The Brilliant Chardonnays of Oregon

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Oregon is bursting at the seams with delicious, sometimes brilliant Chardonnays. I’ve tasted hundreds that warrant very high scores. But if you want a master class in how great this undervalued wine region can be, look to the current releases from these two wineries – Domaine Divio and Walter Scott. I have followed both of them through many vintages, and the consistency, stylistic focus and utter complexity of the Chardonnays they produce is truly world class.

Now ‘world class’ is a term I don’t toss out very often, and it’s fair to ask what exactly I mean by that. When it comes to Chardonnay it’s pretty clear that great Burgundy is the measure by which any world class wine should be tested. But does that mean that an Oregon Chardonnay should taste exactly like a great Burgundy? Not really.

The finest Oregon Chardonnays should emulate, not duplicate, a Burgundian standard of greatness. They should express specificity of place, and the recommended AVA and single vineyard selections all succeed on that score. They should be complete and balanced wines, that beguile with their aromas, fulfill all expectations with their concentration and detail, and linger longingly on the palate like the kiss of a lover.

They should not be dependent upon expensive new barrels to fill in where the grape itself simply didn’t ripen properly. They should, however, avoid being jammy or so ripe that nuance and detail is lost. The wines featured here all hit those marks beautifully. But there is one more criterion that pushes them over the top. Ageability.

How can a young wine be deemed ageworthy aside from pure guesswork? That’s a great question. Among the small number of wine writers whose scores and reviews get trumpeted by the trade I have yet to see anyone tackle this topic, because when you are tasting hundreds of wines weekly in order to ‘keep up’ with the competition, there really isn’t anything you can do other than make predictions that you know will never be tested.

This gets to the heart of my decision to leave Wine Enthusiast magazine after 25 years of such wham-bam reviewing, in order to spend much more time on far fewer wines. What’s the benefit? It gives young wines a fair chance to show their best, especially the type of lighter, nuanced wines that get blown away by heavy, oaky wines at wine judgings. Believe me when I tell you that wine judgings are the worst way to evaluate young wines. Judges are faced with flight after flight of 10 or 12 wines, given maybe a minute or two to taste each one, then munch on a cracker and move on to the next flight. No chance whatsoever to really see how any one wine will evolve in the glass, let alone in the bottle or the cellar.

When I am doing my tasting these days I spend as much time with every wine as that wine demands. In other words, if the wine continues to evolve after an hour or two, I set it aside and return to it the next day. If it has held up well on day two, that’s a positive indication that it has aging potential. If not, that means drink it soon. If it has actually improved, then I set it aside again and try it on the third day. Rarely is a wine still at its best on that third day, because I am not doing anything to ‘preserve’ it. It’s just been resting on my kitchen counter in a half empty bottle. But when that wine is not only drinkable but truly delicious on the third day, that’s world class. And more than a few of these Domaine Divio and Walter Scott Chardonnays reach that lofty standard.

Walter Scott

I reached out to winemaker Ken Pahlow and Founding Partner/GM Erica Landon for their thoughts on the preponderance of Chardonnay selections from vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. Is that the epicenter for great Oregon Chardonnay I wondered. Here’s their reply:

“The Willamette Valley can produce a wide range of styles when it comes to Chardonnay, and each AVA leans into different characteristics. The Eola-Amity Hills produce grapes with tension, precision, and minerality. For what we are striving for with Willamette Valley Chardonnay, The Eola-Amity Hills is certainly our epicenter of high quality. That being said, some of our best Chardonnay is grown at Freedom Hill Vineyard in the Mt. Pisgah of Polk County AVA, which has very different soils and climate to the Eola-Amity Hills. Specific sites and a growers attention to detail in the vineyard during the growing season are factors that are just as important as the broader AVA.”

In an interview last year Ken dove into more details about the actual winemaking. Here is an updated version of the original. It’s a deep dive into a lot of minutiae, but this is why these Chardonnays are so splendid.

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, etc), but the one definite adjustment has been lower yields in every site we work with. Yes! LOWER yields with chardonnay make 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 we previously would have hung.

“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 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 during this green harvest at veraison. 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. All of our contracts are by the acre so as to make sure our growers are taken care of, and we get what we want.

“In the cellar we have been making subtle changes every vintage. Whole cluster pressing vs. crushing. We used to press all Chardonnay as whole clusters, but I had wanted to experiment with crushing the grapes as they go into the press. This was prompted by my appreciation of the wines of domaines like Hubert Lamy, Roulot, Coche Dury, Arnaud Ente, Guffens-Heynen, etc. 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. 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 60% of our production this is a big deal.

“Fermentation is now started in tank as opposed to starting in barrel. I observed this practice while working 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. Finally, I also believe that we get a touch more reduction by starting in tank. All ferments are started ’native’ using a pied de cuve [like a sourdough starter for wine] which we build up over a couple weeks leading up to harvest using all the leftover juice from our vineyard sampling checking the ripeness of the grapes.

“Our barrel program has been evolving since 2011 when we made our first Chardonnay. We really hit our stride, however, in 2018. We use a lot of 500L, but increasingly more and more 350L barrels. Both provide larger juice volume to wood ratio providing freshness & tension with less wood influence. The single vineyard wines and Cuvée Anne see between 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 barrel 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 prior to bottling, if necessary, the wines getting a gentle fining and filtration for clarity alone. Whatever is takes to make epic, site expressive Chardonnay, we are going to do that!”

Current Releases

Walter Scott 2022 Sojeau Vineyard Chardonnay – This Chardonnay, from eight-year-old vines, is one of a number of single vineyard Eola-Amity Hills sites that is spotlighted in the Walter Scott portfolio. There is something special about Chardonnay from this AVA, and when shown across multiple sites and vintages, as it is here, the complexity of the AVA and the brilliant touch of the winemaker shine through clearly. This has an interesting saline note, along with lemony citrus and wet stone. These are young wines still in the tween stage of growth, with a very fine future ahead. 150 cases; 13%; $80 (Eola-Amity Hills) 92/100

Walter Scott 2022 Koosah Vineyard Chardonnay – This is noted as a steep, high elevation site, with vines up to 1080 feet. These Chardonnay vines were planted in 2016, and retain the crisp freshness of youth. This is an acid-lover’s wine – tart and almost mouth puckering, the way a great lemon drink might be. Fermented and aged in 350L and 500L barrels, two thirds new, this frames the juicy fruit with toasted hazelnuts and a touch of graham cracker. If past is prologue this wine should be decanted for several hours before drinking. 225 cases; 13%; $80 (Eola-Amity Hills) 92/100

Walter Scott 2022 Cuvée Anne Chardonnay – This edition of the generous and more widely available Cuvée Anne includes grapes from the Justice, Koosah, Witness Tree and Sojeau vineyards. It’s full-bodied and open, dotted with smoked paprika and pepper highlights, and full across the palate. The winery’s typical preference for juicy acidity is in play, though here it is less tart and tangy than in some of the single vineyard selections. Spicy highlights around Asian pear and white peach fruit carry the core flavors on through a clean, fresh finish. 750 cases; 13%; $50 (Eola-Amity Hills) 93/100

Walter Scott 2022 Hyland Vineyard Chardonnay – Sourced from 1979 plantings at this storied vineyard, this brings out the subtle elegance of own-rooted old vines. Delicate notes of leaf and herb, citrus zest and flower, flow gracefully around the core citrus and apple fruit. With ample breathing, this fills out the texture and depth. Fermented in one third new barrels, it does not show a lot of oak influence, but rather lets the natural minerality and herbaceousness of the site shine through. 120 cases; 13%; $80 (McMinnville) 94/100

(NOTE:  These next three wines were all still drinking exceptionally well on the third day)

Walter Scott 2022 Freedom Hill Vineyard Chardonnay – Surely one of the finest Freedom Hill Chardonnays I’ve ever had, this poised and perfectly balanced wine offers a seamless palate implosion of tart citrus, apple, peach and melon fruits, with accents of chalk and sandalwood and defining crisp acids. It’s a splendid wine, ready for long term aging, and the bet from here is that it will peak sometime in the mid-2030s. But that is not to say you shouldn’t jump on it now – just give it a good decanting and let it open up fully. 425 cases; 13%; $80 (Mt. Pisgah) 95/100

