It's time to listen to the word of Willamette Valley's Chardonnays
You know how you can listen to someone for years, then realize that you haven't heard what they've been saying?
Ever since I was a young Portland sommelier in the 1980s, I've listened to Oregon winegrowers say, "I make wine in Willamette Valley because I fell in love with the wines of Burgundy."
What I heard was "Pinot Noir."
It's an understandable misunderstanding. Pinot Noir, the persnickety red grape of France's Burgundy region, works well in Willamette's climate and community.
Since 1965, when The Eyrie Vineyards planted 20 acres, today Willamette is home to nearly 1,400 wineries and vineyards and 23,524 planted acres, producing wines of quality, value and sophistication. In 2016, Willamette's economic impact in winery/grower revenue, tourism and other markers totaled more than $3 billion. Pinot Noir equals nearly 60% of production.
But Burgundy has two grapes: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
With Pinot Noir established as their signature grape, Willamette growers have turned attention to Burgundy's white grape, creating vivacious, complex and eminently drinkable wines -- that are, in the opinion of Winemaker Marcus Goodfellow -- some of Willamette's hidden gems.
I heard the message loud and clear, especially when accompanied by a recent tasting with several Willamette producers at Chicago's new Pacific Standard Time restaurant.
But what triggered this new wave of Willamette Chardonnay?
Maybe it's clonal selection? Willamette's pioneer winegrowers planted clones established in California, suited to the Golden State's heat. In 1976, Adelsheim Vineyards introduced France's Dijon clone, which reaches complete flavor development in the cool climates of Burgundy and Willamette Valley.
Is it the French connection? Burgundian estates Joseph Drouhin and Louis Jadot have established Willamette vineyards. Burgundian Dominique Lafon consults to Willamette's Lingua Franca, and Burgundian Florent Melier is the winemaker at Willamette's Van Duzer. Naturally, Burgundians would apply centuries of expertise with Chardonnay -- Burgundy's top-planted grape -- to their new home. Or maybe they just wanted a delicious white to pair with Columbia River salmon?
Or is it an economic imperative? Chardonnay is the world's top-selling grape. In the U.S., Chardonnay outsells Pinot Noir by three times in both dollars and volume.
Whatever the inducement, white wine lovers -- even members of the ABC Club (Anything but Chardonnay) -- should explore the new flavors of Chardonnay now growing in Willamette Valley. Some of my favorites include:
Goodfellow Family Cellars, "Whistling Ridge, Richard's Cuvee," 2017: Creamy richness balanced by bright, high-toned acidity with flavors of ripe apples and pears, with delicate toast accents. An exciting complement to Potato Soup with leeks and smoked cod served at Pacific Standard Time. ($39)
Lingua Franca, "Bunker Hill," 2017: Depth of flavor and complexity that most reminds this palate of fine white Burgundy's balance of texture, tension, ripeness and minerality. Co-founder Larry Stone serves his with thick-cut Atlantic cod with beurre blanc, garlic and ginger. ($50)
Rex Hill, "Seven Soils," 2017: Luscious, with layers of ripe apple, brown spice, minerals and firm, acidy finish. ($35)
Van Duzer Vineyards, Chardonnay, "Bieze Vineyard," 2016: Long, luscious and complex, with ripe apple and stone fruit flavors with delicate almond, brown spice accents and refreshing acidity. A rich complement to Pacific Standard Time's Roasted Heritage Chicken with black beans and Carolina golden rice. Winemaker Florent Merlier enjoys his with scallops and shrimp en croute. (While the winery and local distributor are out of the 2016, you may find it at fine wine shops, including Evanston's Vinic Wine Co., for about $30.)
The property shares its name and location with Willamette's newest American Viticultural Area (AVA), Van Duzer Corridor. Located at a low spot in the Coastal Range, the Corridor funnels cool ocean breeze and nightly fog into the valley. Vineyards within the Corridor especially benefit from low yields, slow ripening, concentrated flavors and high acidity. Watch for the AVA to appear on labels in coming vintages.
It's the perfect season to enjoy Chardonnay, to complement the buttery richness of recipes such as Pumpkin Ravioli, Moroccan Acorn Squash, Bacon and Cheddar Potato Skins and Chicken with Mushrooms, as well as dishes prepared with apples, such as pork with apple sauce.
• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at email@example.com.