The Rise of Chardonnay in Central Willamette Valley

The Rise of Chardonnay in Central Willamette Valley

“We started with pinot noir,” says Erica Landon of Walter Scott Wines. “Historically, you couldn’t get any money for chardonnay. In Willamette Valley, it was treated like a slightly higher-end pinot gris.” In 2008, when Landon founded Walter Scott with her husband, Ken Pahlow, “there wasn’t a whole lot of great chardonnay fruit out there,” she recalls, “and few wines from it to be taken seriously.” Then Evening Land released their inaugural vintage of La Source Chardonnay from the Seven Springs Vineyard in Eola–Amity Hills. With a mouthwatering wash of brioche and bay laurel, lime leaf and pear, the 2007 was energetic, crystalline and high-toned. The landscape for chardonnay began to change.

Bergström had already been producing highly regarded chardonnay with finesse and energizing minerality from the northern Willamette. In fact, the variety was among the region’s first plantings in the mid-1960s, and producers like Eyrie, Bethel Heights, Cameron and, in the 1980s, Arterberry, made site-expressive wines driven by fresh acidity. But none had received the kind of national attention and critical acclaim of Evening Land’s La Source. Chardonnay in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s was dominated by the California trend of rich, creamy flavors cloaked under new oak. Many producers in Oregon paralleled that style but the fruit didn’t support that approach. The region had yet to articulate a clear Willamette signature for chardonnay.

With its proximity to Portland, the northern Willamette Valley had ushered in the first of the region’s vines. It was also the focus of the growth and turnover that came in the 1990s, when many growers pulled out their old chardonnay vines or grafted them to Dijon clones as a rush of newer sites were established. But the newer clones did little to change the market’s impression of Willamette Valley chardonnay, and plantings began to decline. In 1998, the Willamette Valley had more than 9,000 planted acres, including 1,600 planted to chardonnay. By 2008, chardonnay’s total acreage had been reduced by half, while overall vineyards in the region had grown to more than 14,000 acres. A few older chardonnay blocks remained, most tended by ardent farmers who were loathe to pull older vines, others in outlying rural districts that were slow to change.

Meanwhile, in what was once considered the remote south, Mark Vlossak founded St. Innocent Winery in 1988 with a focus on white wines. He had apprenticed at Arterberry, where Fred Arterberry, Jr., developed the first sparkling wines in Willamette Valley, so Vlossak was used to looking for…

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