My wine education began some thirty-odd years ago when I first started leading European bike trips. My “real job” as a high school teacher and coach afforded me summers off and as I was (relatively) young and single there was not any pressure to make an obscene amount of money during those three months off to provide for any other humans under my purview.
That first summer leading trips was a bit rough as there was a lot to learn: the routes, the history, the food, and of course the wine. Having been a French major in college helped enormously, of course, and studying (and playing basketball) for a year in France was invaluable.
I was not into wine then. At all.
Partly because I was underage for most of that time, but also, as a child of the midwest, beer was really the only viable option and I can’t remember seeing a single bottle of wine in my home while growing up.
Thus, I was at a distinct disadvantage when I started my “wine journey” as I knew next to nothing about wine, not the grapes, the styles, the regions, not even how it was made. I quickly got up to speed, however, starting with my favorite wine at the time (and still tops for me today): champagne.
Even though the process to make champagne is a bit involved, the varieties used are rather straightforward; there are three, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier (yes, I know there are other varieties permitted, but at this point, they are, at best, anecdotal).
After Champagne, I tackled Burgundy next since, as fate would have it, the bike trips I led followed that same progression. The transition was made easier since Burgundy’s two main varieties are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the two top grapes in Champagne.
Years later, when I started to explore wines made in the U.S., I naturally began with Pinot Noir, which had become my preferred variety in red wines. While Pinot is made all along the West Coast, I started with Russian River, where there was also a ton of Chardonnay, easily my preferred white variety.
As my pursuit for Pinot persisted, I first turned south, to the Central Coast of California (again a bunch of Chardonnay) and then north, to the Willamette Valley. Surprisingly, there was not much Chardonnay in Oregon at the time. Sure, there were a few producers, but most focused on Pinot Gris, with a few championing Riesling (quick sidebar: if you are a fan of Riesling and have not yet tried wines from Brooks in the Eola – Amity Hills AVA, you are missing out).
Today, Chardonnay in the Willamette Valley is on the rise. While the quantity is not yet on the same level as Pinot Gris in terms of acreage planted (Chardonnay is at roughly half of Pinot Gris), the quality of the Chardonnay being produced is, at least in my estimation, easily on the same level (if not already higher) as Pinot Gris.
A while ago, I was sent several bottles of moderately priced Oregon Chardonnay, which are fantastic values and great representations of the variety.
2020 A to Z Wineworks Chardonnay Oregon, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $18. Under screw cap. A to Z makes a ton of wine and most (all?) of it is solid and all of it is affordable, to the point of causing at least a few to ponder why Oregon wine “needs” to be so expensive. Case in point. While this is certainly not the best Oregon Chardonnay I have tried (not even the best today), at 18 bucks it is a bargain. Good tropical and citrus fruit with plenty of tartness and body. Like I said, there are better Chards out there but few a better bargain than this. Very Good. 88 Points.
2018 Carabella Chardonnay Estate, Chehalem Mountains, OR: Retail $32. When I received samples from this winery, I have to be honest, I was pretty sure that I was not familiar with the brand, but I will not make that mistake again (hopefully–getting older and the memory is not as rock solid as it once was–what was I talking about, again?). Yellow in the glass, maybe on the verge of golden with plenty of citrus, white flower, and just a hint of oak. This was fantastic from the first pour but improved as it warmed showing depth, finesse, and even splashes of verve. Again, this winery is new to me, but I am eager to discover more. Excellent. 91 Points.
2017 Fullerton Wines Chardonnay Five Faces, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $36. Under screw cap. Pale light straw in the glass with lovely notes of lemon curd and hibiscus. The palate is simply lovely with initial fruit, followed by a wave of tartness, then layer upon layer of depth. While this spends 17 months on the lees in barrel, only 10% of the wood is new. So while there is certainly evidence (however slight) of oak treatment, it is subtle and certainly enhances the wine. Very Nice. Excellent. 90 Points.
2018 Kramer Vineyards Chardonnay Dijon Clone, Yamhill-Carlton, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $28. Under DIAM5. 25% New French oak, 50% Neutral French oak, 25% Stainless. Medium straw in color with some tree (white peach) and tropical (pineapple) fruit, tea leaf, honey, and a hint of vanilla. The palate is much more citrus than tropical with bright lemon and an herbal tea aspect. Good weight and balance, while the oak influence is noticeable, it is nowhere near an oak monster. In fact, it is quite lithe and lovely. Excellent. 91 Points.