Oregon picking up on Chardonnay potential

New clonal material, a change in picking times and greater co-operation between producers is behind Oregon’s current Chardonnay drive says one winemaker.

Speaking to the drinks business Jackson Family Wines’ Oregon general manager, Eugenia Keegan, said there was “just a new focus” on the white grape in the state and that it was likely to soon overtake Pinot Gris as the region’s leading white grape.

Keegan said that plantings of Pinot Gris in Oregon were “flatlining” while those of Chardonnay were growing exponentially – although still make up only 5% of total plantings.

Jackson Family Wines for example though is currently planting a further 10 acres of Chardonnay in Dundee Hills and eventually planned to have around 30% of each of its Oregon holdings planted with the grape.

There were several aspects to this renewed interest and drive to master Chardonnay; principally new and better clonal material, planting in more suitable sites and producers talking to each other about their Chardonnay winemaking as they have with Pinot Noir.

Keegan explained that, “in the early days the clonal material for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was from California.”

It quickly became noticeable however that those Chardonnay clones were not ripening properly in Oregon’s cooler climate. Even though Chardonnay was being harvested up to four weeks after the Pinot Noir it still wasn’t ripe.

A switch to Dijon clones has helped fix this although Keegan stressed that even if better ripeness was now possible, producers in Oregon were aware they still had to “pick for acid.”

She continued: “We’ve learned that if you pick your grapes when they taste tropical you’ve waited too long.

“It’s how we learnt in California, you taste for ripeness – those flavours of baked apple, pineapple and peach.

“[In Oregon] Picking just under full ripeness is the right spot. We pick for acid. It creates the structural background and after that you can layer on the oak.”

She said that producers in Oregon were producing the “full range of styles” from all stainless steel to barrel-fermented and full malolactic and so on but nothing “butterscotchy.”

The learning process was being helped enormously by producers talking to one another as well. The famous ‘Steamboat’ meetings between winemakers to talk about Pinot Noir, “catapulted” that variety’s progress in Oregon said Keegan, “and that philosophy has carried over to Chardonnay. It really strengthens the learning curve.”

Read more: Jackson building new winery in Oregon

3 Responses to “Oregon picking up on Chardonnay potential”

  1. Kendall-Jackson is discovering nothing new. Harry Nedry-Peterson at Chehalem has pioneered the resurrection of Chardonnays using the Dijon and other cones most suitable to Oregon and he established a parallel to the famed Pinot Noir camp at Steamboat networking with other leading Oregon owned producers. The Californians are just now “casing in” on this burgeoning development. interestingly enough, k-Jackson recently bought the fine Willakenzie Estates, which was most devoted to its noted Pinot Noirs. Their white wines were predominately Pinot Gris, with some Pinot Blanc and a limited Chardonnay production . I always questioned why they didn’t grow more Chard, given theirs seemed very nice quality. Their resistance was bases upon their opinion that the Chard market was over saturated (at that time, it was) and just not a money maker. Now the market has rebounded, plus Experienced Chard producers from California, like Kendall-Jackson well sense the new potential of Oregon terroir Chards and find them a dual investment opportunity to Oregon’s already well established authority with world quality Pinot Noirs.

  2. Josh says:

    This is so scary and corporate.

  3. JR says:

    Pineapple is a tropical fruit last I looked so what does she mean when she says, in one breath, that “if you pick your grapes when they taste tropical you’ve waited too long” and in the next breath that they want “pineapple”? And since when is “baked apple” a ripe flavour? Cooked, for sure, but ripe? More like over-ripe and confectionery, no?

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