Northwest Wine

Great Northwest Wine: Chardonnay coming back in style

Plump Chardonnay grapes are ready to be harvested in Washington’s Yakima Valley.
Plump Chardonnay grapes are ready to be harvested in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Great Northwest Wine

For the past few decades, Chardonnay has been America’s favorite wine. In fact, the grape most often identified with France’s Burgundy region — particularly Chablis — is the most-planted white variety in the world.

Here in the Northwest, that remains true, with Chardonnay often vying for No. 1 in Washington with Riesling. In Oregon, Chardonnay is the No. 2 white grape after Pinot Gris.

In recent years, Chardonnay has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. As consumers have grown weary of the big, buttery style (known derisively as “California-style Chardonnay”), we are seeing a lot of winemakers experimenting with growing Chardonnay in cooler climates and avoiding barrel fermentations. They are using techniques to highlight the grape’s crisp acidity and flavors over the big, rich styles that have been dominant.

Indeed, because of this, now is an exciting time to be drinking Chardonnay. So if you’ve been avoiding the grape because of its well-earned reputation the past couple of decades, now is the time to welcome it back into your home.

Chardonnay’s history in Washington is fairly recent. The first Chardonnay grapes were planted in Washington in 1963 — in the Yakima Valley near Sunnyside.

Last fall, Washington wineries crushed 42,000 tons of Chardonnay. As with most grapes, the state’s oldest and largest winery — Chateau Ste. Michelle — is the leader in production, bottling more than 1 million cases of Chardonnay each year. Sister winery Columbia Crest produces no less than a quarter-million cases each year

Here are five examples of superb Northwest Chardonnay, all of which won gold medals at the fourth annual Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, which took place in early October at the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River.

Two of these wines are from Idaho’s Snake River Valley, where Chardonnay has been grown for more than three decades. But we also have one from the vast Columbia Valley, as well as one from the intriguing Columbia Gorge region, which is a cool area surrounding the communities in and around Hood River (on both sides of the Columbia River).

Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.

Barnard Griffin Winery 2014 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, $14: A Chardonnay this easy drinking also shouldn’t be so rich and layered, but here you go, another bargain from one of the Northwest’s more consistent producers. Barnard Griffin in Richland, is run by Rob Griffin, the state’s most-tenured winemaker.

Tranche Cellars 2012 Celilo Vineyard Chardonnay, Columbia Gorge, $45: Convincing evidence that a wine in a bottle topped with a screwcap isn’t somehow lacking. This is one compelling Chardonnay for its rich ripe fruit, buoyant acidity, diverting spice and suggestions of hazelnut. Tranche is part of Corliss in Walla Walla.

Huston Vineyards 2015 Private Reserve Chardonnay, Snake River Valley, $24: A spot-on Chardonnay for its tropical fruit, its suggestion of special place and its puff of discreet smoke from the oak, as good as signal as any to stock up on this exceptional release. Huston is a small producer near Caldwell.

Abeja 2014 Chardonnay, Washington, $40: Dry and lean, but with rare composure and generosity, resulting in a Chardonnay of refreshing sleekness and lift. This is one of Washington’s few cult Chardonnays, crafted by this winery just east of Walla Walla.

Cinder Wines 2015 Chardonnay, Snake River Valley, $18: An exceptionally keen Chardonnay for its Burgundian sculpting, careful not to cut off any elements to contribute to an immensely enduring finish. This wine is produced by Melanie Krause, a former winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, who now owns her own winery near Boise.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company;