While some wine consumers will ask for “anything but chardonnay,” recent marketing data from The Nielsen Co. proves that chardonnay remains America’s favorite wine.
In California alone, more than 93,000 acres of vineyards are devoted to that white grape. As a comparison, Washington state’s entire wine industry — red and white varieties combined — stands at about 59,000 acres.
Much of that “ABC” movement stems from pushback against the oaky and buttery styles that California utilized to make chardonnay famous in the U.S. as a cocktail wine. Such examples are not as abundant today because Americans are seeking more food-friendly wines for their dining tables. That may help explain why chardonnay recently overtook riesling as the No. 1 white wine produced in Washington state.
The move toward un-oaked, Chablis-styles of chardonnay definitely is why Oregon winemakers at both ends of the Beaver State continue to champion chardonnay. That’s natural considering Oregon’s internationally acclaimed work with pinot noir and increased interest in methode Champenoise sparkling wines. The Oregon Chardonnay Celebration, created in 2011 by a sommelier and a viticulturist, continues to grow in prominence and popularity, and the tasteful consumer-minded event returns this winter to The Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg on Feb. 22.
In the vineyards and cellars of Idaho and British Columbia, chardonnay also plays a key role, reflected in the gold medals their winemakers earn in judgings across the country.
Recent research seems to indicate that chardonnay’s roots may go beyond the Burgundy region of France. Long considered part of the pinot family, researchers at the University of California-Davis list chardonnay as a cross of Eastern European variety gouais blanc with pinot. Gouais blanc’s home is the Dalmatia region of Croatia, and the grape likely was brought to France during the Middle Ages.
Here are several award-winning examples of Northwest chardonnay, all of which merited a gold medal last spring at the Cascadia International Wine Competition or last month at the Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition. Ask your favorite wine merchant about these wines or buy them directly from the wineries.
■ Barnard Griffin Winery 2017 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, $14: Rob Griffin, the dean of Washington winemakers, and his winemaking daughter, Megan Hughes, team up with acclaimed vineyards such as Sagemoor and Crawford for their nicely priced and versatile chardonnay. About a third of the juice spent time in French oak barrels, which helps account for the sweet and elegant nose, sprinkling with white flowers and hinting at flavors of pear, apricot and barely ripe nectarine.
Gentle oak spice joins those same fruit on the palate, along with honey and a touch of minerality.
■ Iris Vineyards 2015 Chalice Estate Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, $20: The essence of pineapple upside-down cake with all of its caramelized pineapple and shortcake goodness wafts from this chardonnay by a rising Eugene, Ore., producer. A silky texture on a medium body showcases tropical fruits, burnt cream and a sense of rain on a dusty country road, combining for a stylish chardonnay.
■ Tinhorn Creek Vineyards 2017 Chardonnay, Okanagan Valley $21: Bay Area native Sandra Oldfield and her partners recently sold their showpiece winery near Oliver, British Columbia, but her influence continues to show with this chardonnay. Fermented in barrel and stainless steel by Andrew Windsor, this leads with tropical fruit, sweet mint and vanilla.
It is round and rich on the palate, full bodied and full of fruit with a lasting sense of minerality.
■ Translations 2017 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley $22: Leslie Preston, owner/winemaker of Coiled Wines in Garden City, Idaho, recently began to reach beyond her home in the Snake River Valley for fruit to accommodate her growing fandom. This chardonnay under her second label is a lovely example of an oaked chardonnay that retains abundant fruit and crisp acidity.
On the nose, its oak peeks out a bit amid lime and green apple aromas. In the mouth, there’s more lime and Granny Smith apple, joined by a nip of apple peel in the finish.
■ Schmidt Family Vineyards 2016 Reserve Chardonnay, Applegate Valley, $34: This multi-generation winery near Jacksonville, Ore., builds a superb oaked version with hints of caramel apple, pineapple and citrus, backed by a finish of sweet toast and a light touch of tannin.
■ J. Bookwalter 2017 Conner-Lee Vineyard Double Plot Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, $40: Second-generation vintner John Bookwalter brought in fruit from a favorite source — Conner-Lee Vineyard in the Columbia Valley — for this expression of chardonnay. Director of winemaking Caleb Foster, who worked with Conner-Lee fruit for years at Buty Winery in Walla Walla, made this a story well-worth telling, producing a golden-hued wine with generous French oak, toast and vanilla, then a touch of apple and pineapple in its nose.
They lead into a palate of ripe apple, pineapple, brioche and more vanilla with a nip of lemon and apple peel acidity at the end.