Old vines, hand harvesting, new barrels and extended aging. These words translate into two things in winemaking: high costs and super-premium quality. And as Oregon wine continues to make a name for itself internationally, Oregon winemakers are bringing more high-end wines to market.
Super-premium wines are not a new phenomenon. It is not uncommon to spend upwards of $200 to $300 on a bottle for wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux or the Napa Valley — and sometimes a lot more. Although for years Pinor Noir has been Oregon's showcase wine, now some local winemakers are seeking to compete in the super-premium market with another classic variety: Chardonnay.
Producers like Evening Land, Bergsrtöm, Domaine Serene and Beaux Frères are just some of the acclaimed winemakers leading the charge with small-production wines that are hitting the shelves at over $75 a bottle and being praised by consumers and critics alike.
For Josh Bergsrtöm, owner and winemaker of the Willamette Valley’s acclaimed Bergsrtöm Wines, making premium Chardonnay isn't just an afterthought to their Pinot Noir program. Instead, it's an essential part of how they want to represent themselves as a business. "Overcoming our history has been the biggest challenge," says Bergsrtöm. "Oregon Chardonnay has not always been consistently great, although there were definitely some diamonds in the rough from the early years."
According to Bergsrtöm, attention to detail in the vineyard has made all the difference. "Now that we know we are planting the right plant material on the best slopes and making wines that we believe are world class, we have to change people's minds about how Oregon Chardonnay can taste and perform. It isn't reinventing the wheel, but it feels like it sometimes."
Allan Carter, general manager for Dundee’s Domaine Serene Winery, is proud of their most recent endeavor, Récolte Grand Cru Chardonnay, which will be released on September 1st. Weighing in at $125 a bottle with a production of only 100 six bottle cases, this bar-setting Chardonnay pays homage to the great white wines of Burgundy.
"I think that there is a Chardonnay renaissance happening, particularly with American consumers, and I think that Oregon will be at the forefront of that movement," says Carter. "With Oregon's winning combination of the right soil, the right climate and the right clones, we are poised to become a major force in the way America, and the world, views Chardonnay."
At Evening Land Vineyards, their highest quality Chardonnay comes from their Seven Springs Vineyard and goes by the name Summum. For Isabelle Meunier, winemaker for Evening Land, what sets Summum apart is a combination of nature and nurture, soil and style. "The Summum is a specific portion of our Chardonnay block that is grown on the shallow Nekkia soils,” explains Meunier. "What sets it apart is mainly the style we're achieving ... we strive for purity of fruit and complexity, an elegant wine with a good acid balance and longevity."
However, Meunier acknowledges that making a great Chardonnay is just the beginning. Selling a $90 bottle of white wine from Oregon still has its challenges. "The perception and roadblocks are already up — it is our role to slowly bring awareness that not all Chardonnay is the same and that Oregon is defining its Chardonnay style [in a way] that can be absolutely wonderful," Meunier says.
2010 Bergsrtöm Wines "Sigrid" Willamette Valley: Bosque pear, apple skin, kettle corn, clove, vanilla bean and honeysuckle, with hallmark 2010 bright acids and a well-balanced palate rich with notes of tree fruit, yellow flowers and spice ($82)
2009 Domaine Serene "Recolte" Grand Cru, Dundee Hills: Yellow apple skin, lemon pith, brioche, chamomile blossoms and white tea with subtle notes of honeycomb and custard on the palate. Rich and luxurious with a lingering finish and well balanced acids ($125)
2010 Evening Land "Summum" 'Seven Springs Vineyard' Eola-Amity Hills: Lemon zest, baked apples, poached pears and a touch of white peach with vanilla shortbread, yellow lily, white tea leaves and a touch of savory spice to round out this elegantly balanced wine with just the right amount of acid and fleshy texture ($90)
Jennifer Cossey works as a freelance writer and consultant in the Willamette Valley. She is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators.