Oregon’s Willamette Valley is one of the most exciting regions on the global wine map, period. Long known for Pinot Noir, the roughly 100-mile expanse stretching from Portland to Eugene is also home to a growing number of other varietals, produced in varying styles to much and well-deserved praise.
Often deemed the Burgundy of the New World, the Willamette Valley shares a number of traits with the famous French wine zone. The two are positioned alike in terms of latitude and boast similar climates and growing seasons. Unsurprisingly, what does well there (most famously Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) thrives here. But the valley’s diverse terrain, impeccable soils, and temperate weather are a warm invitation to many other grapes. It’s often said that if you can’t grow it in the Willamette Valley, you probably can’t grow it at all.
The present intersection of established producers and a more experimental new generation of vintners means there’s something for everybody. Better still, the Willamette Valley is coming into its own. Vintners are adding to the valley’s map, showcasing new appellations through stunning wines that simply couldn’t exist anywhere else. And the region is doing all of this while — for the most part, anyway — maintaining its signature hospitable demeanor.
Given the quality of the juice coming out of the area, Willamette Valley winemakers are entitled to a bit of ego. But it just doesn’t feel that way, which is part of the attraction. Tasting here feels like being invited to an old friend’s house for dinner. Sure, some big players have swooped in and the valley is experiencing some growing pains. But it remains a largely collaborative, dynamic, and downright magical wine region.
Prior to wine, much of the Willamette Valley was revered for its timber. Farmers saw potential and planted orchard fruit, berries, Christmas trees, hazelnuts, and more. Commercially, the scene kicked into gear in the mid-1960s. There were producers pre-Prohibition, but not much of an industry.
In 1965, David Lett (aka “Papa Pinot”) spent his honeymoon planting vineyard rows for what would become The Eyrie Vineyards in the heart of the valley. At the same time, over near Forest Grove, the Charles Coury was bringing David Hill Winery to life (on a farm the previous owners declared would be the Rhineland of America in the late 1800s). Others followed suit, highly recognizable names like Erath, Adelsheim, Sokol-Blosser, Lange, and Ponzi.
The early days had a wild west feel about them. Many winemakers, while UC Davis educated, defied the scholarly wisdom of the time and brought plantings north. “It’s too cold,” the masses cried. The pioneers learned as they went, aging wine in whisky barrels and wondering why it tasted like whisky. They grappled with vineyard pests and Oregon’s infamous rain, which can lead to mildew in the vineyard. Soon, they found their rhythm.
A few major events paved the way for what is now a multibillion dollar annual industry closing in on 600 producers. First, a world-renowned tasting dubbed the Wine Olympics pitted Eyrie Pinot Noir against some of the most famous Old World labels in 1976. It was a blind tasting and Eyrie finished a remarkable tenth. A rematch was put together at Maison Drouhin in France and this time it finished second. Imagine the spit-takes when French wineries with centuries of experience lost out to an up-and-comer from Oregon.
Now the world was paying attention. Lauded Burgundian house Joseph Drouhin bought what the valley was selling, investing in a now iconic property in the Dundee Hills, a stone’s throw from Eyrie’s original vines. The 1980s and 90s saw continued growth, with producers like Archery Summit, Ken Wright, Beaux Frères, and Domaine Serene finding their stride.
A swelling wine community had found the perfect home for the finicky Pinot Noir grape in the Willamette Valley. Scores of great vintages and critical praise followed, ushering in a new generation that began to shake the status quo some. In 2016, Wine Enthusiast declared the place its official wine region of the year.
The valley is home to eight American Viticultural Areas, each differing in terms of soil, elevation, geology, and more. These distinctive regions are the voice behind the terroir conversation, creating grapes — and ultimately wines — that echo precisely where they came from. Several more sub-regions are pending. Many producers source fruit from several different appellations within a single vintage to demonstrate just how unique these places are. Plotting a tour that spans a lot of these boundaries is the best way to see just how versatile wines like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and more can be.
Many of the region’s founding producers are still at it, having passed down their vines and cellar deftness to the next generation. Eyrie continues to produce wines that epitomize finesse and nuance. Ponzi, while much bigger now, still dazzles, especially with lesser-known Italian varieties like Arneis and Dolcetto. Yamhill Valley Vineyards, McMinnville’s oldest, is responsible for elegant Pinot Noir, along with noteworthy Pinot Blanc and Riesling. Wines made from storied sites like Knudsen, Seven Springs, and David Hill are always worth investigating.
Riesling fans will love the work of Brooks near Salem, established in 1998. Illahe has been at it for a while but just gets better and better as its vineyard ages. The late great Patricia Green and her eponymous label are treasured by industry and enthusiasts alike while Bergstrom beautifully walks that fine line between power and grace in its esteemed wine lineup.
Argyle launched in 1987, revealing the valley’s vast sparkling potential. Founder Rollin Soles is now at ROCO, another worthy stop. The Shea name has become synonymous with world-class fruit while St. Innocent touts a vastly experienced winemaker in a just-upgraded facility.
Oh to be alive and sipping wine in the valley today. Labels like Statera, Walter Scott and 00 Wines are reinvigorating the Chardonnay conversation. Antiquum Farm, in the oft-overlooked southern part of the valley, is making truly memorable wines. Kelley Fox puts so much personality into her wines you think they’d burst. Craft Wine Company and Day Wines are shaking things up with unique blends. Meanwhile, Flaneur Wines is drawing attention to appellation details from its stunning new headquarters in Carlton.
Johan Vineyards, set in the gorgeous Rickreall area, is not only making great wine, but growing some of the most sought-after fruit in the valley. Lingua Franca touts one of the most eye-catching casts of ownership and winemaking prowess out there and some good wine to boot.
But there are many, many worth your time and palate, in less traditional formats like Portland’s impressive urban wine scene or joint ventures like The Carlton Winemakers Studio. Get out there and taste what people are raving about.
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