Walter Scott 2022 Justice Vineyard Chardonnay – This is sharp and peppery, tightly focused and a bit shuttered when first opened. Lime and apple fruit pokes through, and the fermentation in one third new oak has more in common – in terms of flavors – with stainless steel. Once in the mouth a lovely floral note emerges in the back of the palate, like tasting a rose petal, along with fresh, clean lemongrass and citrus fruit. This is a truly fascinating wine, quite unique in this splendid Chardonnay portfolio, and a wine to bear down on and pay attention to all the way through a long, lingering finish. This should age well for decades. 150 cases; 13%; $80 (Eola-Amity Hills) 96/100

Walter Scott 2022 X Novo Vineyard Chardonnay – In some respects this may be the iconic vineyard for Walter Scott, as it anchors all that is valuable and authentic about these AVA and vineyard-focused Chardonnays. Young, steely, tight, tart, vertical, focused and detailed, this is a wine to cellar, yet compelling and quite drinkable in its youth. Though given 80% new oak it isn’t at all oaky, and the layer upon layer of herbal, mineral, citrus and light caramel components unpack slowly with aeration. The wine seems to gain mass and power as it breathes open, suggesting a long life ahead and a promising evolution over the next 15 – 20 years. 425 cases; 13%; $100 (Eola-Amity Hills) 97/100

The Walter Scott Pinots are also well worth your time and support. I’ll publish those reviews in the near future.

Domaine Divio

I reviewed Bruno Corneaux’s Pinots in a previous post. Here are his thoughts on the differences between Burgundy and Oregon winemaking (from an earlier interview), along with my notes on his current and upcoming Chardonnay releases.

PG:  How has your Oregon experience affected your views about specific styles of wine, in particular Oregon Pinots and Chardonnays compared with Burgundy?

BC: “The Willamette Valley is rich with diversity in term of soil types. The slow but complete growing season is rarely limits the potential sugar accumulation in the grapes. That leaves a lot of latitude for experimenting with different approaches to maturity, grape sources, tannin content, etc. By comparison, in Europe or more specifically in Burgundy, everything is very regimented.”

PG:  What has been your biggest challenge or steepest learning curve in order to make wine in Oregon? How have you addressed it?

BC: “On the winemaking side, it was accepting to push the maturity a little bit further than I was used to (or that the vintage would have allowed me to reach in Burgundy) in order to have refined flavors and balanced wines. On the practical side, understanding and converting all my metric knowledge to the American units:  pounds., gallons, inches, Fahrenheit, brix…it took me some time to get used to!”

PG:  What advice would you offer to a young French winemaker currently looking to move to Oregon?

BC: “Come with an open mind, be eager to learn and to share.”

PG:  What person or persons have been your mentors, either in France or Oregon or both?

BC: “In both France and Oregon, Veronique Drouhin was the person who made me discover this beautiful Valley and Laurent Montalieu gave me a chance to be part of this amazing community. In France, I learned a lot from Jean Marie Guffens on how to make great Chardonnay wines while I was working with him at his Verget winery close to Macon.

My most influential winemakers though were my grand-father, Leon who gave me the passion of winemaking and my father, Pierre who taught me all of the essentials about grape growing and farming on our Estate in Meloisey, close to Beaune.”

On to the wines. These are all current releases unless otherwise indicated.

Domaine Divio 2020 Brut Blanc de Noir Crémant – Sourced from Hyland vineyard old vine (1972) Coury clone Pinot Noir, this méthode champenoise bubbly is a mouth-watering shade of deep straw, with delicate evanescence and dense flavors. It’s an intriguing mix of spices, herbs and citrus fruits, beautifully blended and clearly defined. Hints of caraway come out in the finish, which lingers gracefully as long as you pay attention. 250 cases; 12.5%; $75 (McMinnville) 94/100

