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Oregon wine country, part 12
focusing on Chardonnay in Oregon

After a busy day’s vineyard visiting, I headed back to McMinnville for a dinner with David Adelsheim (Adelsheim Vineyard) and David Millman (Domaine Drouhin Oregon), looking specifically at Chardonnay. They both belong to an organization called ORCA (Oregon Chardonnay Alliance), which has seven members in all, with the other five being Hamacher, Ponzi, Chehalem, Argyle and Domaine Serene.

The focus in Oregon has drifted away from Chardonnay, perhaps because many of the early efforts with this grape were a little forgettable. But this alliance aims to bring some of the focus back to the many excellent examples of this variety that are now being made.

As Oregon began to be developed as a wine region in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the pioneering winegrowers brought in Chardonnay from California, and planted it on its own roots. This turned out to be a mistake: the clones, predominantly UCD4 and 5 (known together as selection 108) had a big crop load and large clusters, which was not suitable for Oregon. Also, planted ungrafted, they lacked the benefit of devigorating rootstocks. The result, by and large, was that Chardonnay ripened without fruit in Oregon. ‘It was a surprise to us when we didn’t have success initially with it,’ recalls Adelsheim.

In 1974 Adelsheim worked at the Lycee Viticole in Beaune. It was here that he became aware of the work carried out by Raymond Bernard, a scientist from Dijon, on Chardonnay clones. In the 1950s and 60s Chardonnay in Burgundy had suffered from fan leaf virus, and Bernard had produced a range of virus-free clones that were in the process of being tested. ‘It became our goal to get these clones to Oregon,’ he says.

It was Dr David Heatherbell, from Oregon State University, who first imported the new Chardonnay clones to Oregon in 1984 (75, 76, 96, 98) (OSU at Corvallis is one of the three institutions in the state to have an import licence). Then, in 1988, Adelsheim got some more (95, 77 and 277). ‘Once we had these clones it was apparent that the wines we could make were very different,’ says Adelsheim.

We are now at the stage where the new clones are starting to hit their stride. They have now been planted on 800 acres throughout Oregon, with around 500 in the Willamette Valley. Although the total volume of Oregon Chardonnay continues to decrease, the quality continues to increase. ‘We have a much better understanding of Pinot clones than Chardonnay clones,’ reveals Adelsheim. ‘We started off with some really good Pinot clones.’

The wines

Adelsheim Chardonnay 2006
This is unoaked. Nutty, slightly peachy nose with bright, fresh fruit. The palate has some nutty depth to it. There’s balance, freshness and some complexity. 90/100

Chehalem INOX Chardonnay 2007
Unoaked; all Dijon clone. Very zippy and fresh with grapefruity, citrussy notes as well as a hint of nuttiness. Lively and quite zippy with a hint of tropical fruit. 89/100

Domaine Drouhin Oregon Arthur Chardonnay 2006 Dundee Hills
Named after Veronique Drouhin’s son; half aged in oak, half in stainless steel. Lovely freshness with some toastiness. It’s nutty and crisp on the palate with nice depth of flavour. Some creaminess to the texture, too. A really sophisticated effort. 91/100

Hamacher Cuvée Forêts Diversés Chardonnay 2005
Unusual stuff: quite fresh with a funky character, too. Herby, fresh and rather different in style, I’m not sure what to make of this. 86/100

Argyle Reserve Series Nuthouse Chardonnay 2006
Creamy, nutty and toasty with some nice presence to the fruit. Good acidity here: some citrus and grapefruit character. Lovely crispness to this fresh, fruit-driven wine. 89/100

Adelsheim Caitlin’s Reserve Chardonnay Stoller Vineyard 2006
Lovely broad, nutty wine with a herby edge to the fruit. There’s a lovely presence here: it is quite Burgundian without a big oak impression. It’s made from clone 76 and has 25% new oak. 93/100

Ponzi Vineyards Chardonnay Reserve 2006
Rich and quite bold with intense spicy fruit and some oak evident. However, the dominant feature here is the richly textured fruit with some sweetness and a herby tang. Quite complex. 92/100

Chehalem Ian’s Reserve Chardonnay 2005
All Dijon clone from a cool damp vintage; 25% new oak. Focused, slightly minerally nose. Lovely freshness and good acidity combine well with some richer more tropical fruit notes. Fresh and focused with a mineral streak. 92/100

Domaine Serene Chardonnay Côte Sud 2002 Dundee Hills
A single vineyard wine; clones 75, 76, 78, 96 and 95. Refined, slightly toasty nose. The palate is dense and complex with lovely richness and an attractive spicy character. It is evolving beautifully with herby complexity and toasty notes. Quite profound. 94/100

See also:

Wines tasted 07/08  
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