Pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley is understandably famous, and everyone wants to talk about it, myself included! And with this being Oregon Wine Month, I have! See my May posts on two biodynamic ones from Cooper Mountain, two from Willamette Valley Vineyards, one from Day Wines, and coming up soon, three from biodynamic Montinore, then sustainable Left Coast, then more including Beckham, Brooks, and Hammacker!
But today, Chardonnay Day, I want to talk about what’s special about one of Oregon’s white wines, specifically, Willamette Valley dry farmed Chardonnay, and a few pairings to go with them for summertime sipping.
To my palate, Oregon dry farmed Chardonnay, especially the wines from grapes grown by the Deep Roots Coalition, has a vitality to it that’s exceptional: it has a racy acidity, a tantalizing mouthfeel, plenty of complexity and it is crazy good with food. You can find it oaked or unoaked, it ages well, and you can find it growing in Portland’s backyard or Eugene’s and still be in the Willamette Valley AVA. Read more about dry farming in Oregon and the dry roots coalition in “Talking Dirty: Oregon’s Dry Farmed Chardonnay.
While these wines certainly work all year, with their bright acidity, they can go from poolside and picnics to summer dinners on the patio, pairing particularly well with seafood, salads, and other summertime fare.
Recently, I gathered a group of friends to compare notes on pairs of wines from three Willamette Valley wineries, and now, just in time for Chardonnay Day today, we unveil our thoughts and pairings.
After saying our hellos, we prepared food while warming up our palates with a not-to-be-named typical Napa Chardonnay SRP $35. We were at Drummer Diane’s and Diane, her daughter Ziah, and Sue kept it going smoothly and organized in the small kitchen while I tasted through the wines to make sure they were okay, figured out the tasting order, took photos, and set up this blog post so Sue could take notes as the eight of us tossed out our tasting notes.
Once we about had everything ready, I called everyone to order. Actually, I more than called; I admit, I bellowed to get everyone’s attention to the matter at hand — and in our glasses.
Everyone was very excited to learn more about Oregon wine, and full of questions about Oregon Chardonnay.
By way of introduction, I explained that all six of the wines we’d be tasting come from Oregon’s Willamette Valley which basically runs from Portland to Eugene and from the eastern edge pf the coast range to the 5. On the other side of the 5, the Cascades rise up in a range of stately volcanoes. In the north is the highest point within the Willamette Valley, Chehalem Mountains’ Bald Peak (1,633 feet).
The cool coastal air and fog seeps through gaps in the coast range, providing for a sharp diurnal shift so that days are hot enough to ripen the grapes and nights are cold enough for acidity and complexity. One of the most important of these gaps is the Van Duzer corridor which was recently named its own AVA in December 2018; about 2pm every day, it channels cool air to the Eola-Amity Hills AVA near Salem. Two important wineries in the new AVA are Left Coast and biodynamic Johan; highlighted links go to posts about their sparkling wines.
The four of the wines we tasted are from north of McMinnville which sits more or less in the middle of the AVA and two are from the southern part of the valley closer to Salem.
Soils in the Willamette Valley reflect both the maritime and the volcanic influences as well as the drift of glacial loess that gathers in special areas. Learn more about the Willamette Valley AVAs here.
- Chehalem Mountains AVA – basaltic and marine sedimentary on the southern and western slopes; windblown on the northeastern slope
- Dundee Hills AVA – mostly basaltic but marine sedimentary at the lower elevations on the western and northern slopes
- Eola-Amity Hills AVA – mostly basaltic but marine sedimentary at the lower elevations on the western and northern slope
As much as I love to geek out on soils, what set us on our journey into Oregon Chardonnay is a specific viticultural practice — and for once, it’s not biodynamics although biodynamic wineries do this too.
And what is this? DRY FARM! Of course, the group gathered pointed out, it’s easy to dry farm in Oregon — it rains like crazy there. But as I wrote last year, and as I explained to our group, it is actually unnecessary to irrigate grapes, even in the more arid areas of the western United States. For example, without irrigation,
- For over 2000 years, they’ve been cultivating wine grapes on the island of Santorini which gets about 10 inches of rain per year.without irrigation,
- For hundreds of years, they’ve been growing wine grapes in the Douro which gets only 10-15 inches.without irrigation,
- For centuries most of France, Italy, Germany, and Spain have grown wine grapes without irrigation.
- Irrigation is not required to establish vineyards and is not sustainable in the long run.
- Irrigation contributes to the destruction of terroir and higher alcohol wines.
