As the Sommelier at Beverly’s Restaurant I am, predictably, somewhat immersed in the Northwest wine scene. One might expect that nothing offered at a tasting of regional wines would come as much of a surprise to someone in my position. Hence, I was caught off-guard by a recent revelation as to the overall quality of the white wines from our neighbors to the south in Willamette Valley, Oregon.
I was attending the Willamette Valley Pinot Noir barrel Auction in Newberg, Oregon. In truth, I remember having a similar “ah-ha” moment many years ago at Oregon “Pinot Camp”, but on that occasion it was the Pinot Noir that caught my attention. In those times the white wines were solid, but only on rare occasion exceptional. As with any wine region, it takes years of experimentation to refine what are the proper vineyard sights, clonal selections of grape varieties, and vineyard management and winemaking decisions that combine to create a world class wine.
Certainly, I have previously tasted Chardonnay from Oregon that struck me as truly outstanding. Take the wonderful 2014 “Evenstad Reserve” Chardonnay from Domaine Serene. It is a lovely, elegant wine that has garnered critical praise from the top wine publications including a 95 point score and a ranking as the #3 wine in the world from Wine Spectator Magazine. I have also been impressed with Chardonnay by legendary winemaker Rollin Soles of ROCO Winery, Bergstrőm (especially the Sigrid Chardonnay) and the Roserock vineyard from Domaine Drouhin.
However, at this event I came gradually to a sort of delighted epiphany that there had been a quiet raising of the bar in Willamette. Now, top quality Chardonnay was becoming the norm, not the exception. Granted, these were the top producers pouring their best wines, accompanied by Northwest seafood prepared by Chefs Vitaly Paley and Ken Norris of Headwaters in Portland, but the class of the wines was, indeed, very high.
First rate Willamette Chardonnay has evolved. It is a vibrant and delicious wine that seems to be neither an attempt to emulate California Chardonnay or Burgundy France, but has found its own style. Typically, the best wines balance ripe tree fruit (apple, pear or quince) or honeydew with a lovely, delicate note of white flowers, subtle spice and an elusive nuttiness (almond or hazelnut). If there is a buttery quality it is not of the movie theater popcorn variety, but rather a delicate hint of brioche or shortbread. The finish can be creamy, yet balanced with crisp citrus (often Meyer lemon) notes and a distinctive minerality.
If you have not tasted Willamette Valley Chardonnay recently, seek it out. You may be in for a revelation of your own.
Sommelier, Beverly’s Restaurant