Willamette Valley AVA
Renowned for producing some of the best Pinot noir in the world along with a diverse array of other cool-climate varietals, the Willamette Valley and its pastoral, often mist-enshrouded landscapes, may seem postcard-perfect, but growing grapes here requires effort, sheer tenacity, and passion. It’s something that growers must be willing to suffer for, with unexpected frosts that seem to come at the worst times and sunlight often scarce.
The Willamette Valley is 150 miles long, much of which stretches along the Willamette River, covering a 60-mile-wide swath across the ‘V’ shaped Valley. It’s bordered to the east by the Cascade foothills, to the west by the Coast Range, to the south by the Calapooya, and to the north by the Columbia River. Home to the majority of Oregon’s wineries and vineyards, it encompasses some 3.3 million acres, with most grapes grown ad on the hillsides in the west. Portland sits in its northern section and Eugene is in the south, either of which are often used by visitors as a home base for tasting and touring. With nearly 700 wineries, one could easily spend a lifetime here and not cover them all, but it’s a bucket-list adventure that’s well-worth embarking on.
What Is It About the Willamette Valley?
Surrounded by such visually striking scenery, it’s hard not to feel creatively inspired, but to take an idea and turn it into a bottle that surprises and delights is no easy task. There’s something in the soil that sets the region apart from others, with abundant microclimates and ever-changing weather. But the terroir in the Willamette Valley requires much more: community. In every sip you can practically taste the character of the people involved in making that glass. Winemakers here may come from a variety of different backgrounds from tech to viticulture, but they all have at least one thing in common. They are on a continual quest to take Pinot to a whole new level, perfecting it or experimenting to discover something that grows even better.
Diverse Climates, Diverse Wines
A massive, varied appellation, the Willamette Valley includes multiple distinct sub-appellations too, from the Chehalem Mountains and McMinnville to Van Duzer Corridor and Yamhill-Carlton. Don’t be fooled into thinking if you tried one of the region’s Pinot noirs you’ve tried them all. Wines can different dramatically from one sub-region to the next. A temperature difference of just a few degrees can significantly affect how the grape develops.
The Pinots here are not uniform in style. Although most have some notable shared characteristics such as red fruit flavors, high acidity, and earthiness, there’s also a lot of variation. The mix of soils, including marine sedimentary soil, famous volcanic basalt-based soils, and windblow silts all contribute to differences in the wine. That’s also why Willamette wines can seem as if they’re worlds apart from their cousins, produced in say, France, New Zealand, Tasmania, or California.
It’s Not Just Pinot Noirs
Wineries in the Valley grow more than just Oregon’s signature Pinot noir grape, producing Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Sauvignon banc, Melon, Gewürztraminer, Syrah, Gamay, and sparkling wine along with other lesser-known varieties. In fact, it’s the whites that are likely to surprise the most, like Chardonnay which has gained significant ground in recent years, frequently with structured wines that provide a zing of zesty citrus and notes of fir and nuts. The Pinot gris is excellent with delicious flavours of melon, pear, cinnamon, and only a touch of sweetness.
The Total Experience
There are many reasons visitors fall head over heels for Willamette Valley. The passion the winemakers have for the region is almost contagious. One could easily pick up a bottle at the store to enjoy with dinner, but a wine getaway might just transform the way you think about each glass. It’s the chance to immerse yourself in the beautiful, vast and varied terrain, getting to know the many wine styles, whilst sampling some of the rising stars and learning about the founding winegrowers.
A visit to the Willamette Valley can provide the total experience, bringing the opportunity to tour and taste with your choice of countless wineries easily reached from Portland, Eugene, or other points throughout the area. Prefer to end your day with a view of the vineyards or on a porch swing whilst gazing at the mountains? You’ll find everything from lovely inns and numerous charming bed and breakfasts to a luxurious destination resort. In between, there are a host of other activities and attractions, from berry picking and scenic hikes to farmer’s markets, museums, and spas.