Many people around the world argue that to respect the concept of terroir is to make wines that are totally terroir-driven — which means using ONLY local precipitation. Oregon’s Dry Roots Coalition says:
The idea of terroir is that wine should reflect the “place” from which it emanates. To that end, the concept of “place” includes soil composition and depth, degree and direction of slope, latitude, temperature regime and precipitation. The criteria of precipitation include how much, when and the manner in which it occurs. Obviously if one introduces irrigation to the equation, the all-important parameter of precipitation is eliminated and terroir no longer applies to the resulting wine.
While none of the six wines below come from members of the Dry Root Coalition (scroll down to see the list of who is), the following six wines were sent to me by the wineries as examples of Oregon Dry Farmed Chardonnay. These samples were sent for my review consideration and no other money was exchanged although I did participate last fall in a press trip where accommodations, travel, food, and tastings were hosted.
As I explained to the group and as I discussed here in this post on Chablis, Chardonnay is considered a neutral wine — one that changes significantly depending on where it is grown (soils and climate) and how the wine is made. The colder the climate like Chablis and areas of Oregon the more austere the resulting wine, a wine that can be tempered by malolactic fermentation, oak treatment, spending extended time on the lees. In out group of wines, we were able to compare and contrast two sets of wines that have an oaked and an unoaked example.
Below you’ll find details about
- Chehalem 2016 Inox SRP $20
- Chehalem 2015 Chardonnay SRP $40
- Stoller Unoaked SRP $25
- Stoller 2016 Reserve Chardonnay SRP $40
- Stangeland 2016 Chardonnay, Estate SRP $24
- Stangeland 2015 Chardonnay, Estate SRP $24
which we paired with an assortment of foods from our potluck pairing and guided tasting.
In 1980, with his chemistry background and education also in English from UNC Chapel Hill, Harry Peterson-Nedry pioneered wine growing and wine making in the Willamette Valley’s Ribbon Ridge; in 1990 he founded Chehelem.
I met this pioneer, (and his winemaking daughter Wynne who also is a chemist) last fall at a winemakers’ dinner at the Carlton Winemakers Studio on a press trip with the LA Wine Writers. We toured the facility (that’s where we found Wynne hard at work and she showed off her amphora!), and at a dinner there we tasted a vertical of his Ribbon Ridge wines — but Ribbon Ridge and the wines Wynne is making is a story for another day!
Harry mentored Bill Stoller, who planted vines on his family farm in the Dundee hills which became Stoller Family Estate. In 1993, they became co-owners of CHEHALEM Winery.
After 24 years of partnership, in February 2018, Stoller purchased Peterson-Nedry’s share of equity in the winery business.
Stoller Family Estate is one of the three estate vineyards sourced by Chehalem Winery for its wine production. After joining Chehelem in 2012 as assistant winemaker, UC Davis grad Katie Santora now leads the winemaking team. Long a leader in sustainability and the community, Chehelem is Salmon Safe, LIVE certified sustainable, and as of July 2018, a certified B corp.
I did not, however, find any mention of whether they are dry farmed; they are not a member of the Dry Roots Coalition.
We compared an oaked wine with an unoaked one.
Chehalem 2016 Inox SRP $20
Willamette Valley AVA (Dundee and Chehalem)
We loved this wine, and we kept referencing back to it — lovely fruit and mouthfeel. What a great value! While the least expensive of the wines we tasted, at the end of the evening; we all competed to get another taste of this wine. We all thought this is the ideal summer wine– and with a Stelvin screw top finish, easy to access at a party or picnic!
Color: Pale buttercup, light and bright. Diane “Super Pale”. Does not have a deep hugh. platinum rim, almost pastel
Nose: Grassy florals, granny smith apple, saline. The group got melon, citrus, grapefruit, a little bit of summer rain on straw, fresh apricot.
Palate: Bright fruit, nicely acidic, not sweet but fruit forward. Minerals with honey notes as it warms up. The palate has a rich roundness with a hint of Spanish saffron, Great mouthfeel. Bright citrus, lemon curd on the back, Honeycrisp apple. Melon, crisp apple, and fresh cut grass.
Pairing: Sue found it likes cow’s milk as opposed to goat milk, it also went really nicely with the pea hummus. Great with a bit of brie and fig. Helen liked it with the salad dressing on Diane’s salad. a simple vinagerette made with peach balsamic, the dijon in the dressing and the sweetness of the balsamic is a great match for this wine. Perfect with ceasar salad. Went great with the fig jam, but terrible with a fresh raspberry. I wanted oysters. We thought of fish and chips, but it did not go with the fried chicken –too oily for the wine to shine.
