A few years ago, I fell in love with Chardonnay from Oregon, after a trip that coincided with its famous wine auction, held to promote the overall Willamette Valley industry. The region is of course best known for its stunning Pinot Noir—the auction is mostly about that—and I like those, too. A real, real lot. But the Chardonnays made me want to get out of the friend zone and move in together.
I was reminded of the crush when I chanced upon a 2014 Estate Chardonnay from Bethel Heights at one of my local wine stores. At home, I had a branzino heading for the grill. This will be perfect, I thought to myself. Myself was right.
Bethel Heights should be counted as one of the region’s pioneers. They started up in 1977 as a family operation (and remain so today) and made their first wines (at home) in 1981. In 1984, their charming website says, “we produced our first commercial vintage of 3,000 cases: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Gewurztraminer, all Estate Grown.” In 2005, Ben Casteel (one of the founders’ sons, and a terrifically nice fellow) took over as winemaker. The winery sits right in the middle of the Eola-Amity Hills. I’m going back as soon as I can.
The 2014 has a slightly grassy nose and a light-bodied brightness on first impression. I got whispers of a creamy lemon custard on the first couple of sips; the medium-length finish is clean—that’s what my notes say, anyway—and there is a grip at the end, with hints of peach pit.
I had taken the wine out of my regular fridge, so it was just a tad too cold at first. As it relaxed a bit, the wine gave distant suggestions of… cashew? An abiding kind of richness. Not nutty but a tiny bit fat. For me it was, above all, a beautifully balanced Chardonnay, offering pleasurable fruit with a nice bite of acidity. You keep wanting another sip.
With food—in my case the simply grilled fish, with some lemon and herbs stuffed in, and some buttered baby potatoes—it really showed its pedigree. Over the course of dinner, the wine offered some woodsy hints and even a whiff of petrol. It had a mouth watering quality that made it flat-out enjoyable to drink.
I’m not the first to say it, but this wine and its ilk sit in a wonderful space on a continuum, centered between sleek Burgundies and some of the classier California Chardonnays. One keeps seeking for new terms, for things to compare it with, but that’s the brilliance of Oregon chards in recent years; they are a new thing. The growers have found their footing with the wines and are letting the unique terroir shine.
Maybe 15 or 20 years ago, aficionados were declaring Pinot Gris, and whites in general, to be where Oregon would really shine. And indeed those wines have often been great, too—note Bethel Heights’ Gewurtz attempt, above, and their current Pinot Gris offering (a 2018, and the second to last they plan to grow)—but the Chardonnays are downright seductive. Winemaking folks out there rightly try not to use the B-word too often—that’s “Burgundy,” of course—but the wines are so good they can’t help but suggest the comparison. There has for some time now been real elegance and achievement with the Pinot Noir. The Chardonnays now really shine as well.