The Wine Blog

Willamette Damnit!

September 3, 2013

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If you want to make a wine geek’s heart skip a beat, just mention Oregon. High-quality, often small production American wines that make even old world wine devotees feel a surge of patriotism.

There is one region in particular that consistently produces wines which put a new world spin on old world complexity and elegance, the Willamette Valley. These wines are truly treasure troves of terroir, humming with brisk minerals, yet ample new world fruit.

These wines owe their elegance, in part, to a cool climate. The fact that there is no mountain range separating the vineyards of Willamette from the cooling Pacific Ocean, keeps temperatures moderate and rains generous.

Although the Willamette Valley is a household name most folks recognize, the region actually encompasses a number of smaller counties and sub-regions known as American Viticultural Associations or AVAs. The soil content, elevation, aspect and slope of these vineyards vary drastically, creating distinctive wines. Some names to look out for on the label, if you want to take your knowledge of the region to the next level.



Willamette Valley AVAs

Chehalem Mountains

Dundee Hills

Yamhill-Carlton District

Ribbon Ridge

McMinnville Foothills

Eola Amity Hills



Screen_Shot_2013_09_03_at_10.27.46_AMSo what are the varieties that thrive here? Pinot Noir is certainly the most prestigious variety in these parts. Willamette Pinots possess the telltale one two punch of high acidity and minerality as they do in Burgundy. However the texture is smoother, sleeker. If Burgundy is the tulle of a ballerina’s tutu, sheer, light and delicate, then Willamette Valley is silk. Our favorite thing about Pinot Noir from this part of the world is the way in which it pairs with the local wild Pacific Salmon. (Take that, “Only white wine with fish” rule!)


But enough about reds- how about those whites? The other Pinot that made these parts famous is Pinot Gris, also known as Pinot Grigio. Producers in the Willamette Valley, general follow the Alsatian model of production, creating wines which are richer, fuller, spicier than their Grigio-esque counterparts. Willamette Pinot Gris can be styled in one of two ways: Clean, un-oaked and immediately drinkable; Or rich, oaked and age worthy. Both are smooth and delicious, with flavors of melon, golden apple, perfumed flowers and vibrant acidity.

Given the cool Burgundian climate, Chardonnay also thrives here. Most winemakers even use a French clone (subspecies) of the grape, rather than the clones that thrive in Napa and Sonoma. The results are far more subtle, fresh and clean than their warm weather counterparts.

And last but not least, that cold weather stalwart, Riesling. Riesling is a wonderful at expressing the terroir of any given vineyard site, and Oregon is no exception. The majority of those from the Willamette are dry, with low alcohol, light body, racy acidity, with flavors and aromatics of early summer, just ripening stone fruit.


Amy_Ulllman_e1374835166279Writer Amy Ullman is the irrationally exuberant founder of Wine for Rookies. She received a Bachelor of Liberal Arts from Harvard University in 2009 with concentrations in Economics and French. She holds the title of Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators, and is currently working on her Diploma of Wine and Spirits via the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.