Valley of the Noirs

Make your way toward Oregon’s Willamette Valley and discover what makes the region perfect for producing pinot noir.


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Oregon wine country is weird.” That is the first way that a resident Portlandian wine expert described the Willamette Valley to me. The city of Portland might be a target for many jeers, but the Willamette Valley is becoming the darling of the wine world—especially when it comes to pinot noir. The world is finding genuinely unique expressions of pinot noir from special producers and vineyards across the Willamette Valley. But Oregon pinot noir is multifaceted from the personalities that produce the wines to the different sub regions within the valley itself.

The Willamette Valley was first planted in the 1960s. It became an American Viticultural area in 1983 and is relatively large with almost 3.5 million acres planted from Portland in the northeast to eugene in the southwest. The climate here is ideal for pinot noir production and generally cool with the cascade mountain range in the east forming a barrier from the cold winds and rain from the humboldt current coming from the northeast. Because of the diversity in microclimates and soils, the valley is now home to no fewer than six different AVA’s within the broader Willamette Valley AVA.

Chehalem Mountains AVA is a hilly region with grapes growing primarily on hillsides. The soils here are a mix of volcanic basalt along with ocean sedimentary pushed up over eons ago as the continent rose and loess from ancient lakebed soils. Elk Cove, Colene Clemens and Bergstrom are some of my favorites from this region. One of the defining characters of the wine from this region is a sleek and silky texture to their pinot noirs. The Ribbon Ridge AVA is located within the Chehalem Mountains and is singled out for its unique ocean sedimentary soils and its protected location among the nearby hills. Beaux Freres and Patricia Green wineries are perhaps the most famous located within this small AVA.

Dundee Hills AVA lays claim to having the first grapes planted in the valley, and is almost exclusively basalt soil. To me, the wines here can have a mineral-laden character. Some top names here include Archery Summit, Domaine Drouhin, Torii Mor and Domaine Serene. Eola-Amity Hills AVA is unique for having shallow soils from volcanic lAVA flows and alluvial deposits. it is also known for the van duzer corridor, a gigantic break in the coast range that allows the cool winds from the northwest to drop temperatures in the zone, keeping the grapes from ripening too quickly, having longer “hangtimes” (letting grapes ripen on the vine as long as possible) and retaining refreshing acidity. Mcminnville AVA—named after the local town—is delimited for vineyards between 200 and 1,000 feet in elevation. Marine soil formations along with alluvial soil overlaying basalt make this area unique. Vamhill-Carlton AVA is named after the two hamlets encompassed in the region. Shaped much like a horseshoe, this area is sheltered by a low range and has the oldest soils in the valley comprised of ancient seabed soils perfect for drainage.

But enough of soils, geography and climate. The best pinot noir from Oregon rival the best from anywhere in the new world. What I love about them is that as ripe as they get, they always have a sense of balance and are never “over the top.” They maintain a freshness and elegance that i require and desire in pinot noir. My favorite pinot noir producer in Oregon is The last chapter. This winery uses fruit from more than 40 different vineyard sites and almost a dozen different clonal selections. Louis-Michel Liger Belair is the consulting winemaker here. You’ll recognize his name as the proprietor at Domaine Du Comte-Liger Belair in Vosne-Romanee. The 2013 The last chapter pinot noir is as sexy and seductive a pinot noir I’ve tasted from the new world. It is simply bursting with gorgeous ripe cherry, spices, wet earth and purple flowers. In the mouth it gushes with silky tannins, tightrope balance and a long aftertaste that puts a wide grin on your face. It is effortless, yet intense and absolutely delicious! another top address is evening land vineyards in the eola-amity hills area. This estate produces some scintillating pinot noir. The 2013 evening land ‘la source’ pinot noir is replete with wild strawberries and cherries laced with vanilla and baking spices. There is a hint of earth here likened to freshly tilled potting soil just in the background to add complexity. The palate is all satin and luscious fruit. it is plump without being heavy. And don’t sleep on their chardonnays here either. They are some of the finest in all of Oregon.

If you are a pinot noir lover, you will do very well to explore those from the Willamette Valley. There are a host of pinots at different price points that are at the highest levels of quality. and if you don’t find one that you like, that would be weird.

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