Knudsen Vineyards managing director Page Knudsen-Cowles discusses the just-released 2013 Dundee Hills Chardonnay during a luncheon at the Knudsen Cabin##Photo by Marcus Larson
Valerie Cutz, events coordinator for Knudsen Vineyards, pours the 2013 Chardonnay for Dixie Huey of Trellis Partners. To Cutz’s right is Eric Degerman of Great Northwest Wine.##Photo by Marcus Larson

Introducing Knudsen Chardonnay

Famed Oregon vineyard vinifies its own after 40 years

By Karl Klooster

The real pros immerse themselves in the field, building their knowledge while training their palates. And a small but exemplary group of them attended a recent luncheon at the invitation of Page Knudsen-Cowles, managing director of Knudsen Vineyards.

The setting was the Knudsen Cabin, built by Cowles’ father, Calvert “Cal” Knudsen, so he could visit from Seattle on weekends to oversee the evolution of his fledgling vines in the early 1970s. It’s modest in size, but not in comfort. And it affords a majestic, panoramic view of the valley from its covered deck, from northwest to southeast.

Klooster's Clusters

Karl Klooster is the associate editor of the Oregon Wine Press and writes a wine column for the News-Register in McMinnville. He became professionally involved with wine in 1972.

Knudsen was one of that small but tight nucleus of true pioneers. He believed in the future of Northwestern Oregon in general and these Dundee Hills in particular at a time when few understood, much less appreciated such farsighted vision.

An avid Burgundy fan, Knudsen was as much an advocate for Chardonnay as Pinot Noir. Also a lover of Champagne, he planted a small plot of Pinot Meunier, which aficionados of French bubbly swear puts the finishing touch on the blend.

When he eventually connected with Argyle, selling grapes to the Dundee producer, its commitment to making sparkling wine in Oregon sealed the deal, making their relationship a perfect fit.

It was Chardonnay that enticed us up the hillside on this particular day. We were intent on answering one question: Do the microclimate and terroir of this particular spot lend themselves to both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as some Côte-d’Or cru do?

In the early 1970s, there was little Chardonnay source material available. The 108 clone from UC Davis was one of the few around, and its propensity to ripen later than Pinot Noir wasn’t feasible in such a cool climate.

When famed Burgundian vigneron Robert Drouhin arrived to plant the first French flag in Oregon vineyard soil in 1987, he explained how 108 was a problem. He said it didn’t even look like the specific variety he was familiar with at home. Suddenly, Chardonnay clones from the University of Dijon became available; they had been developed to deliver the same ripening profile as the most desirable Pinot Noir clones.

Knudsen’s vineyard consultant, Allen Holstein, grafted over his 30 Chardonnay acres to clones 76 and 96 in 1990, opening a new era in Oregon Chardonnay. It took only a few sips of 2013 Dundee Hills Chardonnay, lovingly poured for the group on hand, to tell that decades-old story.

In addition to Cowles and myself, the group included:

- Eric Degerman, CEO of Great Northwest Wine out of Kennewick, Washington. Degerman and his partner, Andy Perdue, co-founders of Wine Press Northwest, have been covering the Northwest wine scene since 1998.

- Jade Helm, who owns the website and wineblog Tasting Pour. A freelance writer and wine educator, she teaches Wines of the World at Chemeketa Community College’s Northwest Wine Study Center. An ambassador for Oregon wine, she holds credentials from the Society of Wine Educators, the Wine and Spirits Education Trust and the Court of Master Sommeliers.

- Dixie Huey, who enjoys wine so much she decided to start a business devoted entirely to wine promotion, Trellis Growth Partners LLC of Portland. Launched in 2008, the firm now boasts a dozen regular clients and has undertaken projects for two dozen more. She was accompanied by her account coordinator, Whitney Tyler.

- Michelle Kaufmann, Oregon Wine Board marketing communications director. A native Oregonian and University of Oregon alum, Kaufmann has been with the board since 2011. And she seems to have as many reference files loaded in her head as she does on her computer hard drive.

Valley Commissary of McMinnville provided catering services for the event, which featured wine from Julia Lee’s Block, named for Knudsen’s mother, Julia Lee. Made by Argyle, the 2013 Knudsen Chardonnay was paired with a succulent cold pea soup with fresh mint and crème fraîche, served with a chilled rare steak salad.

Both dishes paired perfectly with the beautifully balanced Chardonnay, which displayed an enticingly floral nose, complex layers of spice, quince and oak, and an underpinning of racy acidity.

Just 125 cases of the 2013 were made, but plans call for increasing production to 250 cases of the 2014 and up to 650 cases of the 2015. Current retail is $45 per bottle.

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