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Why Oregon Winemakers Are Trading Their Pinot Noir Vines for Chardonnay

Why Oregon Winemakers Are Trading Their Pinot Noir Vines for Chardonnay

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The saying “If it grows together, it goes together” is generally considered to have a culinary connotation, but it can also be applied to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, two Burgundy natives that thrive side by side in multiple wine regions around the world. Robb Report has covered the rise of both varieties in Oregon’s Willamette Valley over the past several years, and it seems that although Pinot Noir was the star and Chardonnay held a supporting role, the white varietal is coming into its own in the Beaver State and may soon eclipse the popularity of its darker-hued relative. As consumers’ thirst for Chardonnay continues unabated and producers view it through a new lens, the varietal has found itself on the fast track to success in Oregon, with many vintners and growers planting or grafting prized blocks once reserved for Pinot Noir to Chardonnay.

The evidence is not just anecdotal. Chardonnay acreage in Oregon increased from 2,610 in 2020 to 2,724 acres in 2021 to 3,118 acres in 2022, according to the University of Oregon’s 2022 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report. Pinot Noir outpaces Chardonnay by far, with total acreage of that grape at 26,688 acres in 2022, but Chardonnay is clearly gaining momentum across the state, and even more so when we look at Willamette Valley. While consumer demand is partially driving the change, at the same time winemakers and vineyard managers are realizing that some of their blocks are more suitable for Chardonnay than for Pinot Noir. At WillaKenzie Estate, Chardonnay has become a much bigger part of the winery’s identity in recent years—there were only two acres of Chardonnay on the estate when winemaker Erik Kramer joined in 2017; now, there are almost 13 planted.

WillaKenzie Estate’s first Chardonnay expansion occurred in 2018, when Kramer grafted four acres of Pinot Noir vines over to Chardonnay in a terroir the team calls Clairiére. This cool section of the estate has deep soils, gentle exposure, and some wind protection, which have led to positive results. “The Chardonnay from Clairiére is very good and currently the backbone for our Estate Cuvée and La Crête expressions,” Kramer tells Robb Report. WillaKenzie has planted additional Chardonnay in another section of the estate and this year will graft a portion of the estate to Chardonnay. With an increase in the grape from 2 percent to 15 percent in just a few years, he expects that the estate is at peak Chardonnay saturation at this time, but points out, “It’s possible that as the vineyard ages and there is more redevelopment to plan, more Chardonnay will be considered at that time.”

Chardonnays from outstanding Oregon wineries

At Gran Moraine, which has around 150 acres of Pinot Noir and 50 acres of Chardonnay, winemaker Shane Moore says the Pinot Noir clone planted there was very popular in the early 2000s because it was easy to farm, but it’s not as great for still wines as other clones grown throughout Willamette. Twenty acres of Pinot Noir have been grafted over to Chardonnay in the past few years. “The Chardonnay is performing great,” Moore says. “The sedimentary soils create an amazing tension and loads of minerality.” He also believes that the proportion of varieties may shift completely over time and that eventually “it could be 150 acres of Chardonnay and 50 acres of Pinot Noir.”

Much of the original excitement around Pinot Noir in Willamette is owed to Burgundian ownership and investment, including the Drouhin family, Louis Jadot’s Résonance winery, and Nicolas-Jay, which was founded by American music entrepreneur Jay Boberg and Jean-Nicolas Méo of Méo-Camuzet in Vosne-Romanée. Nicolas-Jay increased its estate plantings in the Dundee Hills AVA, a Willamette subregion, from 3.5 to seven acres between 2018 and 2023. Most of those new vines were Chardonnay—specifically Dijon clones 76, 95, and 548. “Despite an early history of up-and-down quality with Chardonnay in Oregon, the introduction of Dijon clones in the late ‘90’s resulted in a high quality of fruit that is unique to Oregon,” Boberg tells Robb Report. And while Resonance has not grafted over any Pinot Noir, the team has incorporated Chardonnay into new plantings at estate vineyards within the Dundee Hills and Yamhill Carlton AVAs; they also have significant Chardonnay holdings at the Koosah Vineyard in the Eola Amity Hills AVA. “Today, Résonance owns 40 acres planted with Chardonnay, all dry farmed and certified organic,” says Résonance winemaker Guillaume Large.

Winemaker and viticulturist Rachel Rose recently headed up the grafting over of two blocks of Pinot Noir on Bryn Mawr’s estate vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, one to Chardonnay and the other to Pinot Blanc and Riesling. “The expression of Chardonnay on our estate’s rocky volcanic soil combined with the chilly winds is stunning,” she says. “The wines are electric, with nuanced complexity with bright fruit, and vibrant acidity.”

And at Granville Wine Company, proprietors Jackson and Ayla Holstein are planting a new vineyard next door to the historic 1977 estate vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA, where Jackson grew up. The new vineyard will focus on Chardonnay, with 5.5 acres of the varietal currently in the ground along with a half-acre of Aligoté and 2.5 acres of Pinot Noir.

Gran Moraine Vineyard

Some of the region’s terroir is more amenable to Chardonnay than Pinot Noir.

Gran Moraine

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Jackson, who also serves as Granville’s winemaker, says Oregon Chard’s recent improvements are partially the result of the region’s viticulturists working together. “I believe site selection has improved dramatically in the last decade,” he tells Robb Report. “Putting Chardonnay plantings at higher elevations, as Kevin Chambers did at Koosah Vineyard, have really demonstrated the capacity for the variety to express a leaner version of itself that distinguishes the possibilities of Oregon Chardonnay. Second, I believe the entire industry in Oregon has realized we make better Chardonnay when picked earlier and the final bottling sits at 13 percent alcohol or less. All of this was the result of industry collaboration.”

The upswing in Chardonnay is also happening at Penner-Ash, where winemaker Kate Ayres has grafted several blocks over to Chardonnay at two of her vineyards. “I think certain areas of a vineyard are more suited for Chardonnay over Pinot Noir,” Ayres tells Robb Report. “In the case of our Jory Hills Vineyard, my blocks tend to nestle into a tree line, providing some nice shading which helps to hold the acidity and slow ripening.” She expects to add a single-vineyard Chardonnay to Penner-Ash’s offerings and plans to oversee a significant growth in the winery’s Chardonnay program.

While this is all great news for Chardonnay lovers, the numbers still show that Pinot Noir fans have nothing to worry about, at least at this moment. Although, as Boburg points out, “There may be a day in the future when Oregon Chardonnay is center stage on the world wine scene and Pinot Noir plays second violin.”

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