In 1974, David Adelsheim traveled to France on a mission to learn about Burgundian winemaking techniques. Observing first hand that the local Chardonnays and Pinot noirs ripened at the same time, he tried to answer the obvious question: why was it that two very similar climates produced such different results with Chardonnay?

It was apparent that the Chardonnay selections transplanted from California to Oregon were simply not geared to cool climates, and the clones used in Burgundy most definitely were.

Adelsheim recognized the need for these clones in Oregon and encouraged Oregon State University to set up a program that would permit their importation and evaluation. In 1977, the first clones arrived and went through the 2-year quarantine process, but they were not the clones Adelsheim had seen in Burgundy.

The clones that captured Adelsheim’s attention were the result of work in the 1960s by Raymond Bernard, a scientist in the Dijon office of the French Ministry of Agriculture. Bernard had been given the responsibility of selecting clones of Pinot noir and Chardonnay to improve the quality of wines produced in Burgundy. For Chardonnay the immediate need was for clones that did not carry the destructive fanleaf virus. By 1974, Bernard had 10 clones that had been tested and were being planted.

In 1984, David Heatherbell, Professor of Enology at Oregon State University, was able to convince Dr. Bernard to share a range of his Pinot noir and Chardonnay clones with Oregon. The first four clones imported were 75, 76, 96, and 98. On a return trip to France in 1988, Adelsheim arranged to import an additional three clones: 77, 95 and 277. Lab technicians at OSU nicknamed them the “Dijon clones” after the return address on the shipping container, and they are known by that name on the West Coast to this day.

Heatherbell invited Professor Bernard to speak at the first Cool Climate Wine Symposium held at OSU. Bernard was impressed by the potential for these clones in Oregon, and provided recommendations on
their planting and vinification.

“Planting these clones was a leap of faith,” admits Adelsheim. “We could only hope that by ripening a few weeks earlier that the quality of our Chardonnay would catch up to our Pinots, but there was still an element of the unknown that would only be determined after the 2-3 years it would take to bring in the first fruit.”

While a handful of wineries planted small acreages to these new clones, the first vintner to fully embrace them on a large scale was Rollin Soles of Argyle, planting 5 acres to Dijon clones on devigorating rootstock at the Knudsen vineyard in 1990. “We didn’t need any further proof that this was the right thing to do,” says Soles. “We knew that whatever worked in Burgundy would be a success here, especially since Professor Bernard was so confident in the outcome. The new clones gave us the opportunity to rethink not only our Chardonnay vineyards, but our Pinot program as well.” Today Argyle is the largest farmer of Dijon clone Chardonnay with 58 acres under vine.

Encouraged by Adelsheim and Soles, other producers began the slow and expensive process of planting new vineyards to the Dijon clones, adopting narrower spacing and grafting to devigorating rootstocks such as 3309 and even the extreme version of devigoration, Riparia Gloire.

Chehalem’s Harry Peterson-Nedry was instrumental in advising Stoller Vineyards, a significant grower in
the southern Dundee Hills, to plant 20-acres with the new Dijon clones. This effectively brought these exciting new wines within reach of the five wineries, including Chehalem, who continue to source Chardonnay fruit from Stoller.

Clones 76, 95 and 96 (and to a lesser extent clones 75 and 98) have now been propagated into over 950 acres of Chardonnay throughout Oregon, approximately 600 of which are in the Willamette Valley. Enough tonnage has been harvested since the mid 1990s to validate initial impressions, and the broad flavors, richness and complexity are now inherent characteristics of Oregon Chardonnay. “Today, those young vineyards have hit full stride and are producing their best fruit to date,” states Soles. “For 20 years these vines have produced progressively better fruit, and we’re getting better at making the crucial picking decisions to make sure these grapes deliver the best wines possible.”

 

For more information please e-mail: info@oregonchardonnay.org