As the sun rises over a steep south-facing slope on the eastern side of the Eola-Amity Hills, workers arrive in dusty cars, minivans and SUVs. As though responding to an invisible signal, they mobilize, five-gallon buckets and shears in hand, delicately snipping and grabbing clusters of small translucent green grapes.
It’s a familiar setting across the Willamette Valley’s premiere vineyards: elevation high enough to cool off each night, slopes angled to catch each photon of the daytime sun, and row upon row of gnarled vines growing grapes that were first developed in the Burgundy region of France.
But there’s a difference. Pinot noir has long been the Willamette Valley’s signature grape, but Koosah Vineyard is on the front lines of a movement that’s put another Oregon wine on the map: chardonnay.
“Oregon chardonnay is having a moment,” says Chevonne Ball, sommelier and proprietor of Dirty Radish, a wine and hospitality consultancy based in the state. The grape — and the wine made from it — calls many places home, but in Oregon it has found its own identity. “It’s not Burgundy, it’s not Australia, it’s not South Africa, it’s not California. It’s its own unique thing.”
In 2022 the highest ranked Oregon wine on Wine Spectator’s global top 100 was a chardonnay.
It took decades of hard work for this moment to arrive.
A journey across space and time
Chardonnay and pinot noir have grown together for centuries in the Burgundy region of France. Early Oregon winemakers planted both, drawing inspiration from Oregon’s similar latitude and climate.
As winemakers learned the intricacies of Oregon’s terroir and what would do well in the market, pinot noir emerged to define the style of the region. Oregon chardonnays, by contrast, were trickier.
Californians had been growing chardonnay grapes since the 1880s, but when Oregon’s early winemakers brought them north in the 1960s, they found a colder and wetter climate. Vines that did well in California often struggled to fully ripen in Oregon.
That led many early Oregon chardonnays to be very bright and acidic, sometimes overly so, at least for the expectations of the time.
“[S]ometimes if you’ll try some early chardonnays from Oregon, they’ll probably still be alive because there was so much acid that nobody can drink them right off the bat,” says Wynne Peterson-Nedry, winemaker for a number of labels, including her family’s Ribbon Ridge winery.
Starting in the 1980s, Oregon winemakers started to explore chardonnay clones brought from regions of France that were more similar to Oregon. These “Dijon” clones had smaller berries and ripened faster. That made them easier for winemakers to work with in Oregon’s climate.
As these new clones started to rise in popularity, vineyard owners also started planting more chardonnay on better land. And more winemakers started to see an opportunity.
Many associate chardonnay with bold, buttery and oaky flavors and textures associated with California, but there’s more to it than that, says Ball, the sommelier.
“Chardonnay is kind of known as this blank canvas. So it’s really kind of something that a winemaker can take and turn into, quite frankly, just about anything,” says Ryan McKay, winemaker and co-owner of Cramoisi Vineyard in Dundee.
For Ball, an Oregon chardonnay strikes a balance of floral notes and delicate acid that pairs perfectly with many of Oregon’s signature foods: crab, cod, oysters and herbed chicken, perhaps in a cream sauce. “You want to have food and wine and going back and forth, cutting through the thing that you’re eating,” she says. “[I]t does well with all types of dishes.”
The king and queen
Through hard work and time, Oregon’s chardonnay has emerged as a new royalty among the state’s wines.
“[Y]ou automatically think of chardonnay as being the queen to the king of pinot noir,” says Peterson-Nedry. “I think people are being very pleasantly surprised by how great Oregon chardonnay can be.”
And for the workers who steward grape vines through growth, maintenance and harvest, as well as the vineyard owners and winemakers, that means that even as chardonnay dons its crown, the quest for perfection is not over.
“We’re trying to make some of the best wines in the world,” says Evan Martin, proprietor of Martin Woods Winery in McMinnville, who sources some of his grapes from Koosah.
And so back at Koosah’s Eola-Amity Hills vineyard, where the chardonnay vines grow in rows upon high elevation south-facing slopes, Martin spent weeks tasting the berries, testing their sugar levels, and waiting for the perfect fall moment, this day when stewards take to the fields for harvest. “Eighty percent of the wine is determined by the decision of when to pick and what you get on that particular day. What is in that berry on that particular day?” he says.
As the late September heat picks up, the vineyard stewards who have spent about an hour picking grapes, hauling heavy buckets up and down the steep slopes, and decanting into tractor-pulled bins, fill the last of the large bins destined for Martin’s winery. This first pick is over.
They make their way back to their vehicles and are soon on their way to the next of three picks they have scheduled for the day.
The grapes travel by flatbed truck up a steep gravel road to Martin’s home and winery in McMinnville, where he immediately presses them and stores the juice in large white plastic vats, where it starts to ferment.
Martin will eventually transfer some of the juice to barrels made of Oregon oak, where it will evolve and transform under his careful eye.
Oregon still produces about 10 times as much pinot noir as chardonnay but just as winemakers transform each season’s grapes into new libations, so they are transforming Oregon’s reputation.
More space is opening up for a huge range of varietals and styles, says Ball. “Oregon is a really big state. It’s a really big place with a lot of pockets that are still to be discovered.”