Chehalem 2015 Chardonnay SRP $40
400 cases, Stoller Vineyards, Dundee Hills AVA
The label is a wealth of information. The Stoller Vineyard offers their best fruit, and these blocks used in this wine are the best of their best with single barrels blended for complexity. Barrels are 38% new, 22% one year old.
Once we tasted this wine with food, we fell in love. Pair this wine with lobster bisque and ceasar salad for a simple yet classy summer dinner– buy the bisque ready made, grill or saute some shrimp to cut and float on top, get a kit ceasar from the store or make your own, and lay a few shrimp on top. HEAVEN!
Color: Yellow, lemony, a bit deeper than the unoaked. Crystal clear, filtered well.
Nose: Caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, peaches and cream, baclava, honey, burnt orange, mandarin orange. kumquat, kiwi. Lots going on!
Palate: Tart citrus on the front, Helen found this wine to be very bitter, and she is an oaked fruit lover. However after she started having food with the wine she changed her tune. The nose is so different than the palate, you are almost taken back and definitely surprised. Super bright acidity. Greg found a sweet varnish as it warmed up. This reminded Helen of tobacco.
Pairing: Oysters, Shrimp scampi, It can handle the brightness of the goat cheese, but loves the creamy texture of the brie. Right on with the apricot stilton. Very nice with the fried chicken. Super yummy with lobster bisque, it loves the creamy flavors; it was also very nice with the polenta and shrimp, and wonderful with the ceasar salad. Overall the lobster bisque was the winner pairing with this wine. It loved the seafood and the creaminess of the bisque.
As mentioned above, Bill Stoller grew up on the family farm in the Willamette Valley who, under the tutelage of Harry Peterson-Nedry decided to try his hand at growing grapes. Which he did with great success!
The Stoller family began their farm in 1943, and established the vineyard 50 years later. Today the 400-acre property is the largest contiguous vineyard in Oregon’s Dundee Hills, and they do it all themselves from pruning to bottling.
While they are not members of the Dry Farm Coalition and I did not see that that are practicing dry farming in the vineyard, they are committed to being sustainable and environmentally friendly: the winery was the first in the world to receive LEED Gold certification, they are certified LIVE and Salmon Safe as well as being a certified B Corp.
Stoller was also named Best Tasting Room in the Nation by USA Today “10 Best” Reader’s Choice poll in 2018 and Oregon’s Most Admired Winery by the Portland Business Journal for four consecutive years.
Like with the Chehelem, we compared an unoaked wine with an oaked one.
Stoller Unoaked SRP $25
This is an easy to enjoy wine that went well with a range of foods. Great wine to bring to a gathering when you don’t know what will be served!
Color: Very, very, pale straw, the pith of a lemon or a magnolia flower.
Nose: Very floral, honeysuckle and jasmine, lemon curd, Diane got a bit of petrol, slate, Judy got a bit of mint, Sue got sage.
Palate: Citrus, bright acidity, nicely viscous across the tongue. clean, lemony. Diane found a dustiness on the palate.
Pairing: This wine loved the salad Diane made with the peach balsamic vinagerete. Everyone loved it with the blueberries except Helen. Sue tried it and was amazed at how fun it was with the wine. It liked the olives, it likes the brine of the olives, nice with the pea hummus. This is another food friendly versatile wine. It was not as good however with the lobster bisque or the shrimp polenta.
Stoller 2016 Reserve Chardonnay SRP $40
A blend of older Dijon vines planted in 1995, this wine was whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented separately, and aged in French oak for 11-months before spending another 6-months in stainless steel.
Color: Pale straw, pale buttercup, tinge of pale green.
Nose: Caramel on a granny smith apple, vanilla, toast, lemon curd, minerals.
Palate: Sue felt that the caramel apple came across on the palate as well. For an oaked wine there is tons of bright acidity. Lemon curd on the back of the palate. Grapefruit, nice minerality. A bit of lemon pith. Nothing is too overwhelming in any direction and offers a good comparison of the difference between California and Oregon chardonnays.
Pairing: Really nice with the shrimp polenta, as well as the creamy shrimp bisque. The fishy creaminess was crazy good. We loved it with the buttery flavors of the charcoal crackers and the blueberries. Helen felt that it went with the fried chicken, not so great with the olives.
Just as Harry Peterson-Nedry is a pioneer in vines in the northern part of Willamette Valley, Stangeland is one of the pioneer winegrowers of the Eola Hills area. The Millers planted in 1978 “on a unique southern exposure in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA at a 350 foot elevation northwest of Salem. This hilltop location, rich soil, and cool climate viticultural region of Oregon combine to create an ideal growing environment.” While they started out only selling their fruit to other winemakers, the winery was established in 1991-1992 so that they could make some themselves.
In this final case, we compared the 2016 to the 2015 vintage so see the impact of aging and to suss out any differences in the two. Our primary observation was that these wines were SO MUCH BETTER with food! At $25 these are quite a good deal for this style of wine, and for such small case production.
Stangeland 2016 Chardonnay, Estate SRP $24 (estimated; not released)
Eola-Amity AVA 110 cases
Planted in 1978, the vines are self rooted “Draper selection” which means they did not graft the chardonnay onto another root stalk; linked are thoughts from another Oregon pioneer, Eyrie’s David Lett. Some argue that these wines offer a pure sense of the grape, they mature faster, and they do not need irrigation. Read more about this from Stolpman’s blog.
Color: Pale straw, yellow with a tinge of green. platinum rim.
Nose: Sue and Greg got a bit of sulphuric funk or barnyard on the nose, Greg found grass, and many of us commented on the slate, saline, and minerality.
Palate: Grass and saline comes across on the palate as well. Lots of acidity. Many in the group found a biting acidic lemon in this wine. For me, it was more lime, and specifically key lime pie. Tons of acidity. Most in the group wanted to go straight to food.
Pairing: Judy did not like it with the brie at all. It was one of the only Chardonnays of the evening that Sue enjoyed with the goat brie. The wine has many Sauv blanc characteristics that lend itself to goat rather than milk. It was pretty good with the fried chicken; it liked the richness of the chicken making us think it would do well with a roast chicken or chicken piccata, or grilled lemon rosemary chicken on the grill. Greg wanted a Asian inspired chicken. Judy liked it with the fig jam. It was not great with the lobster bisque. It was okay with the shrimp and polenta; it was all about the polenta in this dish with this wine.
Stangeland 2015 Chardonnay, Estate SRP $24
Color: Pale straw with a platinum rim.
Nose: Citrus, with a flinty, funky earthy, mushroom possibly chantrelles, saline. This wine is loaded with a mineral nose. Judy got peach and when I asked what kind of peach, I found nectarine. Judy found duff, so I asked her to be more specific, and we found vanilla snuff and butterscotch.
Palate: Sue observed how the 2015 is a mellower version of the 2016. There is bright citrus, a very nice mouth feel, lots of acidity on the back of the palate. The acidity flows rather than bites the palate. Diane found a leathery texture like buckskin. Greg found iron, and then I picked up on that also.
Pairing: Sue saw that this is another chardonnay that went fantastically with the the goat cheese. It has many of the Sauv Blanc charactericts,” Because of the iron notes in the wine, it really liked the sundried tomatoes in the pasta which the other wines didn’t really work with very well. Further, we felt that if there were a bit of salted olives and feta cheese added to the pasta it would have been even better with the wine. It went well with the lobster bisque and loved the polenta and shrimp. Super nice with the apricot stilton. Helen felt that the wine went really well with the pea hummus.
Still to come: three dry farmed Chardonnay from Oregon’s Coelho! And while they are not on the Dry Farm Coalition list below, they state clearly on their website that they do not irrigate. This post will compare three different vineyard expressions which is why we decided not to include it in this post but to focus on this topic on its own.
Curious about dry farmed Chardonnay from Oregon?
As of Chardonnay Day 2018, the Deep Roots Coalition website lists the following members which includes winemakers and vineyard growers from the Willamette Valley. Wines that I’m familiar with have an asterisk. Check them out!
- Anderson Family Vineyard
- Ayres Vineyard
- Beaux Frères
- Beckham Estate Vineyard*
- Belle Pente Vineyard*
- Brick House Vineyard*
- Brooks Winery*
- Cameron Winery
- Carlo & Julian
- Crowley Wines*
- Evening Land Vineyards
- Evesham Wood Winery
- Eyrie Vineyards*
- Goodfellow Family Cellars
- Illahe Vineyards*
- J. Christopher Wines
- J.K. Carriere Wines*
- Kelley Fox Wines
- Matello Wines*
- Mellen Meyer
- Patricia Green Cellars
- Patton Valley Vineyards
- Teutonic Wine Company
- Thomas Winery
- Walter Scott Wines
- Westrey Winery*
- Yellow Jacket Dryland Vineyard
Not every Oregon winery that claims to dry farms is on this list. And there are a number of wineries on this list that are also organic or biodynamic or transitioning. The whole industry feels to me like it is in flux as wineries face climate change and soil depletion.
If a trip to Oregon wine country is in your future, consider taking one of these wine trails. A future post will feature more about my fall trip to Oregon!
So happy Chardonnay Day and Happy Oregon Wine Month! What wine is in your glass?