In recent months many in the digital and print wine media, powered by praise from such influential wine writers as Jancis Robinson and Eric Asimov, have been singing the praises of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Chardonnays. As I’ve been covering Oregon wines in depth since the mid-1980s none of this came as a surprise. The only question in my mind was “what took them so long?”
I’ll answer my own question. It took that long because the great majority of Oregon’s best wines never make it out of the state. I doubt that Jancis and Eric (and most other well-known wine scribes) have had much opportunity to taste these wines, and certainly have never watched them grow in stature year by year, vineyard by vineyard, winery by winery as I have.
Oregon’s Chardonnay renaissance began quietly with the introduction of Dijon clones to the Willamette Valley almost 30 years ago. Now after decades of site development and evolving winery practices the subtlety and intensity of Oregon’s best Chardonnays clearly differentiates them from the crowded West Coast competition.
In well-ripened, balanced vintages such as 2016 and 2018 they retain vivid acidity, brightening naturally rich stone fruit and tropical fruit flavors, while allowing winemakers to cut back significantly on the percentage of new French oak. In cooler vintages such as 2017, their inherent transparency and elegance punches up the aromatics, bringing nuances of soil and site, herb and earth along with crisp citrus fruit. Even in the fraught vintage of 2020 there were many outstanding Chardonnays made from grapes picked ahead of the fires.
In just the past few months I’ve profiled Chardonnays from a number of producers who specialize in them, including White Walnut, Hyland, Lange, Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Ponzi. This week I’ll put the spotlight on another superstar producer: Walter Scott.
Founded in 2008 by the wife and husband team of Erica Landon and Ken Pahlow, the very first Walter Scott vintages got off to a great start as they were produced at Patricia Green Cellars and Evening Land. Since 2012 they’ve found a home in leased space from the Casteel family (Bethel Heights), who also provide grapes from their Justice vineyard.
One surefire way to measure the quality of a young, small production winery is to note their vineyard sources. The current lineup of vineyard-designated Walter Scott Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, all from the 2021 vintage, reads like a who’s who list of some of the most desirable sites in the Willamette valley. Many are in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, which Ken Pahlow (and many others) believe is the epicenter for great Chardonnays.
As noted on the website, “most of the sites we work with surround our home in the Eola-Amity sub-appellation of the Willamette Valley. Our farmers share our vision for producing high quality fruit while fostering connections to the land and local communities. We value the importance of working with good stewards of the land. The caretakers we partner with are committed to dry farming without the use of herbicides, pesticides or fungicides.”
I asked Ken to share his thinking and evolving practices as far as vineyard management and the actual winemaking.
KP: “There are a number of changes which have occurred over the years (crushing vs. whole cluster pressing, starting ferments in tank prior to barreling down) but the one definite adjustment has been lower yields in every site we work with. Yes! Lower yields with Chardonnay makes the difference between ‘good’ Chardonnay and great Chardonnay. We attempt to set our yield early in the season through extra shoot thinning. This has been the case since 2018. In general we are 25-30% less crop than any of the neighbors in sites we share with other producers.”
PG: What do you perceive as the advantage from dropping so much fruit?
KP: “This early shoot thinning allows the vine to work at ripening all the fruit we intend to keep. Instead of hanging a little bigger crop and then doing green harvest at veraison, we have our crop set from the start. The vine is not wasting valuable energy ripening fruit that will then be cut off.”
PG: How did your late-picking neighbors react?
KP: “This practice was met with much skepticism, but what we have seen is lower PH’s, higher TA’s, balanced sugars, lower malic acid and most importantly more intense expression of place. There’s more density, tension and power without sacrificing elegance and freshness. And all of our contracts are by the acre to make sure our growers are taken care of.”
PG: What has changed or improved in the cellar over the years?
KP: “In the cellar we have been making subtle changes every vintage. We used to press all Chardonnay as whole clusters, but I wanted to experiment with crushing the grapes as they go into the press. This was prompted by my appreciation of the wines of Hubert Lamy, Roulot, Coche Dury, Arnaud Ente, Guffens-Heynen, etc. In 2019 we began experimenting with crushing our Chardonnay, and as of 2020 all the Chardonnay is crushed as it goes into the press. There is no ‘maceration’ as once the press is full, we start pressing. What does it achieve? We get a slightly greener juice, a little uptick in TA, more solids (lees), more phenolics and on the practical side we get more grapes in the press taking a three-press load day and making it a two-press load day. Given that Chardonnay makes up over half of our production this is a big deal.”
PG: What then?
