Once upon a time, the definitive white wine of the Willamette Valley was Chardonnay. Pioneering wineries pinned their hopes on Chardonnay reaching the heights it had in Burgundy and, just recently, California. Chardonnay itself is an incredibly versatile grape with a great deal of its characteristics coming from terroir and winemaking style (or, if you happen to be a “Chardonnay-sayer,” that versatility can be seen as blandness in that the grape has few defining characteristics of its own). If Oregon Pinot Noirs could match up with their Burgundian counterparts, why wouldn’t Chardonnay as well?
The original clone of Chardonnay grown in the Willamette Valley, known as Clone 108, was obtained through the nursery of UC Davis. This particular clone of Chardonnay has a reputation for thriving in warmer climates and ripening later than other clones of Chardonnay… ideal for parts of California but not something the Willamette Valley can provide on a consistent basis. As a result, Oregon Chardonnay developed a reputation as a thin, under-ripe wine in all but the warmest of years, especially when compared to the richer style of California. When the opportunity arose, a majority of vineyards uprooted their Chardonnay and replanted to Pinot Gris, a white wine grape that had proven itself in the climate of the Willamette Valley and a grape that vintners now believed could ultimately find its niche in Oregon.
Chardonnay is undergoing a renaissance in the Willamette Valley thanks to the introduction of Dijon clones in the early 1990s. It’s now the third most planted grape behind (very far behind) Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. New plantings of Chardonnay are of various Dijon clones, sourced from the nursery at the University of Burgundy in Dijon, France; these particular clonal selections thrive in cooler, wetter areas.
The last vintage of Chardonnay that Montinore produced was in 1999, after which the vines were ripped out. As I mentioned in a prior post, 1999 was a cooler vintage, and with Montinore only having Clone 108 planted in its vineyards, a warmer vintage would be more ideal to sample. Let’s head back a few years from that date to our wine today, the 1994 Winemaker’s Reserve Chardonnay.
The wine pours a deep golden color and has an amazing nose, bursting with vanilla, lanolin, mushroom, and hazelnut. On the palate there’s a great balance of acidity and a slight oakiness with flavors of lemon curd, red apple, banana bread, and white truffle. The finish is all toasted marshmallow.
If you’ve had our Chardonnay before or this description made your mouth water, good news! Chardonnay will soon reappear at Montinore, as we sourced some fruit from Johan Vineyard last year and we’re currently in the final stages of barrel ageing and blending the wine. Like the 1994, initial impressions of the 2013 tell us that it definitely has the potential to age for a long time.
As a postscript, if you really want to geek out on Oregon Chardonnay, I recommend that you check out the Oregon Chardonnay Alliance website.