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Chardonnay Day: Oregon’s Chardonnay – a product of global influences

Pinot Noir has been Oregon’s calling card for decades, but in recent years, Chardonnay is proving to be an ideal counterpart to the red grape. Armed with ongoing research regarding clones and terroir, Chardonnay is flourishing.

One of the driving factors of success for Oregon Chardonnay is winemakers’ global training and experiences. They bring techniques back to Oregon’s terroir and explain how the state fits into the mosaic of international Chardonnays. Annual events, such as the Oregon Chardonnay Celebration, have evolved from a trade-focused technical tasting to a highly anticipated consumer-facing weekend, demonstrating the surging popularity of Chardonnay in the Pacific Northwest.

‘The presence of so many winemakers and owners at events like the Oregon Chardonnay Celebration demonstrates the industry’s investment in Oregon Chardonnay,’ says Meara McNally Butler, general manager of Fairsing Vineyard. ‘It shows how much this community is focused on continually learning from each other.’

‘Oregon winemakers have commonly worked in other regions to gain perspective and experience on approaching Chardonnay in our region,’ says Anne Nisbet, executive director of the Oregon Chardonnay Celebration. ‘[And often incorporate] an international perspective into their viticulture and winemaking.’

Winemaker Ian Burch of Archery Summit credits his time in Burgundy as influential on his winemaking style. At the same time, winemaker Stephanie Pao brings her experience working harvest in New Zealand to southern Oregon’s Foris Vineyards. Even regions closer to home vastly impact a winemaker’s style, such as Daniel Estrin of Cristom Vineyards, who spent his formative years in California’s Sta Rita Hills. 

The link between France and Oregon has always been solid and new projects strengthen the bond. Houses such as Maison Louis Jadot (Résonance), Méo-Camuzet (Nicolas-Jay), and The Bollinger Family (Ponzi Vineyards) have invested in the Oregon wine industry in recent years. In a reversal move, Americans are forging a footprint in French vineyards. Domaine Serene, for example, holds the distinction of not only crafting wines in the Willamette Valley, but it is one of the few American wineries also to own an estate in Burgundy (Château de la Crée). With these investments comes new and evolving knowledge for Oregon.

‘Fatness comes from clay, and linear comes from the limestone in Burgundy,’ says Domaine Serene winemaker Michael Fay, of the effect of soil on a wine’s structure and texture. However, the orientation of the vineyards, rather than the soils, dictates character in Oregon, according to Fay. For example, west-facing sites produce leaner and focused Chardonnays, while wines from south-facing plots are usually round. 

‘We believe that Oregon is, without doubt, the best place in the US to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In a style we respect and are internationally known for, but with a purity unique to Oregon,’ says Olive Hamilton Russell, proprietor of Hamilton Russell Vineyards in Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa. The estate recently embarked on a new project in the Willamette Valley, seeing similarities between the two regions. ‘We are thrilled to be part of this rapidly growing wave,’ she says.

‘From New Zealand to Burgundy, Oregon winemakers have found inspiration and experience with Chardonnay as they blaze their own trail toward a representation of the grape that is uniquely ‘Oregon,’ says Nisbet.

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