chardonnay’s new day
| M PENNER
Is this trite white an oak joke—or a wine that deserves a fresh look? By Josh Sens
If you know your ABCs, you know those letters stand for Anything But Chardonnay, a stubborn consumer movement born in opposition to one of the world’s most widely produced wines. What its adherents profess disdain for isn’t (let’s be clear here) the chardonnay grape itself, but the way they feel the varietal has been mistreated. The offending wines they have in mind are weighty, toasty whites, overwhelmed by oily notes of sandalwood and vanilla, and shot through with so much oak that drinking them leaves you with the kind of lacquered tongue you might get from licking an armoire. Lovely, right? These are the chardonnays of cliché stereotype, often associated with California, particularly the Napa Valley. Like many caricatures, this one contains some truth. But it is not, by any stretch, even close to fair. Though poorly represented in some quarters as a cocktail-hour staple for the clinky-drink crowd and a less-than-suave accompaniment to country-club cuisine, chardonnay has always been a versatile grape that finds wonderful expression around the globe, yielding striking, beautifully structured wines that combine sultry textures with bright, food-friendly acidic bite. This is famously true in Burgundy, the Old World vinicultural holy ground where chardonnay originated. But the same can also be said of such New World regions as the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where chardonnay now flourishes in fine form.
“There’s a reason winemakers refer to chardonnay as ‘a blank slate,’” says Ben Casteel, a second-generation winemaker at Bethel Heights Vineyards, a pioneering Willamette Valley chardonnay producer that released its first vintage in 1984. “It’s an extremely adaptable varietal that to a certain extent allows you to impose your will on it. It can produce big, delicious, unctuous wines, but also equally delicious wines that are bracing and steely and acidic and reflective of a very vivid sense of place.” Like many local chardonnay makers, Casteel prefers to steer away from broad-stroke comparisons with chardonnays from Burgundy or Napa. Such blunt descriptions, he says, not only give short shrift to those other regions, but also blur the stylistic range and subtlety that make Willamette Valley chardonnay distinct. Still, he recognizes that some reference points are useful. As a general rule, in the cooler climate of the Willamette Valley fruit is picked earlier than it is in Napa, so it never reaches the same degree of ripeness. That alone encourages a leaner wine that lends itself more readily to food pairings and leans more closely to white burgundy. At the same time, that younger fruit also absorbs less oak, and in the Willamette Valley they tend to use less oak than they do in Napa to begin with, so the wines don’t wind up tasting like liquid furniture. “Climate definitely plays a role, but so does culture,” says Shane Moore, head winemaker at Gran Moraine, a Willamette Valley stalwart that produces two
chardonnays per year. “We can get away with picking a little younger and using less oak because people expect it of us. People wouldn’t necessarily expect that in Napa, but they’d look to us for a wine that you might consider more austere.” It has taken time for those perceptions to take root. When Moore started making wine in 2004, he tasted through a flight of white burgundies with a mentor, who told him flat-out that chardonnay on par with the French original would never be produced in the United States. Moore believed him. Not anymore. “Nowadays there’s a lot of New World chardonnay that touches on that white burgundy level of quality,” Moore says. “We’re not the only ones.” But the region’s reputation is spreading fast. Among those helping to propel it is Josh Bergström, head winemaker at Bergström Wines, another heralded Willamette Valley chardonnay producer. Born and raised in Oregon, Bergström studied and honed his craft in Burgundy before returning to his home state to turn out chardonnay the Willamette Valley way. At once flinty and food-friendly, the wines he makes pair wonderfully with seafood the day you buy them. But Bergström also suggests them as an investment, best left to age in the bottle for 10 or even 15 years. To drink them at their peak while, say, slurping back fresh oysters, is to reinterpret your alphabet, for this admittedly oftabused wine turns out to have appealingly bracing capabilities.
TASTING NOTES Bergström 2016 Sigrid Chardonnay, $100 Yellow-gold in color, this complex wine plays out on the palate in notes of citrus and honeysuckle and makes a lovely marriage with crabs, lobster and other shellfish. Bethel Heights 2016 Casteel Chardonnay, $75 Hints of lemon mingle with a bracing salinity in this well-structured wine, which only gets better in the bottle of time. Besides seafood, it pairs deliciously with grilled pork. Gran Moraine, 2016 Yamhill-Carlton Chardonnay, $45 Sleek but structured, with a light, bright mouthfeel and summery hints of stone fruit.
Opposite page, clockwise from top left: the Bergström winery farms five estate vineyards totaling roughly 85 acres in northern Willamette Valley; Bergström’s Old Stones chardonnay boasts citrus driven aromas and flavors; the Gran Moraine Vineyard, covering 210 acres, produces two chardonnays a year; its YamhillCarlton variety offers an aroma of mango, brioche and fennel seed; tours and tastings at the Gran Moraine facility are open to the public; Bethel Heights Vineyards, one of the valley’s pioneers, released its first chardonnay in 1984.
3/18/19 4:43 PM