Magazine article Sunset

The Great White: Chardonnay Is the Most Popular Wine in the Country. So Why Are Some Western Winemakers Changing Everything about It-And Saying Its Finally Good?

Magazine article Sunset

The Great White: Chardonnay Is the Most Popular Wine in the Country. So Why Are Some Western Winemakers Changing Everything about It-And Saying Its Finally Good?

Article excerpt

I BROKE UP WITH CHARDONNAY 15 YEARS AGO.

For some of us, the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) crowd, it became the wine we loved to hate, decked out in new oak, tongue-coating butter, and in-your-face sweetness. And with food? Diva Chard was a train wreck.

But here I am in Oregon's Willamette Valley, huddled over a small table opposite a winemaker, chess-match style, with glasses of straw-colored wine lined up between us like so many pawns. Eric Hamacher is on a quest to make toe-curling Chardon-nay a different way. He nudges one glass forward, his 2010, and issues the question any ABCer dreads: "What do you think?"

A sip spins me around, messing with all my Chardonnay reference points. There's no cloak of new oak, no slather of butter. This wine is mouth-filling and complex, like all well-made Chard, but it's also dancing with minerality and bright with acidity, zesty citrus, green apple, and stone fruit.

"I'm a refugee from California Chardonnay," says Hamacher of the big oaky, buttery style. Funny, so am I, though the crowds aren't with us. Chardonnay, much of it the outsize "California style," accounts for 21 percent of the wine we drink in this country. (Cabernet Sauvignon is a distant second, at 12 percent.) Hamacher made wine in California until he felt like he was being pushed too far to chase that style, to meet popular taste. In 1995 he moved north. "I was shocked at how bad the Chardonnay here was then," he says. "But Oregon shares a parallel, rainfall totals, and temperature patterns with Burgundy," the variety's cool home in France. "I had to believe it could be good here," he says.

Hamacher wasn't the first to believe this, of course. It was natural for the Oregon pioneers of Pinot Noir in the early '70s to have a go at the exquisite white grape that grows alongside it in Burgundy. (If you're drinking a red Burgundy, it's Pinot; if you're drinking a white, it's Chardonnay.) But the early attempts at Chardonnay were dull as dishwater, and the grapes ripened weeks after the Pinot, dicey when rain threatens early in the fall. After numerous dismal tries, most Willamette winemakers ripped out their Chard vines and planted more Pinot.

A small band of tenacious believers persisted, though. David Adelsheim, one of the first winemakers in the valley, made a beeline to France to look for clues about why they were failing. "There the Chardonnay ripened at precisely the same time as Pinot Noir," he says, "and with all the flavors in place that make it an interesting wine." The light went on. In Oregon, they had planted clones from California, developed to ripen slowly in warmer places. They were very wrong for Oregon.

But you can't just tuck some vine cuttings into your Samsonite and whisk them home to propagate. Adelsheim, working with cohorts like Rollin Soles of Argyle and Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem, spent the next dozen years developing a pipeline through Oregon State University's agricultural quarantine program. When the lamely named French clones--"76," "95," "96"--showed up in a box at OSU, someone whose name is lost to history said, "That must be the sticks from Dijon." And from that moment they have been known Stateside as Dijon clones.

Only in 1989 did the particular Dijon clones best suited to the Willamette Valley become available. Since then, an increasing number of winemakers, including those pioneers and Hamacher, have been intensely honing their techniques on them in this promising place. "We didn't set out to make white Burgundy," says Adelsheim. And I have to agree--there's more bright fruit in these wines. "But by keeping the extremes down--oak and alcohol--with our acidity, minerality, and freshness, we're able to make elegant, balanced Chardonnay."

The Oregon excitement gives me the courage to sidle up to California Chardonnay one more time, starting in chilly western Sonoma County. I'm ensconced in front of an arc of glasses on an expansive table at Paul Hobbs' Lindsay House in the Russian River Valley. …

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