Oregon's Willamette Valley is famed for producing complex, balanced, and terroir-driven pinot noirs. The Willamette Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) is situated in a relatively cool zone in the northwest corner of the state. Here, the rolling hills are covered in vines that produce some of the most iconic pinot noirs with beautifully concentrated red fruit flavors and earthy undertones.
Oregon Pinot Noir Flavor Profile & Characteristics
Pinot noir can be a difficult grape to grow, but when planted in just the right conditions, it thrives, expressing a range of brambly red fruit, dried autumn leaves, baking spices and truffle. Willamette Valley pinots vary in depth and richness within each of the six sub-appellations and vineyards. The sub-appellation of McMinnville tends to produce slightly darker, bolder pinots that are full of rich black cherry and red currant with a complex earthiness, while the Eola-Amity Hills sub-AVA produces more delicate pinot noirs with lots of plum and spice character and incredible ageing potential.
Overall, the Willamette Valley has cooler and cloudier conditions than many vineyards growing pinot in California. While summers are consistently becoming warmer and drier, the proximity to the ocean brings clouds and low hanging fog into the valley, keeping the berries cooler and allowing them to retain good acidity. The delicate cranberry and red currant pinot noirs of the Willamette Valley are expressive, yet more austere than richer versions from California.
Willamette Valley pinot noirs also vary from those of Burgundy, France. They tend to be softer and more fruit driven than traditional Burgundy pinots. James Michael, of Washington state's Three Wilson's Vineyard, has deep roots in the soil of both Washington and Oregon's wine countries. He as has spent many years working with Oregon pinot noir and speaks to the difference in Oregon pinots and those of Burgundy. Michael notes, "While the growing regions share a similar climate, the geological history is quite different. It's impossible to truly characterize a world wine region into a "style" breakdown without neglecting loads of contrary examples. In general however, wines from Burgundy are more earthy in nature on the palate, while Oregon showcases a more delineated fruit note".
Oregon Pinot Noir: A Short History
The story of Oregon pinot starts with David Lett in the mid 1960s. The pinot Lett planted at his Eyrie Vineyards became a a quick success around the world, and the grape has been closely tied to the region ever since. At the beginning, the Willamette Valley represented many small-scale winemakers, many of whom were practicing or converting to organics/biodynamics. The region has grown substantially in recent years and while it is still primarily small-scale vintners, it is increasingly challenging for them to purchase land. It does, however, continue to be a very creative and dynamic place to make wine. Reminiscent to an artists shared studio space, winemakers often work in close proximity to one another, sharing a crush pad and equipment. There is constant conversation about technique and style that unfolds between producers.
Full of volcanic basalt soils and marine sandstone and siltstone, the Willamette Valley offers unique conditions and climate for pinot. Michael states that, "Thanks to geology, Oregon is loaded with great growing sites, located to the west of the Cascade mountain range. This location retains the ocean-derived, long, cool growing season that thin-skinned Pinot grapes need to fully ripen. The soils are rich, the water is there, but most importantly, Oregon Pinot draws the people willing to invest their lives and labor to meticulously care for the vines and coax a good vintage out of whatever mother nature throws at them".
A Few Wines to Start With
There are a plethora of Oregon pinots out there, but only a handful of winemakers produce exceptional wines, even in challenging years. These wines often have considerable ageing potential and are a true reflection of the terroir by way of the pinot noir grape. Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra is a seasoned winemaker with deep roots in the Willamette Valley. She has a handful of expressions of the grape including Botanica, a structure wine full of sour cherry, blood orange and wild rose. Eyrie Vineyards was started by David Lett, the pioneer of pinot in the region. Now second generation winemaker, Jason Lett, carries on the tradition of winemaking through micro-fermentations kicked-off with indigenous yeast.
Division Winemaking Co. was found by Kate Norris and Tom Monroe. While the winery is located in the city of Portland, they focus on featuring Willamette Valley pinot in their line-up. Division strives to work with farmers using sustainable practices in the vineyard. David Hill Winery is nestled into the hillside in the northern part of the Valley. With estate pinot noir vines over 50 years old, they produce a rich expression of this micro-climate. Big Table Farm is a small winery in Carleton, Oregon. Husband and wife duo, Brian Marcy and Clare Carver produce limited quantities of pinot each vintage, featuring grapes from various sub-AVAs.
Picking Your Pinot
If you are new to Oregon pinots, you're in for a treat. They can be some of the most beautifully complex and delightful expressions in the world to drink. Start by finding one from a producer above and dive in from there. Each micro-climate and hillside in the Valley offers something slightly different and brings a unique character to the wine.