Through the ’90s and early aughts, while California winemakers were buttering up Chardonnay, dressing it in flashy new oak—and unleashing the virulent ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement in the process—winemakers one state to the north were quietly pursuing an entirely different style. Early failures with the grape in Oregon were history, as clones from France displaced material from California unsuited to the Willamette Valley’s shorter, cooler growing season. And as vineyard farming evolved and sites for Chard were selected with more intricate knowledge of soils and microclimates, the region has emerged as a producer of Chardonnays that rival great white Burgundies for brightness, complexity, structure and minerality.
To be fair, in the last decade, top California producers have honed their Chardonnay making as well, in favor of vineyard expression over power. But for wine lovers still weary of lush, sweet-seeming fruit, the Willamette Valley’s iterations of this country’s favorite white should be on the radar.
The truth is, the valley shares more with Burgundy in terms of latitude and climate than it does with California, so it’s no surprise that Chardonnays there lean French. But the operative word is lean. These 10 bottles showcase the best of both worlds—Old and New—with savory Burgundian nuances offering an exciting new balance to lively West Coast fruit flavors.
00 Wines VGW 2017 Chardonnay Willamette Valley
This up-and-coming producer with the edgy Double-Zero name is making waves with wines both from Oregon and Champagne. Following ripe tropical aromas swirling with quince and spicy jasmine, the palate toggles intriguingly between juicy stone fruit (peach, apricot) and puckery lemon-lime, with a fleshy mouth-feel leading to a hint of saltiness at the end.
Antica Terra 2017 Aurata Chardonnay Dundee
Highly sought-after Antica Terra counts on the cool region’s vivid acidity to balance generous ripeness and plenty of character development in barrel. This “Aurata” opens with an exotic nose, full of kaffir lime and jasmine. The broad palate is downright textural but bright at the same time, layered with pithy stone fruit, almond notes and citrus peel.
Bergström Wines 2018 Le Pré du Col Vineyard Chardonnay Ribbon Ridge
This seriously lovely white—from one of five estate vineyards that highly regarded Pinot and Chard producer Bergström now farms—achieves Josh Bergström’s signature profile of mouth-watering, cool-weather acidity and a textural palate. White flowers open, along with a seamless blend of lemon curd, white peach and river-stone minerality. Bright, persistent fruit flavors follow (apple, stone fruit), with a hint of lime carried by beautiful tension in the mouth.
Domaine Drouhin Oregon 2018 Limitée Edition Chardonnay Dundee
With their Oregon Outpost, Burgundy’s preeminent Drouhin wine family—alongside pioneers like David Adelsheim, David Lett and Dick and Nancy Ponzi—offered material help in bringing in the “Dijon” clones, as well as bringing a French aesthetic to the valley (although winemaker Veronique Drouhin will tell you they make distinctly Oregon wines—not French—here). In this small-production (112 cases) Chardonnay from DDO, a beautiful marriage of white blossoms, apple and stone fruit opens. Intense and focused fruit flavors follow, filling the mouth with juicy pear and white peach, with a wet-stone minerality carrying through a beautifully long finish.
Domaine Serene 2017 Récolte Grand Cru Chardonnay Dundee Hills
Meaning “harvest” in French, barrel-fermented “Récolte” represents Domaine Serene’s most meticulous Chardonnay winemaking, with much handwork among the vines (the winery now has six estate vineyards to work with, some dry-farmed). Rich, honeyed aromas combine lemon brûlée and stone fruit with white blossoms and a touch of vanilla on the nose, all of which is followed by generous layers of apricot and juicy apple flavors, unfolding with creamy lemon to create an opulent profile for Oregon Chard.
Lingua Franca 2017 Sisters Chardonnay Eola–Amity Hills
The sisters honored by this small-production Chard (available through the winery) are the mother and aunt of Lingua Franca proprietor Larry Stone, MS. Lovely, delicate floral aromas lead, mingling with rich layers of creamy lemon set off by a distinctive flintiness. White peach and hints of pineapple follow on a palate that’s remarkably balanced between intensity and weight on the one hand and freshness and vibrant texture on the other.
Morgen Long 2018 Seven Springs Vineyard Chardonnay Eola–Amity Hills
After a Chardonnay-focused stint in Burgundy at Domaine de Montille in Meursault, Seth Morgen Long came home to concentrate on the variety in the Willamette Valley, this year sourcing fruit from eight different sites. This vibrant 2018 Chard opens like a bracing sea breeze carrying orchard fruit aromas and hints of toasted brioche. Bright flavors of grapefruit, pear and white nectarine are delivered with exciting tension on the palate.
Open Claim Vineyards 2017 Chardonnay Willamette Valley
Incredible brightness—perfect tension—marks this Open Claim Chard, made by one of Oregon’s notable winemakers, Tony Rynders (formerly of Domaine Serene and now proprietor of Tendril and Child’s Play Wines). A perfumed nose of lemon brûlée with hints of vanilla and spice are followed by a full palate (in spite of its brightness) of apple, white nectarine and lemon zest.
Sequitur 2018 Chardonnay Jack Ribbon Ridge
The 12-acre vineyard the Etzels planted in 2012 and 2013 is directly adjacent to part of the Beaux Frères vineyard, famously co-owned by influential critic Robert Parker, Jr. In fact, Sequitur shares ownership (Michael Etzel is the founding partner of Beaux Frères), winemaker (Michael’s son “Mikey” oversees both) and vineyard crew. This tiny-production 2018 Chardonnay (only about 50 cases were made) is intensely fresh and refreshingly savory, with oyster-shell minerality leading on the nose under delicate white blossom aromas. Intense, bright, juicy flavors follow—lemon, white nectarine, hints of spiced apple and ginger—finishing with a kick of lime zest woven through with salinity.
Walter Scott 2018 Seven Springs Vineyard Chardonnay Eola–Amity Hills
Almost 10 years ago, when Ken Pahlow—co-proprietor of Walter Scott along with his wife, Erica Landon—was making their wines at Evening Land and working alongside Dominique Lafon, he added Chardonnay to the brand’s up-and-coming Pinot Noir production. This complex 2018 version contrasts marzipan and gardenias with minerals upfront, following with pineapple, white peach and a gamut of citrus touched by a streak of savory salinity.