Ken Robertson

Chardonnay truly a grape for all seasons

This Spring issue of Wine Press Northwest marks the 20th anniversary of one of the Northwest’s longest-lived wine publications. That first issue featured a tasting of 45 examples of Washington’s most popular red wine in 1998, Merlot.

Fittingly, the start of our 21st year features one of the Northwest’s (and the nation’s) perennial favorites of the white wines, Chardonnay.

In Washington, most folks rightly think Riesling is the top white wine, because it leads in number of cases produced, owing to higher yields. But of Washington’s roughly 60,000 acres of wine grapes, more than 7,400 are planted in Chardonnay, just ahead of 6,100 acres of Riesling.

Of Oregon’s 30,000 acres of vines, Pinot Gris is the top white at about 2,200 acres, but more than 1,300 are planted in Chardonnay. In Idaho, with 1,600 acres of grapes, those same three whites also are most popular.

Consequently, it was no surprise that 145 wines were submitted for evaluation by two tasting panels in what likely was the largest judging of Northwest Chardonnay ever conducted.

As moderator of one of the two panels, I tasted about 70 of the entries. Among my observations:

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1. The Northwest makes sensational Chardonnay in a wide variety of styles that start with stainless steel-aged wines that are bone-dry and almost achingly crisp. At the other end of the Chardonnay spectrum are lush, elegant, creamy, buttery and smooth whites that reveal new layers of complexity with every sip.

2. Northwest Chardonnay, which some wine lovers feel they know almost boringly well, can still pull out delightful surprises.

Age Columbia Valley fruit in stainless steel, don’t put it through malolactic fermentation, and you may get a crisp but showy white with aromas of orange blossom and tropical fruit, then essences of passionfruit and orange.

Put Willamette Valley fruit into oak barrels for 11 months, and you may get aromas like a lemon milkshake with a hint of peach, plus flavors of pineapple, orange and ripe apple, then a finish of orange marmalade.

3. Chardonnay thrives in a wide array of climates and soils from north-central Washington’s Lake Chelan and Ancient Lakes AVAs to the Umpqua and Rogue valleys of Oregon, from Idaho’s Snake River Valley to Oregon’s Applegate Valley.

4. Don’t think of Oregon as only the land of the twin Pinots — Noir and Gris — because its Chardonnays often are exceptional and show both innovation and versatility.

5. Great Chardonnay need not be expensive. Of the 35 wines that were rated double-gold or gold medal worthy, seven cost $20 or less, with some priced at $15. Since those are full retail prices, you often can find them for about $12 to $17.

The judging once again reminded me of the old observation that Chardonnay is a red wine masquerading as a white. Unoaked and aged in stainless, it certainly can stand out in any parade of whites. And it’s the only white commonly aged in oak, generally in heavy toast barrels.

It’s also worth noting that even with the versatility of the entries, the judging did not consider a couple of other areas where Chardonnay shines. It’s one of the three wines commonly used to make the world’s finest sparkling wines in Champagne and elsewhere in the world. And it even makes pretty darn good ice wine. I’ve tasted a couple of ice wines from the Okanagan region of British Columbia made with Chardonnay. Though I prefer Riesling, Gewürztraminer or Chenin Blanc for ice wine, the Chardonnay was pretty darn good.

Wine words: Phylloxera

One of the best parts of writing about wine terms is delving into their languages of origin. With Phylloxera, I rummaged back into my collegiate past to dredge up some long-neglected Greek and learned the term in Greek means dried-out leaf, which is what happens when this pest infects grape vines.

According to Larousse Wine, this pest devastated France’s grape vines between 1860 and 1880. It originated in the Western Hemisphere and was brought to Europe in the 1850s by avid botanists bringing home interesting New World plants. It’s a tiny, nearly microscopic form of aphid that attacks not only the leaves and stems of grape vines, but also, most devastatingly, the roots during its larval stage.

During the decades of a losing battle with Phylloxera, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which the French lost, killed nearly 140,000 men in six months. Four decades later, World War I, killed another 1.3 million French soldiers and wounded 4.2 million more between 1914-18, devastating French agriculture and many vineyards by the time peace arrived on Nov. 11, 1918.

Through all the shelling and gassing, the nasty root louse persisted and gradually spread throughout Europe, with just a few isolated areas in France, Spain and Italy still remaining free of the devastation. Gradually, resistant rootstock from North American vines was developed, grafted onto canes from European vines and became a staple of replanted vineyards.

In addition, French hybrids — crosses of New and Old World vines — were developed after World War I, with perhaps the best known being Marechal Foch, named after the great French general of that war.

Alas, when American grape growers subsequently brought plants back from Europe in less regulated times after Prohibition, the nasty insect arrived on the West Coast. It has been a problem in California and also in some Oregon vineyards in the decades since. Washington largely has escaped the pest so far because our dry weather and sandy soils east of the Cascades appear to be a deterrent.

Still, the tiny bug has inspired scores of laws, rules and regulations to keep rootstock free of it, and the industry remains wary.

Interestingly, for about 100 years, phylloxera was blamed for killing off one of Bordeaux’s six traditional varieties, Carménère, which was rediscovered in Chile in the 1990s, roughly 100 years after its European demise.

KEN ROBERTSON, the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

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