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By Karl Klooster • Staff Writer • 

The Cork: Knudsen releases its first chardonnay

After more than four decades of involvement in the wine industry, I am always delighted to spend time with younger wine professionals who are representing the industry well. If there’s any field that can capture true passion, it’s the making of fine wine.

The real pros immerse themselves in the field, building their knowledge and 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.

Karl Klooster

Klooster is the News-Register's regional editor and wine columnist.

> See his column

The setting was the Knudsen Cabin, built by Cowles’ father, Calvin “Cal” Knudsen, so he could come down 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 sweeping, panoramic view of the valley from its covered deck, from northwest to southeast.

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 Champagne appreciator, he planted a small plot of pinot meunier, which aficionados of French bubbly swear puts the finishing touch on the blend.

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

It was chardonnay that enticed us up the mountainside on this particular day. We were intent on answering this question for ourselves: Do the microclimate and terroir of this particular spot lend themselves to both pinot noir and chardonnay, as some Cote d’Or cru do?

In the early 1970s, there was little chardonnary source material available. The 108 clone from Davis was one of the only ones around, and its propensity to ripen later than pinot noir wasn’t workable 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 told Knudsen 108 was a problem. He said it didn’t even look like the variety he was familiar with back home.

Then, 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 had vineyard consultant Allen Holstein graft 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 33-year-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 likes 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 Provisions 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 fraiche, served with a chilled rare steak salad.

Both dishes went 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 ramping up 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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