The US is host to any number of noteworthy wine regions, but until this summer, only Napa Valley had merited Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) from the European Union. This July, though, the EU granted that same status to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, recognising its wines for their quality and distinctive character.
While the PGI distinction applies to all the of the region’s wines, there’s no denying that the Willamette Valley’s identity is intimately tied to Pinot Noir; the grape makes up almost three-quarters of plantings. But the valley is huge, encompassing almost 1.4 million hectares – and Ken Wright, who has been making wine there for 35 years, says only about 5% of the land is truly ‘world class’ for winegrowing.
Willamette Valley is too large to offer a definitive style, especially for a grape as reflective of its growing site as Pinot Noir
In any case, it’s far too large an area to offer a definitive style of wine, especially for a grape as reflective of its growing site as Pinot Noir. Wright says early efforts to subdivide the valley into units that meaningfully reflected growing conditions and their resulting wine styles failed, stymied by concerns about fracturing the collegiality of what was then quite a small community of wineries.
The task became more pressing around the turn of the millennium, as growth and outside investment underlined the need to protect the valley’s reputation. Industry efforts led to the creation of six American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within the valley in 2005 and 2006; these have given birth to a new trio of AVAs in the past couple of years, almost a generation later.
To help discover the area’s finest wines, here are four AVAs worth knowing, and which provide a snapshot of the diversity of expression Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is capable of.
Yamhill-Carlton is a valley in its own right, a south-facing arc of hills surrounding the two towns whose name it bears. Aforementioned winemaker Ken Wright is based in Carlton and drafted the application for the AVA, which was established in 2005; several of his wines are sourced from the area’s vineyards. His Savoya Vineyard lies adjacent to his home, and in 1994 he became the first to make a single-vineyard wine from Dick Shea’s 200-hectare site. Shea Vineyard is today one of the most feted single-vineyard designations in the Willamette Valley.
‘Elevation is vital in Yamhill-Carlton,’ Wright says. ‘Most of the best vineyards in Yamhill-Carlton are from 250ft-850ft in elevation. Below 250ft you get frost, and you tend to have deep soils and sometimes no mother rock. Above 850ft is getting into cooler air.’ Both Shea and Savoya, for example, lie at the sweet spot in the middle of that range.
While much of the Pacific Northwest rests on basaltic bedrock, in the Willamette Valley, marine sediments have overtaken or mixed with those volcanic soils in some spots, including much of Yamhill-Carlton. Winemaker Kevin Chambers and his wife Carla bought the Resonance Vineyard here in 1987; in 2013 they sold the vineyard to Maison Louis Jadot of Burgundy. ‘I would argue that Yamhill-Carlton is probably the warmest of the AVAs,’ says Kevin, ‘and you probably get less rain.’ That’s thanks to the rain shadow created by the coastal mountain range.
‘What you tend to get are more fleshy wines, more effusively fruity. The tannins tend to be more refined, and softer.’ He says the AVA’s wines tend to be generous in their youth, but perhaps less age-worthy than wines from some of the other areas.
Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir to try:
Belle Pente, EIEIO, Elizabeth Chambers, Erath, Greywing, Sineann
After Chambers sold Resonance Vineyard he went looking for cooler sites; that search led him to establish Koosah Farm in the Eola-Amity Hills, which was declared an AVA in 2006. He finds much to contrast between the two areas. Whereas much of Yamhill-Carlton’s soils are marine sediments, in his new home, basalt makes up about two-thirds of the landscape.
While soils may not be entirely consistent throughout the AVA, the climate is uniform. Eola-Amity Hills lies in the path of the Van Duzer Corridor (itself now an AVA of its own); at this gap in the coastal range, the average height of the mountains drops from 2,000ft down to about 700ft, allowing cool maritime air to flow directly onto the slopes of the Eola-Amity Hills. The vineyards also stretch further up the hillsides.
