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Many regional reasons to say ‘Yay!’ to chardonnay

Rob Mellison tends some of his vines at Mellisoni Vineyards, which overlooks the south shore of Lake Chelan. (Richard Duval Images)
Rob Mellison tends some of his vines at Mellisoni Vineyards, which overlooks the south shore of Lake Chelan. (Richard Duval Images)
By Eric Degerman Great Northwest Wine

Merely by typing the word chardonnay, too many wine consumers will turn the page or close the window, but chardonnay remains America’s most purchased bottle of wine.

And as recently as a year ago, research supported the optimism that interest in the noble white grape of Burgundy is substantial. Silicon Valley Bank in the Bay Area accurately predicted chardonnay would be in “particularly strong demand” for 2018.

In Washington state, chardonnay trailed only cabernet sauvignon in terms of grapes crushed in 2018. There were 7,403 acres of chardonnay planted in the Evergreen State, which is 13% of the state’s 58,000 acres of vines in the ground.

In Oregon, chardonnay ranked No. 3 at 2,406 acres, leaving it well in the rear-view mirror of pinot noir, which stood at 20,616 acres in 2018. And chardonnay doesn’t seem poised to overtake pinot gris with 5,078 acres planted.

Fortunately, there are more food-friendly versions of chardonnay than ever as producers have dialed down the amount of expensive French oak barrels they are using while highlighting the variety’s natural brightness when the grape is harvested earlier rather than later in its life.

While it often is safe to serve white wine with chicken, fish, pork and salad, more than a decade ago, we profiled a chef from France at a Portland restaurant who suggested chardonnay with a grilled porterhouse.

I was too gobsmacked to follow up and ask if he was recommending a California butter bomb or something more along the lines of classic chablis, but I’ve since tried chardonnay with a steak and enjoyed the pairing.

Unfortunately, Silicon Valley Bank, which provides the annual State of the Wine Industry report prized by producers around the world, also shared disappointing news about chardonnay consumption in 2019.

“The U.S. generic consumer didn’t care if the chardonnay was Australian, Chilean or American,” it stated. “That allowed large wine producers to cut back on buying local fruit.”

This winter, chardonnay producers in the U.S. are hoping for a better outlook and more acceptance. With that in mind, below are some of the best examples of Pacific Northwest chardonnay, according to results from the latest Platinum Judging by Wine Press Northwest magazine.

For the complete list of Platinum winners, visit winepressnv.com, or pick up a copy of the Winter 2019 edition.

College Cellars of Walla Walla 2018 Chardonnay, Walla Walla Valley, $20: Tim Donahue and his students teamed up for one of the Northwest’s leading examples of chardonnay from the 2018 vintage, which went on to earn a rare Double Platinum award.

Eschewing oak makes for a bright and aromatic profile with lemon cream and citron, which comes with lots of minerality, lime zest and a dusting of ground savory.

Iris Vineyards 2015 Chalice Estate Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, $25: Considering his training with Isabelle Dutarte while at DePonte and Owen Roe’s David O’Reilly, the success Aaron Lieberman is bringing to Iris Vineyards is no shock.

Here he’s working with Dijon 76 clone fruit from Richard Boyles and Pamela Frye’s 20-year-old vineyard southwest of Eugene. The brilliant hue is eye-opening, and a stone fruit aroma leads to notes of fresh pear, kiwi and buttered toast.

Herbs and lemon curd complement the pear notes on the palate as citrus highlights lift the long finish.

Mellisoni Vineyards 2017 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, $50: The affable Rob Mellison combines delicious wines with such honest hospitality on the south shore of Lake Chelan that if he didn’t price his popular wines accordingly, he would sell out soon after the start of summer.

This was his third career Platinum but his first for chardonnay. Because there’s no oak involved, nothing competes for attention, allowing for beautiful florals and flavors of pineapple juice, kiwi and melon with a classic balanced structure. Suggested pairings include grilled trout with garlic butter.

Maryhill Winery Tasting Room & Bistro 2017 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, $17: Out of all the years and Platinums awards, this signals the first time that Richard Batchelor has earned one for America’s favorite wine – chardonnay.

The influence of French oak makes this come across as a reserve style at a nice price. Its theme of Granny Smith apple and pear makes room for some butterscotch and toast capped by a long lemon/lime finish.

Hood Crest Winery 2017 Chardonnay, Columbia Gorge, $24: This winery in the Mount Hood foothills produces this chardonnay from estate vines in a reserve style, with influences of French oak and barrel aging, leading to Golden Delicious apple and spiced pear butter. Its delicious acidity makes for a long finish.

Dancin Vineyards 2018 Capriccio Chardonnay, Rogue Valley, $35: Dan and Cindy Marca’s passion for chardonnay ranks among the elite in the Pacific Northwest, a remarkable endeavor considering their showpiece winery and on-premise restaurant near downtown Jacksonville, Oregon.

This is one of eight expressions of chardonnay by the Marcas, and they draw it from their estate. It’s deliciously fruit forward, bright and lengthy as tangerine and gooseberry lead out with honeydew melon rind and lemon zest. Suggested pairings include charcuterie, a Waldorf salad or hazelnut-crusted halibut.

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

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