Washington Chardonnay’s Are On The Rise
A funny thing happened on the way to red wines dominating the conversation and celebration of Washington wines. Some really good Washington white wines got in the way, especially our old frenemy, Chardonnay.
Ever since the Chardonnay explosion of the 1990’s, wine lovers have had this bizarre love/hate relationship with this powerhouse grape. Wine drinkers either love Chardonnay or hate it. If you love it, there are styles you hate. If you hate it, there are many examples you would love. And, of course, wine is situational, so who can close doors completely?
Most of this conflict comes about via the word “buttery” and its association with Chardonnay. Malolactic fermentation is a natural process in winemaking that converts the more tart malic acid in grapes to softer lactic acid. Yeah, lactic acid. Lactic acid gives wine that creamy and buttery essence. Ferment and/or age that wine in new oak, giving the wine somewhat intense elements of vanilla and sweet caramel, and you have Chardonnay that is big, rich, buttery and smooth.
In the 90’s, California, and others, specialized in maxing out these qualities in their big and buttery Chardonnays. Be sure, There are a lot of wine lovers that hate these qualities. Fear not. If you are one of these big buttery wine haters, you will love some of the latest Chardonnays to come out of Washington.
Very quietly, Washington has become the second largest wine growing region in the US. That shouldn’t be a surprise. At around 45 degrees north latitude, most of Washington’s appellations rest at the same parallel as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Piedmont, three of the best wine growing regions in the world. And, with 2 full hours more of daily summer sunlight than California, really cool nights and a rain shadow effect caused by the Cascades, the growing conditions are outstanding and rival those of its southern neighbors.
And people are starting to notice, with heavy hitters and artisans alike now producing some incredible wines.
In Washington, Chardonnay was one of the first grape varietals planted back in the early 1970’s. That vine history, mixed with the climate, experience and new and adventurous wine makers using a mixture of old world and new world winemaking techniques are leading a resurgence of Chardonnay worthy of taking a sip, whether you think you love it or hate it.
Many of these wine makers are seeking out the oldest of the Chardonnay vines to take advantage of the terroir and produce wines of character and expressive qualities unique to the grape and the region.
Here are just some of the Washington wineries and wines to focus on in your search to re-establish your old love for Chardonnay:
Abeja (Walla Walla)
Employing the “old world” style of winemaking and using Dijon clones, the Abeja Estate Chardonnay ($40) is one of the increasing numbers of Washington whites that can be enjoyed now or aged for up to a decade. Only specific clusters from specific appellations are chosen for this wine which displays incredible fruit and herbal balance.
Array Cellars (Woodinville)
One of the newer and smaller producers – only about 850 cases per year – Array sources grapes from very old and very cold vineyards, producing beautifully acidic, bone-dry wines that are highly awarded, depart from the rich and buttery style, and pair incredibly with food. If you can get your hands on one of their 2011 Dijon Clone Chardonnays ($32), do it.
Back to the Californian style, yet quite worthy of enjoying with the right rich and creamy foods, they age their very highly rated Ashan Conner Lee Chardonnay ($46) in 100% new French Oak, imparting those big almond, vanilla, brown sugar, and silky caramel notes. If you can still find it, you can sit it for a few years if you want it deeper and more robust.
Buty (Walla Walla)
One of the best single-vineyard Chardonnays, the Buty Connor Lee Vineyard Chardonnay ($40) is aged in a combination of mostly old oak and concrete vessels, adding intriguing minerality and acidity. They employ only naturally occurring yeasts and partial malolactic fermentation, ma
intaining a crispness with just a hint of creaminess.
Woodward Canyon (Walla Walla)
One of the “older” estates in Washington, Woodward Canyon was started in 1981 and has been making great wines since the beginning. Fermented in Burgundy barrels, their Woodward Canyon Estate Chardonnay ($44) is a serious wine and more of a Washington Chablis (Northern Burgundy). It’s crisp, citrusy, spicy and balanced. Don’t bother trying to hold this one. Go get it and drink it now.