KP: “Fermentation is now started in tank as opposed to starting in barrel. I observed this practice while working the 2017 harvest in Burgundy alongside Dominique Lafon. By starting in tank we get a more uniform fermentation and lees dispersal in the juice. Once the fermentation is really raging we run the juice to barrel. I also believe that we get a touch more reduction by starting in tank. All ferments are started ’native’ using a pied de cuve which we build up over a couple weeks leading up to harvest using all the leftover juice from our vineyard sampling while checking the grapes for ripeness.”
PG: You seem to prefer fermenting in larger barrels.
KP: “We use a lot of 500 liter and more and more 350 liter barrels. Both provide a larger juice volume to wood ratio for freshness and tension with less wood influence. The single vineyard wines and Cuvée Anne see 50-70% new oak. Given our lower PH’s, higher acidity and lower alcohol this wood integrates and becomes part of the wine accentuating and amplifying all the positives. Chassin, Damy and Francois Frères are our barrels of choice.”
“During fermentation we check temperature and specific gravity of every barrel every day. If a fermentation stops or slows down then we will stir. Therefore, bâtonnage is kept to a minimum and used only to promote completion of fermentation by kicking those lees up in suspension. Chardonnay is all about the details!”
“Once primary fermentation and malolactic are complete the wines are sulfured to 40mg/L and spend 12-13 months in barrel getting topped up every 7-10 days. Just before we pick the next vintage, we rack the single vineyard wines and Cuvée Anne to tank with all the lees to age an additional 4-5 months prior to bottling. This process allows for the wines to come together and evolve without further exposure to oxygen.”
“Just before bottling the wines get a gentle fining (if needed) and filtration for clarity. The 2021’s received zero fining and only a the gentle filtration. Our hope, in the future, is to be able to stay in tank a little longer and bottle unfiltered. But if filtration makes the wines better then we do it. Whatever is takes to make epic, site expressive Chardonnay, we are going to do that.”
PG: Not all of the 2021 Chardonnays reviewed here are currently listed on the website, so I am guessing they may be offered to club members ahead of any general distribution. Other than the Cuvée Anne case quantities are quite limited, so my advice is to sign up for club membership. I’ve also tasted the 2021 Walter Scott Pinot Noirs. Those notes will be posted on my Substack pages.
Walter Scott 2021 Koosah Vineyard Chardonnay
This tart and spicy selection is tightly focused and sharp-edged. The acids penetrate deeply and frame the clean apple fruit. I gave it an extra day – and then another day – and it not only remained fresh and compact, it was a bit more accessible. This should be decanted or cellared for another couple of years. 13%; $?? (Eola-Amity Hills) 92/100
Walter Scott 2021 Hyland Vineyard Chardonnay
Tangy, tangled citrus flavors of Meyer lemon, pineapple and blood orange suggest this is sourced from younger vines (just a guess). Fruit and acid drive this wine, and it comes to a tight focus through the mid-palate and down the finish. There are touches of mineral, parsley and lime circling the finish. 13%; $?? (McMinnville) 93/100
Walter Scott 2021 Freedom Hill Vineyard Chardonnay
Given roughly one third new oak, this opens with that nose-pleasing scent of barrel toast, then opens into a well-defined mix of citrus rind, lime and green pear, with a dusting of white pepper. The texture adds further interest as the finish brings a pleasing succession of savory fresh herbs. 365 cases; 13%; $80 (Mt. Pisgah) 93/100
Walter Scott 2021 Cuvée Anne Chardonnay
Much as I admire the single vineyard selections, the Cuvée Anne – a barrel selection from several sites including Justice, Koosah, Seven Springs, Sojeau and X Novo – speaks to the power of a good blend. The winery believes that this best represents their vision of Willamette Valley Chardonnay as expressed through the lens of the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. This is a rich, aromatic and lightly savory wine, replete with flavors of mandarin orange, white peach, honeysuckle and crisp apple. Fermented and aged in 40% new oak, then finished in stainless steel. 625 cases; 13%; $50 (Eola-Amity Hills) 94/100
Walter Scott 2021 Justice Vineyard Chardonnay
This exceptional site, one of the Bethel Heights vineyards, brings flavors with instant appeal; a soft, palate-soaking mix of apricot, orange and cantaloup melon. The acids and barrel influence are already well-integrated and those acids give it a juicy boost. As it weaves its way down the throat the flavors continue fresh and pure. Drink this delicious wine now and on through the next five years. 13%; $?? (Eola-Amity Hills) 94/100
Walter Scott 2021 X Novo Vineyard Chardonnay
In some respects this is the iconic vineyard for Walter Scott, and it anchors all that is valuable and authentic about the winery’s AVA and vineyard-focused Chardonnays. It’s supple and steely, tight and tart, focused and long. The tree fruits and citrus components provide a firm, full-bodied core. The finish brings hints of seashell and iron filings, and lingers languidly as long as you care to follow. This may have a 20-year life ahead. 13%; $?? (Eola-Amity Hills) 96/100