Two Classic Northwest Chardonnays from 2011

Hello friends. Every year in the northwest wine trade has its own personality, trends that seem to emerge out of the ether. Despite the fact that we’re not yet a month into the new year, I already have my first guess for one of the themes of 2013.


Everywhere I go, I hear about a new Chardonnay project. We introduced Array Cellars last year, a Chardonnay-only label that is set to release a handful of new wines this year. Charles Smith hired Brennon Leighton away from Efeste to start a Chardonnay-only label. Rumors are flying that Chris Gorman has plans to introduce a new label with a single wine, and that wine will be a Chardonnay.

I mentioned above that these trends seem to emerge out of the ether, but “seem” is the operative word. The truth is more complicated, and it usually looks something like this: Educated folks with good palates taste something they like that surprises them. “I didn’t know [INSERT VARIETAL] could be so good in [INSERT REGION],” they think. “We should be making that.”

So today, in advance of what I suspect will be a number of new Chardonnay labels set to emerge in 2013, I want to go back to the classics. One from Oregon; one from Washington. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that somewhere along the line, folks from these new projects tasted one or both of these wines, and a light-bulb went off. What they saw: proof of concept.

2011 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Chardonnay “Arthur”

We have explored Veronique Drouhin’s entire available portfolio of Pinot Noirs, but one thing we have not yet explored is her work with the other great Burgundian varietal.

Until today.

The first Pinot Noir vines went into the ground at DDO in 1988, and it didn’t take long for Chardonnay to follow, just four years later. Those 1992-planted vines (see location here, in the heart of the volcanic red jory soils of the Dundee Hills) were 100% Dijon-clone, making them some of the oldest Dijon-clone Chardonnay planted in the new world. 1996 was the first vintage with usable fruit, so the release of this 2011 marks the 16th vintage.

As the vines enter their adolescence, recent vintages of Arthur have displayed more depth of character, more wet-stone minerality, and more complexity. All that, and the price has barely risen since the 2005 vintage. It’s a fine bridge wine between old-world and new (for a primer on DDO’s old-world roots, see our initial DDO offering). As usual, Veronique manages to meld Burgundian sensibility with the joyous exuberance of new world fruit.

It’s a smokey, sultry, saline Chardonnay, seemingly built for long-term aging capability but awfully appealing right now. Flavors run from citrus (lemon curd, lemon pastille) to stone fruits (nectarine, apricot) to something green and wild (cucumber, melon). And throughout courses a vein of minerality that keeps things refreshing and complex. As seems to be the case with the best Oregon producers, 2011 presents a thrilling vintage with bracing acidity whose only drawback is low yields and corresponding lack of availability. Because of that, we’re catching this just after release, so that we don’t miss out. No reviews yet, and I can’t speak to reorder opportunities for this one.

2011 Woodward Canyon Chardonnay

“2011 has proven to be one of the cooler vintages that we have ever experienced; a bit like 1984.” That quote from Rick Small helps underscore why he is one of Washington’s living treasures. How many other winemakers in the state could stare down a cool year like 2011 with the knowledge that they had seen it all before, twenty-seven years ago? Not many.

Rick and his production winemaker Kevin Mott have settled into a beautiful Chardonnay routine over the years. They work with two vineyards. The cooler Celilo (located here, in the Columbia Gorge) brings freshness, vibrancy, and ageworthiness through the power of cool-climate acidity. The warmer Woodward Canyon Estate (located here, in the Walla Walla Valley) brings lushness, generosity, and mouthfilling texture.

Having those two paints on their color-palette allows Rick and Kevin to adjust their proportions based on each individual vintage, and to make the most beautiful painting possible. In 2011, that meant two-thirds Celilo fruit and one-third Estate, aged in Burgundy barrels (approximately 20% new). It’s a lower-alcohol (13.3%) Chardonnay than many Woodward vintages, but still the more plushly-textured of today’s two wines. Aromatics mix Asian pear and lemon drop with notes of earth and cashew. The palate mixes tree fruits and stone fruits, and there are beautiful subtleties, leesy and earthy, that kept me returning to this glass over and over. Find some crab or lobster or seared scallop (or all three!) to go with this, and paradise on earth may be possible.

Wine Enthusiast (Paul Gregutt): “($44); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 93pts.”

First come first served up to 12 bottles total (mix and match as you like), and both wines should arrive in about a week, at which point they will be available for pickup or shipping during the spring shipping window.

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