Oregon’s getting excited about chardonnay

One of the most satisfying moments as a father and a wine professional was the day my daughter, Elise, took a couple sniffs from my wine glass at the dinner table and, in a confident voice, said, “I smell pears, Daddy!”

She was spot on about the white Burgundy, redolent in fresh Bosc-like pears. Being about 5 years old, Elise was also tickled to see her dad grinning ear-to-ear over his budding sommelier. Unfortunately, for the next six months, every wine — regardless of its type — that I put in front of Elise smelled like, you guessed it, pears.

Pears. What a wonderful thing to smell in a glass of chardonnay. Nothing wrong with aromas of oak and butter and vanilla, but a chardonnay bursting with aromas and flavors of pears, apples, acacia and other crisp, tart tree fruits makes for one refreshing, food-friendly glass of wine.

Without poking too much fun at their brothers and sisters in California, a number of Oregon winemakers are on a quest to rediscover chardonnay’s clean, bright, fruity nature. At the forefront of this movement is the Oregon Chardonnay Symposium. Founded in 2012 by Erica Landon of Walter Scott Wines, the organization works to make chardonnay the state’s “other” Burgundian grape besides pinot noir.

The group, which held its fourth annual conference in March, has a long way to go. Chardonnay comprises merely 5 percent of Oregon’s wine production and winemakers have in the past struggled to understand how to best cultivate it. Based on a recent sampling, I believe some of them have figured it out.

Chardonnay was planted by early winemaking pioneers such as David Adelsheim and Eyrie Vineyards’ David Lett. Adelsheim, who had worked several harvests in Burgundy, noticed that chardonnays were ripening about three to four weeks later than those in France and lacked the panache he found in white Burgundies. A little research showed him that many of the vines planted in Oregon were brought up from sunny California. These clonal selections worked great in Golden State, but not so well in Oregon’s cooler climate.

Adelsheim’s solution was to import vine cuttings from Burgundy. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. After years of quarantine and bureaucratic red tape, he was allowed to finally plant his Dijon clones in 1989. Like their pinot noir counterparts, these grapes produced chardonnay wines with a Burgundian sensibility and more in line with what Elise smelled that day at the dinner table.

“Although Oregon has had a varied history with chardonnay, there have always been world-class examples of the variety produced here,” said Landon, prior to this year’s conference titled Attack of the Clones. “(T)here has never been a more exciting time for chardonnay in our state.”

We are only now seeing the fruits of the move toward wines with distinctive fruit qualities and restrained use of oak barrels. I recently tasted through seven Oregon chardonnays and found them to be crisp, delicate and elegant. The lower alcohol levels were as refreshing their prices. While not cheap (average price around $35), they were much less expensive than white Burgundy, but every bit as good.

White Burgundy at a third of the price? Better get them while you can.

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Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at gil.kulers@winekulers.com.