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Great Northwest Wine: Chardonnay is an important player in Washington

Chardonnay started to become a part of the Washington wine industry landscape in 1965 when the first commercial plantings were established in 1965 near Sunnyside. (Richard Duval Images)
Chardonnay started to become a part of the Washington wine industry landscape in 1965 when the first commercial plantings were established in 1965 near Sunnyside. (Richard Duval Images)
By Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman Great Northwest Wine

Chardonnay hasn’t always been a big deal in Washington, but the white grape associated with the Burgundy region of France has long been a player. It isn’t nearly as dominant here in the Evergreen State as it is in California, where 93,148 acres of chardonnay are planted, accounting for about 15% of the Golden State’s estimated 630,000 acres of wine grapes.

However, appreciation for Washington chardonnay is on the rise. The Washington State Wine Commission lists the plantings of chardonnay at 7,403 acres. That amounts to about 13% of the state’s 58,000 acres of vineyards.

In terms of production, there’s been a significant uptick in chardonnay the past few vintages, pushing the grape to No. 2 overall behind only cabernet sauvignon. At 41,500 tons, which represented 16% of the 2018 crush, chardonnay weighed in ahead of riesling with 38,300 tons.

According to records, the state’s first chardonnay vines were planted in Yakima Valley near Prosser in 1964. However, the first documented commercial planting took place a year later in Sunnyside. By 1968, there were 9 acres of chardonnay in the ground.

In the 1970s, Chateau Ste. Michelle began to invest in earnest, and 1,000 acres of chardonnay were planted in Columbia Valley by 1982. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northwest Regional Field Office reported in 1999 that chardonnay ranked No. 1 in Washington state for plantings at 6,100 acres, which represented 25% of the state’s 24,000 total wine grape acreage.

Ste. Michelle’s work with riesling helped spark a rapid interest in that German variety across the country. And as recently as 2015, riesling ranked as the No. 1 white grape crushed in Washington. Since then, however, chardonnay has overtaken riesling and now makes up more than 40% of the state’s total white grape production.

Here are four delicious examples of chardonnay produced in Washington that won gold medals at this spring’s Cascadia International Wine Competition. Each features an influence of oak, but they all maintain bright levels of fruit that allow them to pair nicely with food. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant, or contact the winery directly.

For a complete list of medal winners from the Cascadia judging, go to greatnorthwestwine.com.

Seven Falls Cellars 2016 Chardonnay, Wahluke Slope, $18: Doug Gore, elected to the Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame in 2017, launched this brand for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates before handing off the reins of Seven Falls to Reid Klei.

The graduate of Eastern Washington University has crafted a chardonnay that shows off just the right amount of oak, apple and pineapple flavors and a creamy, yet juicy finish. Suggested pairings include chicken, creamy pasta dishes, trout or a garden salad.

Bayernmoor Cellars 2017 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley $29: Hand-harvested clusters from Sagemoor Farm’s Weinbau Vineyard near Mattawa and Otis Vineyard in Yakima Valley achieved magic in the Harris family’s cellar under the care of Woodinville winemaker Brian Carter. Papaya, Granny Smith apple and biscuit in the nose are a teaser for what’s coming next.

Orchard fruit such as Anjou pear, apple and peach are enhanced by subtle brioche and spice. The medium body lifts the fruit and makes for an elegant Burgundian-style chardonnay that will pair well with richly sauced chicken or heavier fish dishes.

Tsillan Cellars 2018 Estate Reserve Chardonnay, Lake Chelan $30: Ray Sandidge, who is in his second decade of making wine from Lake Chelan grapes, drew on Dr. Bob Jankelson’s estate for this 2018 reserve chardonnay. Sandidge then oaked it generously while preserving bright fruit and crisp acidity.

It brings to the table citrus and green apple flavors and aromas, closing with a small apple peel bite. Enjoy with one of the delectable pasta dishes at the on-premise Sorrento’s Ristorante, which offers a stunning view of the lake.

Jones of Washington 2017 Reserve Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, $30: The Jones family drew on Foster Vineyard fruit and put it in Victor Palencia’s capable hands to produce this gold-medal winner from the 2017 vintage. Dubbed “reserve,” it shows a bit of barrel influence from its four months in new American oak, but those enjoyable notes are tucked nicely behind the theme of apple, pineapple and lime.

If you’re a chardonnay sipper, it’s perfect for a summer evening on the deck and would pair well with light dishes with a cream sauce such as chicken Alfredo and spaghetti Carbonara with slightly crisped and crumbled prosciutto and topped with freshly grated parmesan. This won the title of Best White Wine at Cascadia.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com.

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