Domaine Divio 2023 Willamette Valley Pinot Beurot (Pinot Gris) – This young wine, when first opened, has slightly yeasty, beerish flavors and mouthfeel. Give it a generous decanting! This is a single vineyard, no malolactic, barrel-fermented wine. The neutral barrels softened the mouthfeel, which is nicely balanced among flavors of white radish, cucumber, lemon zest and white melon, warming up with hints of banana and even papaya with a squeeze of lime. There’s no rush on drinking this wine – give it a chill for the near term, or cellar it another two or three years. 400 cases; 13.1%; $32 (Willamette Valley) 93/100

Domaine Divio 2022 Chardonnay – Though sourced entirely from the Janice Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, this is labeled simply as a Willamette Valley Chardonnay. It’s lusciously good, given 45% new oak for 11 months, lending a toasty note of butterscotch to the ripe apple fruit. Poised and moderate in scale, this is a lovely summer sipping wine, or a fine companion to a grilled (not too spicy) chicken. 600 cases; 13.4%; $60 (Willamette Valley) 92/100

Domaine Divio 2022 Gregory Ranch Vineyard Chardonnay – Firm, even tight, with light flavors of fresh herbs scattered throughout. The texture of all these 2022 Chardonnays is outstanding, lending a sense of minerality to the mouthfeel. And here a touch of spice creeps up on you, lightly peppery, smooth and persistent. 200 cases; 13.3%; $70 (Yamhill-Carlton) 92-93/100 (due for release in October 2024)

Domaine Divio 2022 Pearlstad Vineyard Chardonnay – This vineyard selection, from fifth year vines, sees one quarter new oak over 14 months in barrel. The toasty oak is a nice match to the fresh young fruit flavors of peach and cantaloupe, and the acids back up the flavors and keep the freshness front and center. This feels balanced but still sorting itself out. Tasted again on the second day it was a much more expressive and complete wine, with generous fruit, and a touch of marshmallow and banana cream pie. Potentially set for late summer release. 140 cases; 13.3%; $70 (Eola-Amity Hills) 94/100

Domaine Divio 2022 Clos Gallia Estate Chardonnay – A multi-clone selection from the estate vineyard, this is a fresh, zesty, textural take on Chardonnay. The 40% new oak flavors sort of sneak up on you, unfolding then enveloping the palate in a gentle wash of caramel cream. As with many of the current Oregon Chardonnays this puts the lie to the notion that it’s a neutral or even dull grape. In the right hands, grown in the right places, it’s as good and complex and complete as far more expensive versions from California or Burgundy. The finish simply resonates, like the overtones on a fine guitar. 180 cases; 13.5%; $65 (Ribbon Ridge) 95/100

Domaine Divio 2023 Pinot Noir Rosé – At first light and lightly floral, this elegant rosé evolves into a wine of surprising depth and detail. Hyacinth, raspberries and a dusting of coffee grounds add up to a lingering palate with lovely highlights. This hits the bullseye with low alcohol and high flavor interest beyond the usual rosé fruit. 12.8%; $32 (Willamette Valley) 93/100

Events & Tastings Coming Up

Women in Wine Oregon

Plans for the sixth annual conference have been announced, and tickets for the July 16th event are on sale now

Founded in 2019, Women in Wine Oregon amplifies female voices and promotes female leadership in the wine and beverage industry. This year’s theme is ‘RISE’ and will offer insights from leading female wine professionals, business leaders, journalists, entrepreneurs, and industry trailblazers. Guided by the principles of Regeneration, Investing, Supporting, and Empowering, the conference aims to inspire and empower participants on their personal and professional journeys. Among the speakers are wine writers from leading wine publications including Jancis Robinson and Decanter.

Summertime ¡Salud! E-Auction

The preview lots for the three-day E-Auction (July 16 – 18) have been posted on the link above. Wineries create one-of-a-kind ¡Salud! Cuvée Pinot Noirs from their very best barrels. Only five cases of each wine is released. ¡Salud! is a benefit for the Hillsboro Medical Center Foundation.

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt has been covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times and authored two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’ (UC Berkeley Press). He served as the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine from 1998 until 2022. Early on he was an original staff member of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM-FM. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg (pop. 1204), a farm community about 20 miles NE of Walla Walla. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5 (davepaul5.com) Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine, paulgregutt.substack.com, and in the Waitsburg Times.

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