An INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF WILLAMETTE VALLEY Chardonnay
Oregon wine dates back to the early 19th century; historical records document that grapes were grown around Fort Vancouver, on the Washington side of the Columbia River, by employees of the Hudson Bay Company. As folks moved south from the Fort and as more Oregon Territory settlers came west on the Oregon Trail, grapes were grown throughout the North Willamette Valley into Southern Oregon. Various grape varieties, including vitis vinifera, were planted and successfully farmed until Prohibition.
After the repeal, the first bonded winery license was issued in 1934 to Louis Herboldt, a European immigrant who had farmed vines and produced wine in Europe and Palestine. Herboldt apparently planted 65 varieties and thought that Oregon wine had tremendous potential. I've wondered if he planted Chardonnay?
The first documented Chardonnay came to Oregon in 1959, in a stash of cuttings owned by a UC Davis graduate Richard Sommer. Sommer developed HillCrest Winery, near Roseburg in the Umpqua Valley. Among other varieties, Sommer planted a Wente selection Chardonnay from Louis Martini's Stanley Ranch ungrafted in 1961 and 1964.
By 1965, another UC Davis alumn, David Lett, arrived in Oregon. Lett, however, was convinced by the climate of the Willamette Valley, and developed a nursery for a few thousand cuttings outside of Corvallis. As he thoughtfully surveyed the Willamette Valley's slopes and soils, it was a south-facing hillside in Dundee which ultimately caught his attention. In 1966, Lett began planting what is now known as the Original Vines at The Eyrie Vineyard. In addition to Pinot noir and Pinot gris, he planted the first Willamette Valley Chardonnay vines from Draper Ranch cuttings.
Charles Coury also came to the Willamette Valley in 1965 and eventually planted vines on David Hill, outside of Forest Grove. Though he did not plant Chardonnay, Coury did plant a "suitcase" clone of Pinot noir, among other varieties. Coury brought a unique perspective on the importance of plant material to Oregon, owing to time as an intern National Institute for Agronomy Research in Colmar, Alsace, France.
As the pace of new vineyard plantings in the Willamette Valley quickened in the late 1960's and early 1970's, the founding families grew the modern Oregon and Willamette Valley wine culture from the ground up. The early plantings were by and large 'heritage' plant material successful sites in Napa Valley (some of which had been smuggled into California from France) or from the nursery at UC Davis.
By the mid-1970's, at least two gentlemen, Dick Erath and David Adelsheim, began thinking of plant material better suited to Oregon's cooler, wetter climate. It was Adelsheim who, on a 1974 trip to Burgundy, hit pay dirt and created the possibility of legally importing French Pinot noir and Chardonnay clones from research stations in Colmar, Espiguette and Geisenheim to Oregon State University.
Between 1984 and 1988, the "Dijon" clones were released from quarantine to Oregon grape farmers. Without a doubt, this development allowed greater flexibility to farmers who were able to choose plant material fine-tuned to a cooler site and climate. Dijon clones tend to be more consistent in ripening smaller clusters slightly earlier than some of the heritage selections from California.
While the arrival of Dijon clone was, and still is, an undeniable benefit to the Willamette Valley, a looping narrative has arisen that Dijon clones are better suited to vineyards of the Willamette Valley than 'heritage' clones. According to the Willamette Valley Wineries Association website, the arrival of Dijon clones: "has resulted in a profound improvement in Oregon Chardonnay".
How much truth, compared to how much hyperbole, is contained in this statement probably depends on how much Dijon clones are planted in your vineyard or in the wines you like most.
Beneath marketing Oregon wine to the world, behind the agenda's of wineries who need to sell their wines, the conversation about "Oregon wine" "Oregon Pinot noir, "Oregon Chardonnay" is really sharing the unique stories of the soil, the vines, the people who farm the vineyards and make the wine. The discussion of clones is important, but importance can also quickly become overstated. It is easy to be blinded to the trees if you focus on a leaf, easy to be blinded to the forest if you focus on a tree.
Overall quality of Oregon wine, and Chardonnay in particular, has ostensibly improved since the mid 1980's, though some of the early Eyrie bottlings are still phenomenal today and many of the "best" bottlings of Willamette Valley Chardonnay, year in and year out, come from old vine heritage selections. At the same time, many larger production Chardonnay's are produced from Dijon clone.
At the end of the day, great Oregon Chardonnay is made from Dijon clone Chardonnay as well as heritage selections. Perhaps, the advent of Dijon clones have enabled 'better' wines to be made from heritage selections, by allowing these vines to grow as they grow, however they grow! Another interesting dynamic that is slowing coming into focus is the impact of climate change on clonal selection. Time will tell what clones have the bet fitness.
I believe that Oregon Chardonnay, and especially Willamette Valley Chardonnay, is a good as it has ever been. Potentially more important than clone to me is the distinction that "Oregon Chardonnay" is really about what is going on in the Willamette Valley. Not to take away from what is going on in the Gorge, or Southern Oregon, but the most engaging, dynamic and illustrative Oregon wines are grown and created in the small valley where I've lived since I was 9 years old.
It is my subjective perspective, that regardless of the appellation or clone, Chardonnay quality in Oregon has improved most fluidly and rapidly as a function of how much thoughtfulness and care farmers and winemakers give the grape. The greater the passion poured in, the more visceral and palpable it is to the world.
Over the past decade, I've watched as "Oregon Chardonnay" has gained more prominence not only in wine circles, but also for the general public. We need the old, vine heritage selections just as much as we need Dijon clones.
Kudos to David Adelsheim for exploration of what was possible. Sure, clonal exploration is a part of this process, but I think Dijon clones are better understood as a result of great passion, courage and resourcefulness than the source of great Willamette Valley wines. Dijon clones are a wonderful tool, not the reinvention of the wheel.
Many Oregon wine producers place great importance on Chardonnay quality and new plantings of Chardonnay have sky-rocketed over the past five years. Especially in the Willamette Valley. Since 2012, the Oregon Chardonnay Celebration has helped to showcase this greater level of passion, interest and success, which started in the vineyards and wineries over 50 years ago.
I am so thankful to the founding families of Oregon wine for planting vines, and to the succeeding and current generation of farmers and winemakers who are working creatively, and passionately to give Oregon and Willamette Valley wine an eloquent voice in the world of fine wine.
If I can add my own harmony to this already beautiful voice, I choose to be singular in my focus, and devoted to evolving the narrative of Oregon wine by creating authentic Willamette Valley Chardonnay which honors history, grape, time and place.