Winemaker Michael Claypool ##Photo by Joshua Chang
Clay Pigeon 2015 Chardonnay made in the off-beat Jura style. ##Photo by Michael Alberty

Pardon the Disruption

Jura-style Chardonnay a delicious diversion

By Michael Alberty

Michael Claypool slipped down a French rabbit hole and emerged with an Oregon Chardonnay like no other. It only took a little oxygen and a lot of patience.

Portlanders may remember Claypool from his days running Clay Pigeon Winery from the backroom of the restaurant he owned with wife and cheese guru Sasha Davies. The couple closed Cyril’s in 2017 and moved to Santa Monica.

Claypool is now the managing director at TBWA\Chiat\Day, a Los Angeles advertising agency with a global reputation for “disruptive marketing.” This means Claypool is well versed in the art of defying norms to make a point.

Cyril’s may be gone, but Clay Pigeon Winery lives on at a secret location in Southeast Portland. The Chardonnay Claypool recently released proves wine can be as disruptive as any million-dollar ad campaign.

Claypool’s Jura journey began in an unlikely spot: a Greenwich Village steak house. While dining with friends at Minetta Tavern in New York City, he noticed the wine list included a 1946 Jean Bourdy Côtes du Jura Blanc. “I was already into white wines from France’s Jura region, but a 70-year-old bottle? I hadn’t tried that before,” Claypool said.

He was stunned at how alive the wine tasted. “I became really obsessed with this idea of oxidation,” Claypool said.

One technique Jura winemakers use to make oxidative wine features introducing flor to a barrel of wine only three-quarters full. Flor, a biofilm comprised of strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, forms a coating on the surface of the wine. Claypool says this technique “allows for the slow integration of oxygen into the system while adding the flavor notes associated with flor.”

Unfortunately, Claypool was concerned the flor would take over his cellar like a bad house guest. That’s when one of Claypool’s wine books saved the day. “I came across an entry in a book from the 1940s that mentioned a different technique; just fill a barrel to the top and ignore it,” Claypool says.

First, Claypool de-stems the grapes. After native yeast fermentation in stainless steel tanks, the Chardonnay is transferred to neutral oak barrels. The barrels are filled to the top before the bung is smashed into place. Claypool then ignores the barrels for two years.

Typically winemakers will limit evaporation by “topping off” their barrels with more wine. Claypool’s method of benign neglect leads to slow evaporation, allowing oxygen to enter in a controlled manner. This technique creates wines with interesting textures and nutty, savory flavors traditionally associated with fino sherry.

Claypool liked his first attempt at a Jura-style Chardonnay in 2014, but felt he could take it even further. For the next vintage, he made two barrels worth of Chardonnay with grapes from Volcano Ridge Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge. The barrels went untouched for two years, followed by two brief openings for progress checks in the third year.

Three years without top-offs meant 15% to 20% of the Chardonnay was lost to evaporation. The 2015 vintage was bottled unfined and unfiltered, without ever being touched by added sulfur. The bottles were left to rest at the winery for an additional two years before their May 2020 release.

Michael Claypool tossed aside all traditional methods for making Oregon Chardonnay to create an exotic treat well worth its $25 asking price.

It starts with the wine’s color: the hazy golden glow of a campground lantern at twilight.

Next, the disorienting first sniff, smelling of butterscotch, coconut water and orange blossoms. This wasn’t the oxidative state I was expecting. As the wine warmed a bit, however, there was a sudden burst of toasted filberts and clean saline. Jura was now present and accounted for.

Fruit flavors of green papaya and Golden Delicious apples coat the palate. Tiny bursts of herbs, more filberts and sweet cream butter provide counterpoints to the fruit. The body is rich and full at 13.5% alcohol with modest acidity playing the role of sidekick.

I used to pester Sasha Davies all the time for wine and cheese advice. This time, I threw her a changeup and asked her to pair her husband’s Chardonnay with music. She selected laid-back California native Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

“This wine feels like everyday jazz to me. It makes me think of sherry, aperitifs and knocking back a glass after work, an appreciation of the everyday things we tend to stop paying attention to,” Sasha said.

I advise you to disrupt your everyday Chardonnay drinking routine by seeking out bottles of this wine. Don’t wait too long, as the “angel’s share” left the world with only 40 cases.

The Changeup, a monthly column by Michael Alberty, is a baseball pitch designed to disorient and confuse. It’s the perfect representation of the unknown and its mastery over those who think they know what to expect. This column is devoted to those unorthodox Oregon wines you never saw coming.

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