In December of last year, the influential wine magazine Wine Enthusiast named Oregon’s Willamette Valley their Wine Region of Year for 2016. AdVINEtures decided to take trip down there and see how things had evolved since we were there two years ago. What we found was a wine region that charms visitors with its lack of pretension, a terrific food scene that focuses on local, farm-to-table cuisine, and a group of winemakers that embrace a sense of community and collaboration that has resulted in them producing wines at the top of their game. We thought their award was richly deserved.
The Willamette Valley (pronounced wuh-LAM-ett) is a relative newcomer as far as wine regions go, just entering its sixth decade. In 1965 this was just a rural area south of Portland, dotted with a few small towns and largely covered by forests and a few agricultural operations that were devoted to food crops. It was against this backdrop that a textbook salesman and Burgundy enthusiast by the name of David Lett decided this would be a perfect place to plant Pinot Noir. “Papa Pinot” as he later became known left Northern California with a few thousand grape cuttings from UC Davis and headed up to Dundee, pretty much central to the Willamette Valley, and found his spot to make his first plantings. A few years later he was followed by two other pioneers Chuck Coury and Dick Erath. They each shared the vision of the potential of this area to grow cool climate vinifera, especially Pinot Noir.
From those very early days, the spirit of collaboration between winemakers was established and it continues to this day. The early pioneers of winemaking lacked experience and training and consequently much of their technique was built on trial and error. They were happy to share what they learned about what was working in the Willamette Valley, and what was not. Lett formed The Eyrie Vineyard and vinified his first Pinot Noir in 1970. Charles Coury formed his winery (now called David Hill) in Forest Grove about the same time as Lett. A few years later Dick Erath formed the Erath Winery. They, and the other pioneers that followed, were passionate believers in the potential of the region. In 1979 belief turned into reality when David Lett’s 1975 Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve Pinot Noir won top honours for Pinot Noir in the Paris Wine Olympiad, besting many top names from Burgundy.
In 1983 the Willamette Valley obtained official status as an American Viticultural Area (“AVA”). It is now recognized around the world as a top cool climate wine growing region. Its foundation was built on Pinot Noir and its reputation rests on that variety today. But accolades are also building for its white wines: Pinot Gris being the most notable but recently the Chardonnay is gaining attention and praise from the cognoscenti.
The Willamette Valley runs for roughly 100 miles in a North-South direction starting at Newberg in the north down to Eugene in the south. It gets up to 60 miles wide and covers 3.4 million acres. The Valley is about 50 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and its northern terminus is 50 miles south of Portland.
The Valley its self is relatively flat farmland surrounded on all sides by rolling hills. It is classified as “Region 1 Cool Climate” in the Winkler Index, the same classification for Burgundy and California’s Sta. Rita Hills. Perhaps comparisons with Burgundy have become a little trite, but Burgundy is the Holy Grail of cool climate wine regions so it will naturally serve as a reference point for comparison. Burgundy and the Willamette Valley share similar climate characteristics. Burgundy averages 2,196 degree days while the Willamette Valley averages 2,273. This makes each a marginal grape growing region where the grapes will struggle to fully ripen. Rain at harvest can be an issue in both regions. And it is because of those struggles, not in spite of them, that each region is capable of producing such beautiful wines.
Average annual rainfall is 29 inches in the Willamette Valley, 10 inches less than Portland. But the growing season is usually dry, with only an inch or so falling between June and August. September can be the wild card and its potential for rain will keep winemakers up at night. This makes it a great climate for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but no one said it is an easy climate!
There are four distinct soil types found in the Willamette Valley. At the lower levels are Missoula Flood soils which are a little higher in nutrients and tend to produce too much vigour for wine growing. Above 200 – 300 feet can be found the three other soil types which produce unique and distinct wines. Volcanic soil, known locally as Jory, dominates the Dundee Hills AVA, and is high in clay and iron content. Wines from these soils exhibit an earthiness and a minerality that has become their signature. Sedimentary soil, locally referred to as Willakenzie has a dry talcum-like texture and is found in the Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton and McMinnville AVAs and gives their wines structure and ageing ability. Finally there is loess, a windblown silty loam that often imparts on the wines a peppery finish on bright red cherry fruit. Laurelwood is a common loess soil in the Willamette Valley.
The Willamette Valley AVA is now split into six different sub-appellations: Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains, Yamhill-Carlton, and Ribbon Ridge are clustered in the north, McMinnville sits about half way down the valley, and Eola-Amity Hills is in the south.
These sub-appellations were created as AVAs within the larger Willamette Valley AVA in 2005 and 2006 to delineate the unique expressions of climate, soil and elevation of the Willamette Valley.
The Wines of the Willamette Valley
Pinot Noir dominates the Willamette Valley wine scene. It is by far the most planted variety and the wines made from it have garnered the most attention. Pinot Gris is the next most planted and the Valley has a good reputation for doing well with the grape. Chardonnay comes in at the 3 spot, but we would not be surprised to see more plantings of this variety in the future. The last few years have seen a real quality surge coming from this variety. Current fashion favours leaner, fresher versions of wine noticeable acidity. The Willamette’s cool climate is able to deliver on this front. We were very impressed with what Willamette winemakers are doing with their Chardonnay and we hope to see more of it. While the wines exhibit more finesse than power, we found they generally struck a nice balance. These were certainly not California in style, nor were they doppelgangers for Chablis. The Chardonnays we tasted seemed to have found their own voice; an elegant medium body with apple and citrus flavours backed with mouth-watering acidity.
But it was the Pinot Noirs that remained the focal point of our tastings on this trip. The first thing we observed about Willamette Valley Pinot that we tasted was the quality level. This seems to be the result of several different factors. Certainly a string of good to excellent vintages played a part. In the last 5 years, 2011 was the coolest, but offered a relatively dry fall and long hang times. Winemakers had learned a lot from 2010 that proceeded with almost as cool weather, and this helped them turn out some great wines from 2011. 2012 was a return to warmth and was a vintage that the winemakers we spoke to remembered fondly. 2013 could be variable. But 2014 and 2015 had everyone excited and from what we tasted, these wines were the real deal. We did not taste any of the 2016s but reports are that it was similar to 2014 and 2015 and so we expect more great wines to be produced. But the Willamette’s success in these vintages is not just about weather. Many of the vineyards are thirty years of age or more and are producing excellent fruit. And many of the winemakers that have been there since near the beginning now have 20+ vintages under their belt. The spirit of help and collaboration between winemakers and with their growers seems to have elevated everyone’s game. When you are tasting Willamette Valley Pinot Noir expect to find bright red cherry fruit backed up with earthy sub-tones and balanced acidity. There are subtle differences between the AVAs but the regional signature is one of elegance and finesse. Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is capable of further development in the cellar. Recently tasted bottles from the 2006 vintage remained bright and focused and had developed additional complexity.
Top quality Willamette Valley Pinot Noir does not come cheap. Bottlings from multiple sources across the Valley from the best producers will typically cost $40 – $60 USD at the cellar door. Single vineyard and reserve bottlings will run from $60 – $85 USD in most cases. To be sure, there are value wines here too, but we are talking about what is going on in the premium category. When compared to other regions, prices are about on par or perhaps slightly less than similar California Pinots, but certainly well below Premier Cru Burgundy. We stocked up and brought home quite a few bottles. We thought they were well worth it.
Check back to the blog in coming weeks to read about the wineries we visited there and the wines we tasted.