Wines of Oregon’s Willamette Valley
By Mike Rosenberg
“If God made anything better, He kept it for Himself.”
-William S. Burroughs, “Junky”
Oregon, specifically the Willamette (rhymes with “Dammit!”) Valley, is known best for pinot noir. The area is nestled between the low Oregon Coastal Range on the west and the tall Cascades on the east and stretches from the Columbia River on the north to just south of Eugene. The entire valley comprises about 3.3 million acres. The Willamette Valley’s temperate climate is quite friendly to those cool-weather loving grapes. (France’s Burgundy region is at the same north latitude, not surprisingly.)
The most common appellation you’ll see on a bottle of Oregon pinot is “Willamette Valley AVA.” AVA is wine-speak for “American Viticultural Area” – the wine-growing region. That designation means the grapes were grown within the valley. There are six sub-AVAs within the larger Willamette Valley: Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton, Eola-Amity Hills, Dundee Hills and McMinnville. Each has distinct terroir.
Oregon’s fascinating topography, carved by glaciers, volcanic eruptions, wind, and water, contains wildly different soil types. The soils do fall into two major categories: marine sedimentary (which generally imparts an earthy complexity) and volcanic (which yields a fruity smokiness). Some vineyards have both soil types, often within a few hundred feet of each other.
The first pinot noir from Oregon was produced in the mid-1960’s, and Oregon became a major player in the market in the 1980s.When Sideways kickstarted the California pinot boom in the mid-2000s, Oregon pinot producers came along for the ride. Oregon pinot is very different from California pinot. In general, the terroir of Oregon produces a more subtle, lower-alcohol juice, which created a nice contrast for wine connoisseurs. Oregon pinot made a name for itself, and prices rose.
Inexpensive pinot from places like Chile and Australia, as well as some … shall we say … less-well-crafted-but-cheaper-California offerings flooded the market. $10-15 pinot made in a big, fruit-forward style became common. Also, thanks to California’s maddeningly consistent (but beautiful) climate, a casual wine drinker usually can be fairly confident of what’s in the bottle. Oregon’s climate has much more variation, so specific vintage plays a huge role in a wine’s flavor.
For a while, it was difficult to locate much Oregon pinot at local wine stores. California pinot ruled the roost of mid- to high-end domestic pinots, and Oregon’s low-key marketing approach (not to mention many fewer wineries) caused a pricing problem. A few major producers (Domaine Serene, Domaine Drouhin, Erath) were able to keep up – but a good number of the mid-sized and smaller producers had to make some major readjustments. As a result, very high quality Oregon pinot became available for about half what you’ll pay for a premier cru Burgundy.
Many Oregon wines really hit my palate’s sweet spot, particularly those from Eola-Amity, Yamhill-Carlton, and Ribbon Ridge. I thought many of these wines had similar flavor profiles as good Burgundy, but with an addition of the “brightness” that American wines tend to exhibit. Some of these may be difficult to find in your local wine stores, but they’re all well worth a few website clicks:
Cristom (Eola-Amity) – One can almost see the Cristom winery from the Witness Tree parking lot. They specialize in slightly higher-end pinot noir which was well-worth the extra few shekels. We took home two bottles one each from their “Jessie” and “Louise” vineyards. More like $40 for these. I had a nice conversation with their winemaker, Steve Doerner, who said, “I’m the winemaker, but I have plenty of help – a few thousand helpers in the vineyard and 10-to-the-sixth in the lees…” www.cristomwines.com
Patricia Green Cellars (Ribbon Ridge AVA) – We sampled 12 different wines from across three vintages, and two “futures” barrel tastings. The winemaker, Jim Anderson, sources grapes from many Willamette sub-AVAs, so we had an exceptionally educational experience. We experienced side-by-side the real differences between sedimentary and volcanic soil, as well as the wide variation that exists between vintages. We especially liked their “sedimentary” series, particularly the Etzel Block ($60), Ana Vineyard ($45) and their straight Estate ($30). They’re also one of the few producers of sauvignon blanc ($20) in the Valley. Highly recommended on all counts. www.patriciagreencellars.com
Twelve Wine (Yamhill-Carlton AVA). Twelve is run by a husband/wife duo – he a chemist from Cal Tech, she an ex-teacher. We ran through their entire gamut at their tasting room in downtown McMinnville. (The vineyard is in Yamhill.) The quirky story of the wine’s name, their wicked cool labels, and their downright friendliness added to the experience. The estate pinot ($25) had a wonderful richness that played along especially nicely with the offerings from the gourmet chocolate shop with which they share a tasting room. Their currently-sold out reserve, called “144” (12-squared, get it?) was exceptional. twelvewine.com
If you decide to take a wine tasting tour around the Willamette Valley and you want to really pamper yourself, consider staying at the Le Puy Inn in Newberg (hepuy-inn.com). Lea and Andy will take good care of you. Though there are a number of top-notch restaurants in the area, make sure you have a meal at Tina’s (www.tinasdundee.com), a favorite of Valley locals in Dundee. You’ll be glad you did.
Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at MikeRosenberg@DaytonCityPaper.com or visit his blog at www.TheNakedVine.net.