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For American wine lovers, Oregon’s Willamette Valley has long been synonymous with Pinot Noir. In fact, the home page of The Willamette Valley Wineries Association proudly proclaims in large type: “We Are Pinot Noir.”
But some believe that Chardonnay has even greater potential here. We’ve been in the Chardonnay camp ever since we tasted the first vintage of Evening Land’s two Seven Springs Vineyard Chardonnays more than a decade ago. Those wines were the most exciting American Chardonnays we’d ever tasted, coming eerily close to great White Burgundy.
Chris and Kathryn Hermann went us one better. Not only did they believe in Chardonnay’s greater potential, they did something about it, becoming the Willamette Valley’s great Chardonnay specialist. And they did it the right way, identifying the valley’s greatest Chardonnay terroirs, focusing not only on the right soils, but also on the right clones. Dominique Lafon was among those who encouraged them, calling Willamette Valley Chardonnay “the best in the New World.”
Quietly, Chris and Kathryn began sourcing small amounts of fruit from a Who’s Who of Willamette vineyards, including Seven Springs, Chehalem Mountain, Eola Springs, Hyland and Open Claim—each its own ideal combination of exposure and Jory volcanic basalt and oceanic sedimentary soils.
But the Hermanns still had to crack the code for how to make Chardonnay that expresses the nuances of its terroirs, but with the texture and longevity of the great white Burgundies. As Chris told The Wine Advocate’s Erin Brooks, “I didn’t know how one takes Oregon fruit and creates something that has an echo of White Burgundy, especially the textural component. What makes Coche-Dury and Roulot what they are?"
Past is Prologue
In their inaugural 2015 vintage Chris and Kathryn made a total of 600 cases of wine. By 2016, when they made 1200 cases, they’d settled on a winemaking regime that’s straight out of Burgundy. And by the 2017 vintage, with a total of 2000 cases made, word really began to spread that they were on to something. Not only were they receiving 95, 96 and 97 point ratings throughout their portfolio, but one of their wines had been called "the best domestic Chardonnay ever made."
The project’s success was in a way pre-ordained. A second-generation Oregonian, Chris spent more than three decades doing vineyard deals as a lawyer in the Willamette Valley, learning its terroirs and its vineyards like the back of his hand. As a child, his father, a renowned plant geneticist at Oregon State, took him around to meet all the early Oregon greats. Talking with him is like going to class on the history of Oregon winemaking over the past 50 years.
“This is about pushing Chardonnay to its capacity.”
- Chris Hermann
Chris had had the dual privilege of drinking David Lett’s pioneering Eyrie Chardonnays from the 1960s, while spending his entire adult life drinking great White Burgundy. And so he had a sense of the possibilities. In fact, the name “Double Zero” comes from numerology, with zero representing an absence of limits, and double zero further emphasizing the limitless potential of their work.
In short, Chris and Kathryn weren’t satisfied just making excellent Oregon Chardonnay. They wanted the kind of magic you get in a glass of Roulot or Coche. And to get it, they linked up with one of the most brilliant winemakers in Burgundy, Pierre Millemann.
When Millemann began advising the Hermanns in 2015, he introduced them to “Black Chardonnay,” a winemaking technique that originated in Burgundy sometime in the early 20th century.
At the heart of the technique, in the hours after harvest, the grape must is exposed to a great deal of oxygen, which of course is contrary to how many in Burgundy and elsewhere handle Chardonnay today. In response to Burgundy’s battle with “premox” over the past quarter century, most winemakers handle Chardonnay with kid gloves, gently pneumatically pressing it and protecting it from oxygen by using nitrogen and sulfur.
But the Black Chardonnay method championed by Millemann—and used by Coche-Dury, Roulot and a handful of other White Burgundy greats—takes exactly the opposite approach. Double Zero’s Chardonnay is picked fully ripe, but at relatively low sugar levels, and the whole clusters are foot-crushed, chilled and macerated overnight. It then sees a long “heavy press cycle” with no sulfur additions.
The intent is maximum extraction of phenolics from the skins and seeds, capturing the essence of terroir and vintage in their aromatics and texture. The must goes into the press pan and immediately turns dark brown to black through oxidation of the molecules from the skins, hence the method’s name.
Protecting Against Oxidation
This dark must is then put into tanks in which the phenols then perform their next magical function: they are the major oxygen-consuming component in the must, and when they fall out of suspension, they take the dark color and oxidation with them.
The result is juice that—while retaining all of the complex aromatics, flavors and texture from the phenols—is astonishingly oxidation-resistant and fresh. The must goes straight to barrel, retaining all but the gross lees, for native-yeast fermentation and aging. The top wines develop for 18 months in barrel, gaining in complexity and richness of texture through contact with the thick layer of lees.
As Chris told The Somm Journal’s Michelle Metter, “It’s an incredible dance between human ideas and nature’s gifts. For us, this is about pushing Chardonnay to its capacity [and] producing distinctively textured and aromatic wines in a relentless pursuit of the extraordinary.”
2017 00 Wines Chardonnay “VGW’ $75/btl | $160 mag
To create the VGW blend, Chris and Pierre tasted through more than 100 barrels to come up with this magical expression of four noble Willamette Valley terroirs, each between 400 and 500 feet elevation and planted to Dijon clone. The cornerstone in 2017 is the great Seven Springs Vineyard, supplemented by fruit from the Open Claim, Von Oehsen and Anahata vineyards, each with its own distinguished pedigree.
