested AVA (American Viticultural Areas) within Willlamette Valley, I tasted Chardonnays from four of them, including

  • Van Duzer Corridor – A cooler area that gets cool Pacific Ocean breezes which help moderate temperatures. It’s a small AVA with just 1000 acres planted.
  • Dundee Hills – This is the epicenter of Willamette Valley, where the first Pinot Noir grapes were planted in 1971. With 2,220 acres planted, Dundee Hills is heavily concentrated with Pinot Noir (69.5%) and just 5.75% Chardonnay grown here.
  • Eola-Amity Hills – This region benefits from its neighbor, the Van Duzer Corridor, getting those cool ocean breezes. Approximately 2800 acres are planted and again, it’s almost 80% Pinot Noir and about 8% Chardonnay.
  • Yamhill-Carlton – This unique area is protected by the Coast Range, Chehalem Mountains and Dundee Hills, creating a sunny, temperate zone where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive. Again, Pinot rules, with 80% of plantings and Chardonnay is about 6%.

Truffle Hill 2020 Estate Chardonnay by Left Coast – Van Duzer Corridor ($24) Classic, lemony, apple-buttery, fresh and lively, with an intriguing hit of spice. This wine is barrel fermented, so there’s oak but it’s in perfect balance. The name comes from the three acres of European black truffle-inoculated hazelnut trees surrounding the Truffle Hill Vineyard.

Stoller 2021 Chardonnay – Dundee Hills ($25) A rush of juicy green apple, pineapple, and lemon curd jumps out of the glass. It’s lush with orchard fruit and tropical fruits. There is only a tiny bit of oak in here (only 8% was aged in neutral French oak; the rest was stainless and concrete).

Bryn Mawr 2019  Chardonnay – Eola-Amity Hills ($25) Peach pie, pastry crust, and lime curd, this beauty opens with zingy lemon squeezy acidity. Like a happy alarm clock shouting, “Wake up, it’s Chard-o-clock!” It was super fun to taste, because Bryn Mawr is new to me.

Bryn Mawr 2019 Estate Chardonnay – Eola Amity Hills ($40). Lemon meringue pie, green apples, cloves. With a satiny tecture and brisk acidity, and an almondy accent, this wine struck me as v. Burgundian in style (leaner, more terroir-driven than rooty-tooty fruity). And just to you know, when you see the word “Estate” on a wine label, that means the fruit came from a vineyard that the winery owns and/or manages, so they are in total control of the growing. When it doesn’t say “Estate,” the wine can contain some estate fruit, but also fruit that the winery has purchased, so a non-estate wine may be a little lower-priced.

Dobbes Family Estate 2021 Grand Assemblage Chardonnay – Willamette Valley ($30) Green apple, pear, custard, almonds. It’s young (2022) but absolutely delicious now. This wine has interesting provenenace, with four winemakers involved! One (Andy McVay) looked over about half of the wine that went into the final blend. Then the Dobbes’ Family’s Wine by Joe team tended to the other half, with winemaker Doug Vuylsteke. Then Dobbes’ assistant winemaker Rachael Fishman blended the whole lot, and Derek Einberger, Dobbes Family Estate’s new winemaker put the finishing touches on it. I love the collaboration and that is resulted in a wine of real elegance and balance.

Note: this is clearly not the actual label because the wine hasn’t been released yet, but I love that the iwnery sent it anyway for me to taste! (And thank you for sending two – the other will stay in my cellar for another year or two and I can’t wait to taste what it becomes!)

Chehalem 2021 Inox Unoaked Chardonnay ($18) Mild, minerally aromatics let the pure fruit shine through. There’s nothing hiding here – just a big juicy gush of green apple nectarine, lime zest. It’s fermented and aged in 100% stainless steel, so it is clean and lean – a crowdpleaser of a wine – and a wine perhaps best savored by the “ABC” crowd!

Chemistry 2019 Chardonnay – Willamette Valley ($18) This collab between Stoller and Chehalem is all tarte tatin, pear clafoutis, lemon curd and pound cake. Great energy and tension in this wine, brought the the balance of fruit, oak and acidity. Aged in almost all stainless steel with very light oak treatment, this is anothed Chardonnay that the ABC drinkers will like.

Marshall Davis 2018 Chardonnay – Yamhill-Carlton ($40) Buttered popcorn, pineapple custard, lemon curd. This rich and bouncy wine has oak, but it’s balanced with acidity. It’s got body, backbone and flair.

Marshall Davis 2019 Cask Series Chardonnay – Yamhill Carlton (price unknown) More buttered popcorn, pastry crust, warm toast with lemon curd. It’s bright and zesty, and ping-pongs around your palate with lemony acidity. This was my first experience tasting wines from Marshall Davis and I’m a fan

Sokol Blosser 2021 Chardonnay – Dundee Hills ($42) Tropical mango meets American orchard fruit, like peach and persimmon. Richness of ripe fruit married with perfect medium-bodied, round textures. Sokol Blosser is one of Willamette Valley’s pioneering wineries, having planted their first vintage in 1971. Their wines are consistently delicious.

Want more info? Check out the winery websites, below, and the Willamette Valley Vintners Association website is a fantastic source of information as well.

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