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Uncorked: Oregon gives chardonnay makers playful palette

Inspired by a cool climate and passionate winemakers, Oregon chardonnay is on the verge of something special.

The following winemakers are pushing the state’s third most planted grape to new heights. Their stories and tasting notes from wineries across Oregon conclude a month-long tasting project.

At Morgen Long, owner and winemaker Seth Long always has thought outside the box. He’d worked in restaurants since he was 15 years old and served a lot of Oregon pinot noir. By the time he was 27, he’d gone avant-garde and fallen for the natural wine movement and oxidized “orange wines” as he studied to be a sommelier.

On a winemaking blitz, he’d work seven harvests on three continents to hone his craft and would cozy back up to Bordeaux classics. When he noticed he kept pulling white wines for the crew, he’d settled into a niche.

“I’ve always been kind of a rebel,” Long said. “I didn’t pay attention in school. I was a skateboarder when my parents were college professors. I applied to one college, the college they taught at. I wanted to move to Breckenridge (Colorado) and be a ski bum. But that didn’t work out.”

The ski world’s loss is the wine world’s gain, as Long is a risk-tolerant, passionate advocate to drive Oregon chardonnay to new heights.

Morgen Long Seven Springs Vineyard 2018 ($65) has sandalwood, pear and lemon on the nose, a fresh acidity with peach and its fresh green apple flavors. With an unctuous texture, there’s thyme and pineapple on the nose in Morgen Long Marine 2018 ($25) – guava and wet rock flavors mingle. Pulled in by honeysuckle and apricot on the nose, Morgen Long Willamette 2018 ($35) had juicy green apple, toasty sesame seed, almond flavors and hot iron shavings on the finish.

Traditionalists might scoff at Long’s picking decision as too early with underripe fruit, but he was clear the flavors he’s in pursuit of are “lime, lemon, and rock juice.”

“I want verve and energy,” Long said. “This is a cool climate, so we have an abundance of acidity, which means malolactic fermentation is your friend. There’s never been a more exciting time for Willamette Valley, in general. We respect history and are just trying to push it forward. I want to look back in 20 years and say I devoted myself to mastery of chardonnay. It’s the big bet for my lifetime.”

At Archery Summit, winemaker Ian Burch focused on the nuanced flavors chardonnay has to offer. Even though he used all native yeasts in fermentation, he liked to push the limits of the process in the cellar.

“The ferments got a little warm, so it stresses the yeast out a little bit,” Burch said. “That way you get some petroleum and sesame seed flavors. If I can get a small fraction of that, I like what that brings to the wine over the course of its life.”

The Archery Summit Eola-Amity Hills Chardonnay 2018 ($45) showed herbal aromas, green pepper corn, bay leaf that gave way to flavors of honeydew melon and honey. He said he “pushed the boundaries” with the Archery Summit Dundee Hills Chardonnay 2018 ($65) as zesty lemon flavors mingle with a fresh minerality.

With judicious usage of oak barrels, Burch “softens out acidity’s jagged edges.” For the last six months of aging, he “traps in the freshness” as the wine is moved, with all its lees, from barrel to stainless steel tank.

“More winemakers have embraced a fresh style with a leaner spirit,” Burch said. “It’s hard to make a voluptuous, soapy, overripe chardonnay in Oregon because it would be imbalanced.”

Leo Gabica has been with Sweet Cheeks since the start. He worked in the cellar in 2005 when the winery produced 2,500 cases. He saw production double, was promoted to assistant winemaker as cases topped 15,000 and took over the helm from the late founder Dan Smith in 2013. Pinot noir and pinot gris currently command more shelf space, but Oregon’s weather and winemakers’ willingness to produce chardonnay in a variety of different styles have it on the rise.

“The climate in Oregon, especially in our location, is on the cooler side,” Gabica said. “The beauty with that is with a nice warm dry summer, we can develop nice tropical flavors and yet have acid behind it to back it up; it gives it more weight.”

Sweet Cheeks Chardonnay 2017 ($27) had a pear nose with pear, almond and lemon rind flavors.

Normally, Gabica used stainless steel tanks to ferment between 40% and 50% of the chardonnay, while the rest is aged in oak. Malolactic fermentation starts in the stainless steel before the wine is moved to oak barrels to finish the process. Gabica wants to “give the wine some toasty notes,” yet keep it from being “flabby and fat.”

“Doing it that way, we don’t lose freshness and acidity,” he said.

Production of fresh-tasting chardonnay is a reoccurring theme for Oregon winemakers. They’ve embraced a cool climate and have latched onto different techniques in the vineyard and cellar that showcase the wines. Now, they are telling their stories.

“Oregon chard is electric,” Burch said. “It’s fresh, it’s got a soul. While Burgundy is really textural with calcareous influences, our basalt and wind from Van Duzer Corridor, you have electric, acidic, complex and refreshing wines. They aren’t flabby or overdone. They’re easy to wrap your mind around. We just need to get them into more people’s hands. They are really delightful.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at

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