The 2016 A to Z Oregon Chardonnay is a well-balanced unoaked, versatile white wine that’s good to drink by the fire in winter and on the porch on summer evenings.
The Willamette Valley, which has been recognized since the 1970s as one of the top Pinot Noir producing areas in the country, is becoming known for its high-quality Chardonnay, and A to Z is receiving accolades for being one of the best, particularly for its price range.
Those of you who are price sensitive should not worry. The wine is often on sale for a couple of dollars less, and it’s so good that it can easily be called a special treat.
There’s a school of thought that winter months are better for drinking red wines than whites. I would agree that some reds are best for winter and too heavy for hot weather drinking — thick, high-alcohol California Cabernet Sauvignon or red blends or the ubiquitous Australian Shiraz, come to mind — and some whites, such as Vinho Verde or some Sauvignon Blanc, are a bit on the light side for sipping during the colder months, although they go well with seafood any time of year.
But A to Z Chardonnay is a crisp, Burgundy-style wine with lemon and floral aromas and flavors that bridge the seasons.
Four friends, two husband and wife teams, started A to Z in 2002. Bill Hatcher, Deb Hatcher, Cheryl Francis and Sam Tannahill all worked in the Oregon wine industry at different wineries when they decided to make a Pinot Noir blend in the Hatchers’ kitchen. Their efforts paid off when Food & Wine called it the Best American Pinot Noir under $20. From the beginning, the company had a reputation for dependable quality wines, and production grew quickly, the company website says.
In 2006, the four partners hired Oregon wine veteran Michael Davies as winemaker, and formed a partnership with Gregg Popovich, coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, to buy Rex Hill Vineyards and Winery, a successful family-owned business started in 1982. A to Z is now Oregon’s top selling wine brand.
The Willamette Valley was a booming agricultural area in the 1920s. Plum, pear, apple, walnut and hazelnut orchards covered the region, and dozens of independent fruit- and nut-drying facilities sprang up to prepare the harvests for shipping to the East. When rail and truck transportation improved enough to allow fresh produce to be shipped, dried fruit and nuts fell out of vogue. Many of the drying facilities closed down, including Rex Hill, which shut its doors in the 1960s. For a decade, Rex Hill was a pig farm and then a commune before being completely abandoned, the Rex Hill website says.
Paul Hart and his wife, Jan Jacobsen, bought the old barn with its drying tunnels and hillside acreage in 1982. They were among the first to plant Pinot Noir grapes in Oregon, and they turned Rex Hill into a successful vineyard and winery.
Rex Hill has continued to be family owned under A to Z, and the partners have been good stewards of the land, using sustainable organic and biodynamic principals. A to Z also has been named a “Best in the World” B Corporation every year since 2014 by the nonprofit B Lab, signifying the company’s commitment to the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability.
In a column published in the New York Times last June, wine writer Eric Asimov gives partial credit for the improvement of Willamette Chardonnay to the influence of wine consultants from Burgundy who have worked with Oregon winemakers during the last decade. He also notes that the Valley’s producers are now taking Chardonnay seriously.
In years past, Chardonnay was an afterthought in Oregon, planted in vineyards where Pinot Noir had been grown, areas that were good for Pinot Noir, but not for Chardonnay. The growers also came to understand that Oregon Chardonnay grapes are acidic. Focusing on acidity, rather than sugar, became a determining factor on when to harvest and the quality of the wine.
After spending some time in the vineyards in Oregon, Asimov assembled a tasting panel of experts in New York and tasted 20 Willamette Chardonnays.
“In the best versions, acidity was felt as a sense of liveliness, energy, tension and thrust. It gave the wine momentum and vibrancy, allowing it to refresh, while showing other characteristics like flavors of herbs and flowers or discernible minerality,” he said in the column.
A to Z Chardonnay was one of those tasted. The wine was one of two under $20, and it scored two stars out of three. The judges noted that A to Z was “lively and floral, with modest mineral and citrus flavors.”
A to Z is widely available across the country, and pairs well with spicy chicken. My wife, Sandy, and I drank it with a weeknight dinner of grilled beefalo burgers and steamed broccoli. It was an excellent match.
Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.