21 May Chardonnay: Nuances in expressing site – an example from the Yakima Valley
Chardonnay is one of the world’s most popular grapes. A noble grape, its parents are Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. We first see mention of it in the 16th century in Burgundy.
You can find it grown all over the globe. From its home in Burgundy to Australia’s Hunter Valley. You find it in Italy, South Africa, Spain, Chile, Argentina, California, Oregon, Washington…Yes, Washington. We will get to that later.
The Different Styles of Chardonnay
These different regions bring in some of the differences in the wines. With wine grapes, flavors and aromas come from the variety, the location where it is grown (climate and soil) and then the winemaking. Chardonnay is incredibly adaptable.
Chardonnay can have aromas and flavors of yellow apple, citrus, tropical fruit, butter, vanilla, chalk, lime, white flowers, or stone fruit. Warm climates give you tropical notes, cool climates more citrus and pear.
The wine makers hand…
Here there are many variables. It can be as simple as when the winemaker chooses to pick, what the sugar levels are at. Then you can ferment in stainless or in wood. You can allow the wine to go through malolactic fermentation or not, you can age on the lees, you can filter or not filter….so many options that will affect the taste of the wine.
A tale of two Chardonnays
With all these variables that can affect the outcome of a bottle of Chardonnay, what if you eliminate a few. Would the wines then taste the same? We had a chance to investigate the nuances of Chardonnay with two vineyards in Yakima Valley. These vineyards sit in 2 different AVAs within the larger Yakima Valley AVA. DuBrul Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA and Roskamp Vineyard in the Snipes Mountain AVA. While they are in two separate AVAs, if you were a crow you would have a 6 to 7-mile flight to get between the two vineyards. Standing in one vineyard, on a clear day, you can easily see the other.
Last year we visited with two winemakers we had met there before. Co Dinn of Co Dinn Cellars and Kerry Shiels of Cote Bonneville. The two both make Chardonnay from these vineyards that look across the Yakima Valley at each other.
Co Dinn Chardonnay Roskamp Vineyard Snipes Mountain AVA
Co Dinn makes his Chardonnay from the Roskamp Vineyard on the Snipes Mountain AVA. Snipes Mountain sits in the middle of the Yakima Valley, an anticline in the Yakima fold belt. The north side is a gentle slope, while the south side is steep, with basement rock exposed.
His Chardonnay sits on the north slope. While that might be odd in most regions, you have much longer days in the growing season here and they rarely have trouble getting fruit to ripen. Keeping the Chardonnay on the north slope gives it the morning sun and keeps it protected from the afternoon heat. They have 3 blocks of Chardonnay here at Roskamp, the one Co pulls from is the most protected. It is planted to the Dijon clones 76 & 96 in a field blend.
These grapes, thanks to the sandy soil in Washington are own rooted. They keep the west side shaded and expose the east side. The vines need more protection from the southwest heat and wind. Soils here on the gentler north slope are deeper, you can see the difference in vigor between these vines and the syrah vines growing closer to the south side.
Co makes his wines in a very traditional way. His chardonnay is barrel fermented with full malolactic fermentation and ages 17 months on the lees. His goal? To really showcase the site.
“I believe that the ultimate expression of a wine is to capture the character of the site. You can make beautiful wines by blending but you lose specificity. I’ve decided to find these special places and to express them. For example, this place is very unique and so are the wines.”Co Dinn, July 2019
Co points out DuBrul Vineyard across the valley to the North. The vineyard there is southwest facing. Theirs is the older clone.
Kerry Shiels, DuBrul Vineyard, Rattlesnake Hills AVA
A few days later, we spent the morning with Kerry Shiels at DuBrul Vineyard. This site sits on a basalt upthrust. They have a south facing slope with a cutout that allows for southwest and southeast aspects. They sit high in the foothills of the Rattlesnake Mountains. This unique vineyard with its aspects grows quite a range, from Cabernet Sauvignon to Chardonnay to Riesling!
The morning we visited the Mountains were out. When you looked to the West you could see Mount Adams to the south and further north in the distance Mt. Rainier.
We spent some time in the cool chardonnay vineyard. This was early July, and they would not pick the Chard until the beginning of September.
Kerry also does her Chardonnay in a classic style with a barrel ferment, full secondary, full malolactic. They keep it on the lees, and it spends about a year and a half in barrel.
“I have a friend who doesn’t like Chardonnay, she says “your chardonnay is good, I recognize the quality, it’s not my favorite grape. Which is fine, but it’s good enough that she says “If I’m going to drink Chardonnay, I’ll drink yours. But I’d rather drink coke”. If you like Burgundian styled classical age-worthy complex balanced Chardonnay, then you are going to like our Chardonnay.”Kerry Shiels, July 2019
We look across to the South to Snipes Mountain and Roskamp vineyard.
“I think it’s really interesting how different that Chard taste from this Chard.
I mean they are different clones, but also the soil is different. Snipes is its own, geologically it’s totally distinct from this. It’s fun to see that sense of place.“Kerry Shiels, July 2019
Similarities and Differences
So how did our side by side tasting go? It was interesting. Let’s run down the similarities and differences again.
Both were barrel fermented, with 17 to 18 months on the lees. They were both unfined and unfiltered and from the same 2015 vintage. Both come from the Yakima Valley, from vineyards just 6 to 7 miles apart. They were both made by winemakers with similar styles, both wanting to showcase the site.
They were Chardonnays from different clones, from 2 different AVAs (regardless of how near they are), the aspects were different with the Roskamp Chardonnay on the gentle North slope and the DuBrul on a South west facing slope. The soils and the microclimates (most definitely the microclimates) are different. Lastly, quite honestly, I don’t know what yeast they each used.
Tasting & Comparing
The Co Dinn Roskamp Chardonnay was plush and creamy with baking spice, whereas the Cote Bonneville was leaner and more elegant with not quite ripe pear notes and a lovely mineral note.
How much of this was the soil, the different aspect, perhaps the picking date? I don’t know, I just find it wonderful and amazing that two wines made from grapes in vineyards that look out on to each other, can be so subtly different.
I’m going to also mention that these are probably two of the finer Chardonnay’s that you will find in the Yakima Valley and they don’t come cheap. In fact, the Cote Bonneville may no longer be available. Pick up the latest vintage. They pride themselves on consistency and it is bound to be good.
The Wines and where to find them
Both of these wineries can be found in Sunnyside Washington, at about the mid point of the Yakima Valley. Both has beautiful historic buildings for tasting rooms and are well worth the trip. But, in these days, when travel is not so easy…you can order them online.
2015 Chardonnay Cote Bonneville SRP $50
2015 Co Dinn Chardonnay Roskamp Vineyard SRP $45
Other resources on Chardonnay and the Yakima Valley
- Wine Yakima Valley
- Washington State Wine
- Jancis Robinson – Chardonnay
- Wine for Normal People: The Grape Miniseries.. Chardonnay
- Wine Folly – Chardonnay
More on this region from Crushed Grape Chronicles
- Yakima Valley Seminar
- Elephant Mountain Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills
- Yakima Valley – Wine and beyond with Wine Yakima Valley’s Flavor Camp
- The Scenic Route Flash Tour 2019 Part 5 – One day 3 Washington AVAs
- The Scenic Route Part 7 – Du Brul to Hiyu
- 12 Days of Wine – Day 4 Côte Bonneville
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.