Thursday, September 15, 2005

Oregon Chardonnay: saved by a new clone?

No, this is not another attack of the clones from a Star Wars sequel! The story - an article from Decanter's Norm Roby in the September edition of the magazine - is about establishing Oregon's reputation as a producer of premium Chardonnay thanks to new plantings of Dijon clones. Difficult to ripen, Chardonnay was not doing well in Oregon, and consequently, Pinot Gris quickly became the state's preferred white varietal. But the problem was not the grape or the terroir, just the clones, as it is explained on the Chehalem Winery's website:

Chardonnay is in the midst of a makeover in Oregon. The key to putting Oregon chardonnay in the same league as great French chardonnays is clones. For years Oregon has grown clones of chardonnay selected for warmer climates, that need longer ripening and acid retention-the opposite of what cool climates need-to only moderate success.[...] Over the last two decades strong cooperation between Burgundians and Oregonians, led by Raymond Bernard and David Adelsheim, respectively, resulted in a number of clones being brought into Oregon State University's clonal importation program. From the clones evaluated and sent through disease testing, the favorites are known by their ID numbers 75, 76, 95 and 96 and have now been propagated into hundreds of acres which have been planted throughout the valley. Enough tonnage has been harvested since the mid 90s to validate our initial impressions of broad flavors, richness and earlier ripening.”

After reading the article, I felt the need to make my own opinion, so yesterday, I bought and tasted a couple of 100% dijon clone Oregon Chardonnays. I chose one from Chehalem Winery and the other one from Ponzi Vineyards.

Chehalem belongs to a group of Northern Willamette Valley wineries committed to redefining cool-climate Chardonnay using the Dijon clones in order to produce wines of natural balance, complexity and elegance, combined with vivid acidity. According to the winemaker, the Dijon clones mature earlier, with fully ripe, soft, exotic fruit flavors and a structure that should make jaded ABC palates go back..

We tried their 2004 Chardonnay called INOX™, which is 100% Dijon clones, entirely tank fermented, without malolactic fermentation or lees contact. INOX™ takes its name from the abbreviation of the French word for stainless steel, inoxidable. The wine was conveniently sealed with a screw cap. It had a pale straw color and an aromatic nose with floral notes, citrus, and tropical fruits. On the palate, it was crisp and surprisingly slightly fizzy, with some grapefruit flavors on the finish. I found the wine original and definitively defining a unique style of Oregon Chardonnay.

The other wine was the 2002 Ponzi Reserve Chardonnay Willamette Valley. The winemaker's notes specify that the fruit was whole cluster pressed and the juice moved to French oak barrels (20% new) and fermented in barrel. Malolactic fermentation was spontaneous and 100%. Lees were stirred once a week for six months. After 18 months of barrel age the wine was moved with air to tank for blending then bottled by gravity. The wine had a deeper golden color with a mild nose of sweet white peach. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with butterscotch flavors and a fat mouthfeel. I found the wine pleasant but much more classic in terms of Chardonnay style.

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