Pine Wine: Oregon's wonderfully food-friendly chardonnays
May 12, 2015 5:39 pm • JOHN VANKAT
Chardonnay is the most popular wine in America, accounting for twenty percent of wine consumption. That's half again more than the second-most popular wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, and over twice the next white wine, Pinot Gris/Grigio. Most of the Chardonnay comes from California, where it is the most widely planted wine grape.
California winemakers produce different styles of Chardonnay, but much of it emphasizes ripe fruit, downplays acidity and has strong aromas and flavors of oak from the barrels used in winemaking. Despite their popularity, such Chardonnays often have the downside of overwhelming food pairings. In addition, they can conflict with charcoal-grilled foods, as the combined wood flavors from the wine and charcoal can be overbearing.
Most winemakers in Oregon take a different approach to Chardonnay. That's partly because Oregon's climate is cooler, which means wine grapes don't ripen as rapidly or have as much sugar at harvest time. Oregon winemakers embrace this and produce a leaner style of Chardonnay with less ripeness and more expressive acidity. In addition, Oregon winemakers use low percentages of new oak barrels, resulting in less oaky aromas and flavors.
Therefore, Oregon Chardonnay typically has pleasing but not overdone ripeness, well-balanced fruit and acidity and enhancing but not overwhelming oak. This makes them excellent, flexible food wines, pairing wonderfully well with a wide variety of dishes.
On the downside, Oregon Chardonnay has limited availability, as its vineyard acreage is only one percent that of California Chardonnay. Still, Oregon Chardonnay can be purchased through Arizona wine stores and directly from many wineries.
Here are the top choices of Oregon Chardonnay I've tasted recently:
Lange 2013 Chardonnay "Willamette Valley" ($18): This is a best buy among Oregon Chardonnays under $20. Very classy for the price, it features rich fruit, excellent balance, fine integration and a long, full finish. Available only from www.langewinery.com.
Bethel Heights 2012 Chardonnay "Eola-Amity Hills" ($28): My top choice in the $20 to 29 range is very refined. There's focused fruit with just a hint of oak from fermentation in neutral oak barrels. This purity of fruit is further honed by crystal-clear crispness, and the enjoyment is prolonged throughout a lengthy, powerful finish.
Rex Hill 2012 Chardonnay "Seven Soils, Willamette Valley" ($33): Tops in the low $30s, the winery suggests this fine wine is likely to increase in complexity for the next 5-10 years, another benefit of this style of Chardonnay. For the less patient among us, the wine currently features a smooth attack with well-integrated, modest oak. Fruit builds, framed by attractive acidity, and concludes in a finish that is long and strong.
Domaine Drouhin Oregon 2013 Chardonnay "Arthur, Dundee Hills" ($35): The French-owned winery says, "French Soul – Oregon Soil." I say "yes!" as I loved the color depth and strong, complex nose of this wine, which is top-ranked in mid and upper $30s. Entrancing texture, fruit and complexity persist on the palate and provide the best value for the dollar of all the wines in this tasting.
Lange 2013 Chardonnay "Three Hills Cuvée, Willamette Valley" ($40): Don't be deterred by the light color and light nose, as the palate features exceptionally enjoyable, defining acidity that balances refined fruit flavors and is accompanied by soft, enhancing oak. The highly harmonious, lengthy finish concludes a beautiful wine that tops all others in the $40s. Available only from www.langewinery.com.
Soléna 2012 Chardonnay "Domaine Danielle Laurent, Willamette Valley" ($50): This fine wine is wonderfully well-balanced with enjoyably bright freshness paired with attractive fruit. Medium-soft oak aids structure and complexity without distracting from the core qualities of the wine. Smooth texture adds to its personality, and the finish is forward and persistent. Available only from www.solenaestate.com.
Domaine Serene 2012 Chardonnay "Evenstad Reserve, Dundee Hills" ($55): Begin enjoying this exceptional wine by gazing into its deep yellow color and sniffing its complex nose. Then taste its core of bold, but not overbearing fruit and note how it is beautifully balanced with impressive acidity. The balance and engaging complexity persist throughout an exceptionally long finish.
Evening Land 2012 Chardonnay "Seven Spring Vineyard, La Source, Eola-Amity Hills" ($65): The powerful yet highly refined wine is my favorite of the tasting. The nose entrances with expressive complexity. Excellent balance produces a point of focus and refinement, and smooth texture creates a luxurious mouthfeel that carries into a gorgeously refined, long finish. Available only from www.eveninglandvineyards.com, but don't wait, because only 350 cases were produced.