Oregon Chardonnay: The Food-Friendly Chard

rex hill

The big barn on Rex Hill was once a fruit and nut drying facility, pig farm and commune.

The news that 2008 was a near-perfect vintage in Oregon gave me a great excuse to explore their wines. I wrote about A to Z Wineworks, which is a very cool collaboration between severalĀ  highly regarded Oregon wine veterans. Then I discovered Rex Hill Vineyards, another award-winning Oregon producer that was purchased by the A to Z folks when the original owners retired. So what better way to learn about Oregon Chardonnay than to taste each of their Chards, side by side.

First, let’s talk about Oregon Chardonnays. I’d noticed that almost without exception they were lightly oaked or not oaked at all. You might say, “What’s the matter with these Oregonians: don’t they want all that rich vanilla and butter?” Well, it turns out they don’t. The Chardonnay clone they grow ripens more slowly in the cool climate, but that’s a good thing. The more slowly they ripen, the more chance the grapes have to develop the “phenolics,” the complex flavor compounds that mature after the sugar levels have peaked. Their fruit has more intense and complex flavors than warm-climate Chardonnay, so the winemakers don’t want to cover it up with heavy oak or malolactic fermentation (which turns the crisp natural acids into that “buttery” texture). They emulate Burgundy, not California, and are proud of it. (By the way, all of this is a direct steal from a very good article on A to Z’s website. Click here to get it from the horse’s mouth.)

So let’s get back to the good stuff — tasting the wines. We had Rex Hill Willamette Valley Chardonnay 2007 and A to Z Oregon Chardonnay 2008 side by side. Both noses showed crisp fruit notes, like green apple or tangerine, but the A to Z had a hint of mineral and the Rex Hill more richness. The palates followed the pattern, with the A to Z tasting of citrus,with a steely undertone, while the Rex Hill had a little more roundness and richness. On the finish, the A to Z was very crisp and tangy — lots of acid here — while the Rex Hill was softer and creamier.a to z

What was common to both was described by a friend who usually drinks Chards that are waaaaaay at the other end of the spectrum (Rombauer?). He said they’re both very light on the palate, and easy to sip and enjoy (and I want to tell you about the food we paired with these Chards, so stay tuned for my next post).

Reading the winemaker notes explained and corroborated our tasting impressions. The A to Z was aged in 100% stainless steel to preserve all the bright fruit flavors, while the Rex Hill was aged in just 5% older oak barrels that don’t impart “woodiness” but do add some softness. All in all, these are well-balanced wines that would be great with appetizers or entrees. The A to Z is more affordable, at under $20, and the Rex is still reasonable in the low $20s.

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