In Eola-Amity Hills, the aromas typically lean to black rather than red fruit
In terms of plantings, Eola-Amity Hills is the largest of the Willamette Valley AVAs, with 1,238 hectares of vines. Chambers cautions generalising about the area’s wines given the multitude of facings and soils. It’s a caveat that holds true for pretty much all Willamette Valley AVAs. This is Pinot Noir, after all, a grape notorious for expressing itself differently over the smallest of distances. That said, Chambers finds that the AVA’s Pinot Noirs tend to be less overtly fruity, and the aromas typically lean to black rather than red fruit. The wines are also more structured, with firm tannins.
Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir to try:
Bergstrom, Brooks, Et Fille, Evening Land Vineyard, Nicolas-Jay, Penner-Ash
Chambers is cautious about ascribing too much significance to soil compared to other factors such as climate and aspect, but soil differences underlie much of the thinking behind the Willamette Valley’s AVAs. Nowhere is that as true as in the Laurelwood District; founded in June 2020, it’s nested entirely within the older Chehalem Mountains AVA, and bears the name of the soils it is known for. Laurelwood soils are loess – windblown sediments that settled and accumulated on hillsides over time.
But there is a twofold aspect to the district’s soils, as these loess deposits rest atop basalt. Luisa Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards was one of the main drivers behind the creation of the AVA. She says that the significance of those two layers shows when vineyards reach 15 or 20 years of age. Mid-hillside, the loess goes three or four feet deep. Only as the vines have matured do their roots extend past this layer and into the basalt underneath. When they do, the character of the resulting wine changes.
‘Younger vines that are exploring that topsoil are expressing brighter, fresher, redder fruit, and softer tannins,’ says Ponzi. ‘The wines from older vines become a little more muscular, and there’s a definite shift from fruit-driven to structure-driven wines. The fruit quality changes to more blue and black fruits. They’re just these rustic, dusty tannins that are very long and fine-grained, but with this rusticity to them that I find really beautiful.’
Laurelwood District Pinot Noir to try:
Alloro Vineyard, Ponzi Vineyards, Raptor Ridge, Rex Hill
Tualatin Hills lies in the north of the Willamette Valley, west of Portland, making it one of the cooler AVAs, but the terrain protects the vines from extremes. ‘We’re surrounded by these hills that ultimately become mountains,’ says Alfredo Apolloni of Apolloni Vineyards. ‘That creates a rain shadow, which is significant around harvest time, but it also moderates the climate in the area.’
The loess that so defines Laurelwood District also finds its way into the Tualatin Hills, but spread over a different base. ‘The Missoula floods that carved out the Columbia Gorge were incredibly huge,’ says Apolloni, ‘and so much of that material was deposited in the pocket that is the Tualatin Hills. So the soils are super deep.’ With that flood-born silt creating a thick layer between the loess and the basalt the vines never even reach the latter; the roots draw their nutrients and water from the iron and manganese-rich silt instead.
The Pinot Noirs of Tualatin Hills tend to stay in the red-fruit spectrum, but they’re not without depth and complexity
The wines tend to stay in the red-fruit spectrum, but they’re not without depth and complexity. ‘I think some binary notes show up in those wines very well, where they’re both fruity and a little bit earthy, and in the cooler spots that doesn’t get overpowered by the fruitiness,’ says Apolloni.
Tualatin Hills was home to the first commercial vineyard in Oregon and today has more than 400 hectares of vines, but the area may be less familiar to many visitors. Thanks to local zoning laws there are fewer than a dozen wineries there, and much of the fruit gets vinified by wineries further south in the valley, but the AVA’s contribution to Willamette Valley wine remains clear. ‘There’s a good chunk of vineyards there for sure, and they’ve been there for a long time,’ Apolloni says. ‘And I think in part because of climate change, there is more and more interest in this area and areas like it that are cooler.’
Tulatian Hills Pinot Noir to try:
David Hill Vineyard & Winery, Elk Cove, Montinore Estate