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Washington Wine – Charles Smith’s Chardonnay


Charles Smith, Charles Smith Wines, K VintnersPinot noir holds pride of first place in Oregon, and Cabernet and Syrah in Washington, but Chardonnay is the growth stock to watch in the new northwest wine market.

Charles Smith (at right)  is known for huge red wines from his super-scoring K Vintners and Charles Smith labels, but he’s going white wine with a new project: single vineyard Chardonnays, spearheaded by winemaker Brennon Leighton. You know him as the former winemaker at Efeste.

I had to call to believe it, but yes, there are a couple dozen single vineyard Chardonnays aging in K Vintners’ cellars, with probable release of their first wines in 2014. It’s a mark of his commitment to the grape that he is exploring the possibilities with fruit from so many different sites. My bet is that he’s found small patches of old vine Chard around the state and is seeing what kind of wine they make. Little patches of neglected old vines, brought back into production with meticulous care – that’s the way to go.

The biggest problem for all would-be Chardonnay makers in Washington and Oregon is fruit. Most of the Chardonnay vines in Oregon were grafted over to Pinot noir or Pinot gris in the last 20 years as the grape’s lack of popularity made it unprofitable. The few patches of old vine (20 years or older) Chardonnay are coveted and allocations are hard to come by. Evening Land Vineyards‘ block of old vine Chardonnay in the Seven Springs Vineyard is only a few acres. Arterberry-Maresh’s patch is counted by the number of vines. Eyrie has a larger amount than most, although last year Eyrie’s Jason Lett regretfully pointed out to me vines in his vineyard that were grafted over to other grapes. Larger blocks are usually young vines or have been cultivated for grocery quality wines.

Buzz about Oregon Chardonnay is even greater than Washington’s. Oregon Chardonnay has come into style with a bullet after years of neglect – Evening Land Vineyards and their superstar consulting winemaker Dominique Lafon have brought $100+ Oregon Chardonnay to the market. Thirty vintages of Eyrie Chardonnay Reserve were released from the winery’s cellar a few years ago and snapped up by new devotees. Arterberry Maresh took their three rows of 35 year old Chardonnay vines and made a wine that is one of Oregon’s best (if least known.)

In Washington, Charles Smith has a remarkable track record for finding neglected vines, bringing them back to life, and making amazing wine from them. With so many sites’ Chardonnay in barrel at his winery, looks like he’s on the hunt again. I hope I can get on the mailing list in time to get some!

below, Martha Maresh with Chardonnay vines she planted in 1975, some of the oldest in the Dundee Hills

Martha Maresh with old Chardonnay vine

Jean Yates

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