Washington's Chardonnay winemakers and growers say there's still a place for America's favorite wine, though the state may becoming a red-dominated wine region.
Chardonnay was the focus of the grand tasting attended by hundreds Wednesday during the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers' annual convention and trade show at Kennewick's Three Rivers Convention Center.
Andy Perdue, editor of Great Northwest Wine, said it's possible that Cabernet Sauvignon is now the state's top grape in tonnage but statistics won't be available for a few more weeks.
Chardonnay has enjoyed a strong history as Washington's most plentiful wine grape, Perdue said. First planted in the early 1960s, acreage doubled twice by 1992 to more than 10,000 acres.
By 1993, it surpassed Riesling as the state's top wine grape and now it is grown in nearly every growing region in the state, he said.
"Chardonnay probably isn't the queen of the castle any more," agreed Glenn Proctor, global wine and grape broker for Ciatti Co. of San Rafael, Calif.
Chardonnay faces growing competition from other white varieties like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, Proctor said. And some consumers already perceive Washington as more of a Cabernet Sauvignon state.
Chardonnay's many styles, including buttery oak, Burgundian and unoaked, also can confuse customers, he said.
Kevin Mott, Woodward Canyon Winery partner and winemaker, said the Lowden winery's Chardonnay style has evolved over time, starting with oaky, rich flavor, since customers were looking for that in the 1980s.
But over time, he said he began to dislike the style and wanted to move to a crisper, leaner wine that pairs better with food. Now, he blends Chardonnay grapes from two different vineyards.
"You have to make a style that you are happy with as a winery and go find the people who like that style," Mott said.
About 20 percent of the wines sold in U.S. food stores are Chardonnays, Procter said. In U.S. restaurants, Chardonnay has gone from about 35 percent of the wine requested to about 15 percent.
But sales of higher priced Chardonnay, starting at about $10 a bottle, have grown, Proctor said. That's where Washington wines tend to fit. However, Chardonnay sales nationwide were down by about 1 percent last year with sales declining in Chardonnay prices less than $10.
Chardonnay is the fifth largest variety worldwide. France has more acres than the U.S., but California and Washington produce more in total tons. Washington has too many diverse growing regions to have a single style of Chardonnay, Mott said.
David Rosenthal, Chateau Ste. Michelle assistant winemaker, said he tells people that, "Washington's known for wines that have great upfront fruit profiles."
Overall, Washington's Chardonnay tends to be lighter bodied in comparison with California's Chardonnay, Rosenthal said. And it can't handle as much oak.
At Chateau Ste. Michelle's Canoe Ridge Vineyard near Paterson, vineyard manager Mimi Nye said she focuses on uniformity in ripeningChardonnay grapes and "bright shade," which means there is sun exposure on the morning side, creating golden clusters with a "bright fruit flavor."
Workers thin shoots and leaf vines to create a window for sun on the morning side, Nye said. They aim for about 4 tons an acre.
When the fruit is first ripening, it is sour like lemons or limes, Nye said. Then as it ripens, it gets a tart taste like Granny Smith apples, and then progresses to a sweet apple or pear taste.
If left on the vine too long, the fruit can taste more tropical, like pineapple and papaya.
She said winemakers aim for the apple flavor.
"When I taste the wine, I can taste the fruit the way it tasted at harvest," she said.
Co Dinn, owner of Granger's Co Dinn Consulting, said some of the state's warmer sites are just too hot for Chardonnay. Dinn, a former longtime winemaker for Hogue Cellars in Prosser, started his own consulting and custom-winemaking business last year.
Cooler sites tend to produce Chardonnay grapes that fit with more restrained and elegant styles, Dinn said. He's looking for a moderate sugar level and a low to moderate pH level in grapes at harvest.
Customers are looking for romance and magic, and that is available with Washington Chardonnay, said Lars Ryssdal, general manager of Ackerman Family Vineyards of Napa, Calif.
To better market the wine, Ryssdal said wineries need to tell their wines' story, incorporating elements from their site or winemaking.
It could be something iconic with the vineyardor sustainability practices, he said. David Ramey, owner and winemaker of Ramey Wine Cellars of Healdsburg, Calif., said wineries also have to build a brand to successfully market their Chardonnay.
"If you want respect, then you have to be in the fine restaurants," he said.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com