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Meet the new American Chardonnay

April 11, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

West Coast producers, from Willamette Valley in Oregon to Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties in California, are rethinking American Chardonnay.

They may not be traditionally known for the grape when compared to winemakers in Napa Valley, who defined the now stereotypical, buttery, oaky style for the white wine. But they are planting, producing, and experimenting with the wine—with a twist. They are skipping the big oak for a more restrained, Burgundian-inspired approach that values balance, freshness, and high acidity for a mineral-driven wine. They aren’t trying to make a white Burgundy, but they are applying that French philosophy to the vineyard, winery, and cellar. The results are lighter-bodied wine that features tasting notes most American wine drinkers wouldn’t associate with Chardonnay—oyster shell, Asian pear, green citrus, flint, mineral—and it’s drawing in consumers who claim to not drink the white wine.

“The ABC crowd digs it,” Oregon winemaker Shane Moore says of consumers who opt to drink “anything but Chardonnay.” “Some people say, wow, it tastes like Chablis or Burgundy. Rarely do we hear that the wine doesn’t have enough oak or butter to suit a taster.”

The NV Gran Moraine Dropstone Chardonnay
Courtesy of Gran Moraine

Moore heads the team at Gran Moraine, a winery located in the Yamhill-Carlton area of the Willamette Valley, where he makes single-vineyard Chardonnays. Unapologetically, he says that he’s lifted winemaking and growing techniques from France’s Burgundy region, heralded for its Chardonnay. Part of that is the desire to craft a wine that’s reflective of the place. To use the French term, terroir. “For me, Chardonnay is all about acid, transparency, and verve,” he adds.

It’s a philosophy shared by other producers up and down the West Coast of the U.S. who are focusing on the acidity in their Chardonnay to drive their style as well as letting cool-climate fruit shine, holding back on big oak flavors, and reducing the level of alcohol. Fortunately, regions, like Willamette Valley, are naturally suited to high acidity in their gapes. In fact, Willamette Valley is often compared to Burgundy thanks to its similarity in climate and latitude. It’s been a common comparison for Oregon Pinot Noir (Burgundy is also famed for its Pinot Noir) and now catching on for Chardonnay.

Veronique Drouhin, winemaker for Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune, Burgundy, France.
Courtesy of Dreyfus-Ashby

Véronique Boss-Drouhin, the winemaker at Domaine Drouhin Oregon and a member of the famed Burgundian family behind Joseph Drouhin wines, first planted Dijon clones of Chardonnay, from France, at her Dundee Hills property between 20 to 30 years ago. Back then, she says, Chardonnay from the area wasn’t very good. It’s taken until recently to really overcome that poor reputation. Now she produces the Domaine Drouhin Oregon Chardonnay Arthur there as well as the Roserock Chardonnay from another property in the Eola-Amity Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA). For the Chardonnay Arthur, Boss-Drouhin describes it as a blend of Chablis and Meursault, a reference to two well-known Burgundy wines.

This Burgundian approach to Oregon wines has gained popularity with members of the trade—such as beverage directors, distributors, sommeliers, and press—who have advocated for its ability to pair with food—also very French-minded. “There’s suddenly a big shift into appreciation for a wine that has a little more mineral, a little more good vibrancy, a more fresh style of Chardonnay,” Boss-Drouhin says. “There’s a whole new generation coming and appreciating the wine. They don’t drink the big ones.”

Boss-Drouhin is referring to the lower alcohol rate that she and other producers like her are focusing on for Chardonnay. The stereotypical Napa Valley style can often reach 14.5% alcohol; by comparison, most white Burgundy is closer to 12%. That detail has been important to Jamie Kutch, winemaker at Kutch Wines in Sonoma. He first started making Chardonnay in 2014, and keeping the alcohol lower than his California counterparts was a big part of his philosophy. He also scales back the oak, working toward little or no oak on the nose and palate of his extremely fresh and mineral-focused wines.

Gran Moraine winemaker Shane Moore
Courtesy of Gran Moraine

“I admire the balance in terms of alcohol in Burgundy wines and in turn, look to pick grapes when the sugars are low, which translates into lower alcohol,” Kutch says. “While I’m not trying to make Burgundy, I respect their approach and incorporate some ideas into my own wines here in the new world.”

Kutch explains that he started out with Burgundy “as a road map” for his wines as he didn’t want to make another buttery, oaky style. He believes that the tastes are changing among American consumers, and he expects to see more approach his style with open arms, or rather, mouths. “As the nation’s tastes continues to step away from high-fructose corn syrup to drinking coffee black and enjoying bitter cocktails with Campari or Kombucha, the sweet, ripe, fruity, heavy style of wines will wain and the desire for fresh, bright, pure expression of wine will change the current landscape,” he says.

This newfound love of an alternative style of Chardonnay is something that has benefited winemaker Matt Dees, who makes wines for The Hilt and Jonata in the Santa Rita Hills AVA near Santa Barbara, Calif. For him, it’s improved the perception of white wines in an area that loves its reds, like Pinot Noir. “Chardonnay is not an afterthought,” Dees says. “There have been many times, when after tasting a Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, I’ve thought that this is the grape that should be leading the qualitative charge.”

Dees, like these other winemakers, sees the bright future for Chardonnay in areas often more renowned for their reds. He’s also a self-proclaimed admirer of Burgundy, for its “kinetic energy, salinity, and tension,” he says, and notes that other nearby producers are drawing from Burgundy too. For Santa Rita Hills, he sees how well Chardonnay responds to the maritime-based soils and cool Pacific Ocean air; he never has an issue with “miraculous levels of acidity naturally,” thanks to the slow ripening of grapes in the vineyard, nor the need to overdue oak.

Matt Dees, winemaker at Jonata and The Hilt wineries in Santa Barbara county in California.
Courtesy of The Hilt

He uses only about 25% new French oak. In that vein, Moore’s is also low, coming in at 12% new French oak for his 2016, and Boss-Drouhin says her approach is to hover around 20% new French oak—similar to Kutch who used about 20% for his 2018 Chardonnay. The rest is kept in stainless steel tanks or neutral French oak barrels. This allows them to create balanced blends that maintain a complex range of aromas and flavors rather than letting one or two main ones, such as butter, vanilla, and wood, overpower the subtle notes. By comparison, many Napa Valley producers use 100% oak for fermentation and aging as well as 50% or more of that being new oak, which imparts stronger flavors.

As much as these winemakers get excited to talk about Chardonnay, the truth is that it is a small percentage of what they create; all of them focus more on Pinot Noir. Less than 15% of the vineyards at The Hilt are planted with Chardonnay grapes, and at Domaine Drouhin Oregon, just five hectares out of 45 are Chardonnay. “We don’t have the ability to grow more,” Boss-Drouhin says. On a store shelf, this style will be harder to find than a Napa Valley Chardonnay, but Kutch explains that is okay—there’s more than enough room for all the styles. Consumers, then, can pick what they want to drink rather than having producers and winemakers deeming one style superior over another.

“If someone really loves buttery, oaky Chardonnay, I am actually happy to talk them out of buying my wines,” Kutch says. “They are the farthest thing from that approach.”

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