Josh Raynolds: “95 rating. Pale yellow-gold. Highly expressive, mineral-tinged aromas of fresh melon, pear, tangerine and succulent flowers, along with saffron, vanilla and floral nuances that build in the glass. Shows impressive depth as well as liveliness on the palate, offering mineral-accented Meyer lemon, nectarine, Anjou pear and honeydew flavors that pick up a spicy accent on the back half. Emphatically repeats the pear and spice notes on the impressively long, subtly sweet finish, which delivers powerful thrust and a touch of smoky lees.”
Nick Stock (a highly respected Australian critic now writing for Jamessuckling.com): “97 rating. This offers ripe-pineapple and lime-juice aromas, as well as white peaches and wet stones, in a very expressive mode. The palate has a very smooth core of mellow, cashew nuts and white peaches with some very assertive and dense, fleshy-peach and praline notes to close.”
2017 00 Wines Chardonnay “EGW’ $95/btl | $199.95 mag
Created with the same intense tasting regime that produced VGW, this fabulous cuvée is 2/3 Wente clone from three iconic vineyards, with a variety of soil types: Hyland, Bunker Hill and Chehalem Mountain. Though about 20% of the barrels were new, most of the components were aged in 500-liter puncheons, further limiting the oak influence. The result in 2017 is magnificent.
Josh Raynolds: “94 rating. Limpid straw-gold. Vibrant, mineral- and spice-accented aromas of peach nectar, Anjou pear and Meyer lemon carry a bright floral overtone. Juicy and densely packed, displaying a suave interplay of richness and vivacity to the citrus and orchard fruit, honeysuckle, buttered toast and saffron flavors. Picks up smoky lees and vanilla nuances with air and shows excellent clarity and solid thrust on a strikingly long, penetrating finish that echoes the mineral note and betrays no rough edges.”
John Gilman: “94 rating … there is a slightly reductive aspect to the wine that recalls young Coche-Dury, but which opens up to reveal scents of apple, passion fruit, hazelnut, butter, a touch of iodine, spring flowers, complex soil tones and a deft foundation of vanillin oak. On the palate the wine is precise, full-bodied and shows enormous backend energy and lift, with a fine core of fruit, excellent mineral undertow, bright acids and a long, complex and utterly complete finish. This is an excellent wine, with the broader shoulders of a wine like Meursault “Poruzots”, with excellent breed and backend precision. This really should be tucked away for a handful of years in the cellar and let it start to unfurl some of its secondary layers of complexity! 2024-2050.”
Nick Stock: “97 rating. A very complex and powerful chardonnay with ripe-nectarine, lemon and grapefruit aromas, laced with cool, stony notes, as well as flint and attractively restrained oak. The palate has mouthwatering, intense fruit with such attractively concentrated, pithy-grapefruit and white-peach flavors with beautifully wound flesh that pervades the crisp, long and gently toasty finish. Really superb chardonnay.”
Somm Journal: “96 rating. The perfumed nose comprises white tea, honey nougat, chamomile and lemongrass … lithe and luxurious, the wine has a rich nature balanced by a streak of acidity that clings lively notes of linen and lemon.”
2017 00 Wines Chardonnay “Eola Springs” $119.95 btl
Only 100 cases were made of the only single-block, single-vineyard wine of the trio. Planted 36 years ago, Block A is Mendoza clone in volcanic soil on its own roots. The site is west-facing which contributes to its grand cru-like combination of insanely rich opulence, but with a powerfully dense, palate structure.
John Gilman: “94 rating … The bouquet jumps from the glass in a very refined blend of pear, nectarine, toasted almond, a lovely base of almost salty soil tones, a touch of iodine, fruit blossoms and vanillin oak. On the palate the wine is full-bodied, focused and solid at the core, with truly stunning soil signature, a lovely girdle of acidity, excellent balance and grip and a long, youthfully complex and very, very promising finish. This is not necessarily more transparent down to its soil than either the VGW or EGW cuvées, but as those are blends, the terroir does not take center stage in those bottlings in the same manner as it does in this beautiful single vineyard wine, so the personality comes through even more clearly here. As is the case with the 2017 EGW bottling, the backend lift here is outstanding. 2022-2050.”
Erin Brooks, Wine Advocate: “95 rating … a singular, incredibly layered nose of orange oil, jasmine, dried chamomile and hay, honeyed apples, pie crust, candied hazelnuts, grilled peaches, sweet spices, autumn leaves and mushroom tart. In the mouth, it's medium-bodied and über silky, spindle-like in its ability to run the gamut from precise stony character to open, fleshy, honeyed fruits and back again, with laser-like focus and a very long, layered finish. This is gorgeous!”
Nick Stock, Jamessuckling.com: “97 rating. A super fine nose, this is strikingly pure chardonnay with lemon cream, grapefruit, flint and wet stones on offer with a mouthwateringly intense palate that offers a phenomenally powerful and yet very tightly focused palate that delivers a succulent impression. Grapefruit pervades the rich, suave and commanding finish. Exceptional length and finesse. Drink over the next six to eight years.”
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