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Chardonnay, the Oregon way

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After years of focusing primarily on pinot noir, winemakers in the Willamette Valley have turned their attention to chardonnay with excellent results.

New York

LAST summer in the Willamette Valley, I had the chance to ask a renowned Burgundy producer, whose Meursaults are some of the greatest wines made of chardonnay in the world, why Oregon's chardonnays had improved so dramatically over the last decade or so.

"I don't want to seem immodest," replied Dominique Lafon, the managing director of Domaine des Comtes Lafon. "But I have been coming out to Oregon for more than 10 years now."

Not immodest at all. Lafon's influence has certainly been felt among chardonnay producers throughout the Willamette. Lafon is currently the consulting winemaker at Lingua Franca, an excellent new effort in the Eola-Amity Hills led by Larry Stone, a longtime sommelier and winery executive. Before that, Lafon consulted at nearby Evening Land since its inception in 2007, and he has offered advice less formally at places like Walter Scott, also in the Eola-Amity Hills.

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While it may not be possible to quantify the effect that Lafon and other Burgundian winemakers have had on Willamette wine production, the question remains: Why have Oregon chardonnays improved so much?

One reason is that Willamette producers have taken chardonnay increasingly seriously on its own terms.

Since Oregon emerged as an important wine producer in the 1970s, pinot noir has been the dominant narrative in the Willamette Valley. All else was an afterthought.

But the region needed a white. Some tried pinot gris, but few took it very seriously. Chardonnay was grown as well, but it never made much of a positive impression. Growers planted it in land that remained after planting pinot noir, or in places that were good for pinot noir but not necessarily for chardonnay. Winemakers tried to imitate the oaky, florid style then popular in California, or they tried to make Burgundy.

With failures came soul-searching. After studying grape-growing and winemaking in Burgundy, Josh Bergström returned to his family's vineyard in the Willamette in 1999 and began to make pinot noir and chardonnay. He had several false starts, and, after what he called a terrible 2003 chardonnay, he stepped back for some reflection.

"I came back from Burgundy expecting to make Burgundy," he said. "I tried to refocus on what Oregon chardonnay can offer. You can't force it to taste like anything. What Oregon has for pinot, it has for chardonnay; what Oregon notionally has is acidity."

Doug Tunnell, of Brick House in the Ribbon Ridge district, had a similar reckoning after the 1998 vintage, and others have had their own sorts of conversion experiences.

Whether it meant seeking out different sites that were appropriate specifically for chardonnay or, as Ken Pahlow, a proprietor of Walter Scott, told me last year, focusing on acidity in determining when to pick the grapes (a nod to the influence of Lafon), Willamette chardonnay producers have come to understand what works for them.

On my trip to the Willamette last summer, I learnt firsthand how much Oregon chardonnay had progressed. To follow up on that, the wine panel tasted 20 bottles of Willamette Valley chardonnay from recent vintages, primarily 2015 but also a 2016 and a couple of 2014s.

For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Christy Frank, who, with her husband, owns Copake Wine Works in Columbia County, New York, and Jason Wagner, the wine director of Union Square Cafe.

Bergström's assessment was borne out in our tasting. Acidity in all its guises was the dominant impression of these wines, mostly for better, but occasionally for worse.

In the best versions, acidity was felt as a sense of liveliness, energy, tension or thrust. It gave the wine momentum and vibrancy, allowing it to refresh, while showing other characteristics like flavours of herbs, flowers or discernible minerality.

In some cases, as Jason pointed out, the wines seemed to have too much acidity, as if the grapes had been harvested too early. It was a sign, perhaps, that as Americans over the last decade have gravitated to leaner, less flamboyant wines with greater acidity, some producers might be trying a little too hard to give them that.

The most successful wines seemed rich enough to accommodate the natural acidity without being dominated by it, Christy said. They were also marked by the graceful integration of oak flavours. Some of the wines that did not make our top 10 were clumsily oaky.

Our top wine was the 2015 La Source from Evening Land, lively and energetic, while also rich and nimble. Evening Land had a change of ownership a few years ago, after which Lafon left to work with Lingua Franca. It is now run by Rajat Parr, a sommelier and author, and Sashi Moorman, a winemaker, who are also the team behind Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte in the Santa Rita Hills in California.

Our second pick was the 2015 Willamette Valley from Adelsheim, one of the pioneers of the modern Oregon wine industry. The chardonnay was tense, well-balanced and savoury - not a complicated wine, but a satisfying one. And, at its US retail price of US$22, it was also our best value. Rounding out the top echelon was the 2015 Ribbon Ridge Cascadia from Brick House, lively and stony, with flavours of herbs and lemon.

In fourth spot was the 2015 Cuvée Lunatique from J Christopher, a producer whose main focus is on single-vineyard pinot noirs. As the name indicates, it is an unpretentious wine, just US$17 and intended to be fresh, vibrant and uncomplicated.

We also very much liked the tightly coiled, herbal 2016 Stoller from the Dundee Hills; the floral 2014 Lemelson Reserve; and the rich, well-textured 2015 Morgen Long Yamhill Vineyards from the Yamhill-Carlton district.

It's important to point out that our tasting offered a cross-section of the bottles that were available in local retail outlets. It did not include wines that are made in minute quantities or bottles that are in high demand like Lingua Franca, Antica Terra or some other cuvées from Walter Scott that I have preferred over the Freedom Hill bottling, the No. 8 wine on our list, which was rich and lively but straightforward.

We also did not have bottles from some of Oregon's earliest and still best producers, like Eyrie and Bethel Heights.

Several, though not all, of our top 10 wines were entry-level bottles. The point is that our list does not suggest that our favorites are the best Oregon chardonnays. They were simply our favourite bottles in a representative tasting, indicating Oregon's direction with the grape.

In our estimation, this is a direction worth following. The best wines we tasted were still tightly wrapped, as if they were keeping something in reserve that would be revealed with time. I feel that same sense of anticipation with Oregon chardonnay in general. NYTIMES