Known for its stellar Pinot Noir and as a rising global player in Chardonnay, Oregon’s Willamette Valley is an exciting, captivating wine region. Boutique wineries and farm-to-table cuisine are just some of the qualities that attract wine lovers to this region – not to mention the bucolic scenery. Pinot Noir reigns as the red grape, while Pinot Gris leads as the white counterpart, with Chardonnay fast on its heels.
Between Two Mountain Ranges
The Willamette Valley is named after the river it straddles from Portland south to Eugene. It is roughly 150 miles long by 60 miles wide and covers 3.4 million acres, of which 25,450 are under vine. The region is Oregon’s largest AVA and contains 10 smaller or “nested” AVAs. Most of Oregon winemaking takes place here, with more than 730 wineries and growing.
To the west lies the Coastal Range, which buffers the vineyards from Pacific Ocean winds, and to the east, the Cascades, which prevent warm, wet air from escaping the valley. The climate is a maritime one, with long, rainy, cool winters and short, warm, dry summers. While the rain makes this valley so verdant, it can also threaten uneven fruit set in spring, mildew in summer, and an abrupt end to the vintage in fall – a reason why some winemakers, like Shane Moore of Gran Moraine, choose to pick on the earlier side.
Temperatures within the valley can vary greatly, from the warmer Yamhill-Carlton AVA, which is usually the first to ripen, to the Van Duzer Corridor (named for a Coastal Range gap that funnels cool Pacific winds into the vineyards), which is one of the last to be harvested. Warm days and cool evenings slow the ripening process and preserve acidity in the grapes. One reason grapes can ripen this far north is because they receive up to 15 hours of daylight in summer.
The Willamette Valley is Oregon’s agricultural heartland. More than 170 crops and livestock thrive here because the soil is so fertile – a result of a massive Ice Age flood that carried alluvial soil from as far away as Missoula, Montana and deposited it on the valley floor. While too rich for grape growing, this soil nurtures grasses, hazelnut, Christmas trees, and other specialties such as marionberries. In between wine tasting, you might want to visit one of the many "U-Pick” farms in the countryside—and don’t leave Oregon without trying the marionberry pie!
Vineyards are planted higher up on the less fertile hillsides, which range from 200 to 1,000 feet in elevation. These hills were formed 15 million years ago, when tectonic plates collided, raising Oregon – which was below the ocean – above land and creating volcanos, leaving a unique series of three soils: Jory (volcanic), Willakenzie (marine sediment), and Laurelwood (windblown sand and silt, also known as loess, which resulted from the weathering of the volcanic and sediment soils).
These distinct soils create a patchwork of different terroirs for winemakers to work with, making the Willamette Valley a perfect place to educate your palate. Here’s a soil primer to get you started:
- Jory: Look for intense minerality and verve in Chardonnay and fine tannins, a lush texture and red fruit notes in Pinot Noir.
- Willakenzie: Expect a gravelly texture with great length and body in Chardonnay, and dark fruit notes, firm structure, truffle notes and firm tannins in Pinot Noir.
- Laurelwood: Anticipate white flower aromas, bright acidity and a hint of salinity in Chardonnay, and round tannins and red and black fruit in Pinot Noir.
In addition to its mosaic of microclimates, geology, and soils, the Willamette Valley stands out as a region of small producers. Approximately 70% of producers in Oregon make only 5,000 cases of wine per year. Compare that to California or Washington, where some producers make more wine than the entire state of Oregon!
The small producer phenomenon is rooted in the valley’s history. Modern grape growing began here in the 1960s, when a group of UC Davis students ventured north to find a cooler place to grow Pinot Noir. Other pioneering families joined them, and together they set a precedent for small-scale production. By sharing knowledge (and often, equipment), the Willamette Valley became a world-renowned Pinot Noir producer – a recipe for success the producers are well on their way to repeating with Chardonnay.
Environmental stewardship goes hand in hand with the valley’s small producer culture. The pioneering families fought for strict land use laws that prohibit suburbs from encroaching upon vineyard areas. Oregon also features the highest percentage (47%) of certified sustainable vineyards of any major US winegrowing region.
Our favorite producers demonstrate this deep commitment to the environment. WillaKenzie Estate was the first Oregon winery to be LIVE (low input viticulture and enology) certified and uses solar power to offset 50% of its electricity usage each year. In 2013, Penner-Ash, Gran Moraine and Zena Crown began carrying this certification, which takes into consideration the entire ecosystem– including social issues and the community – when it comes to preserving the human and natural resources of the wine industry. Each of these producers also uses gravity-flow wineries to gently move the wine through the phases of production without electric pumps.
World-Class Pinot Noir
For many, the Willamette Valley has become synonymous with Pinot Noir, but this status is relatively recent. In 1979, when David Lett’s Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir placed in the top ten at the Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiad, Oregon Pinot Noir grabbed the wine world by storm and has never looked back.
Today, Pinot Noir makes up 70% of the valley’s grape plantings. The outcome depends on terroir, clones, and winemaking, but critics generally find these wines approach Burgundy in terms of quality, yet at a much more affordable price point. Typical aromas include red, blue, and black fruit, accompanied by spice, cherry pie, or cola. These same fruits tend to echo on the palate, with sweet earth, savory tea, vanilla, and toasted oak notes. With its medium body and soft tannins, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is both easy drinking and food-friendly.
Here are a few delicious pairings to try:
- WillaKenzie Estate Willamette Valley Pinot Noir + Truffle and arugula pizza
- Penner-Ash Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir + Grilled skirt steak
- Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir + Grilled salmon, sweet onions, red bell peppers
- Zena Crown The Sum Pinot Noir + Barbecued chicken
It won’t be long before the Willamette Valley, like Burgundy, will be as equally known for its Chardonnay as it is for Pinot Noir. Oregon producers have spent the past three decades perfecting clone and site selection, along with their winemaking techniques, to create Chardonnay that is uniquely Oregon. They are planting earlier ripening French Dijon clones—which are more reliable in Oregon’s cool climate—on premium, higher elevation sites. While Chardonnay makes up only a little more than a tenth of the Pinot Noir vines today, plantings are set to double here in the coming years as more wine lovers discover and demand this delectable wine.
With its electric, sleek texture, cool climate flavors, and mid-palate freshness, Oregon Chardonnay strikes a sweet spot between the leaner, crisper style of Burgundy’s Chablis and the fuller-bodied, rounder traditional California style. While great variety exists within the category, Oregon Chardonnay has several telltale markers that stem from winemaking. Winemakers will often pick earlier in the season and use both stainless steel and oak for fermentation and aging, such as with this Gran Moraine Yamhill Carlton Chardonnay or Siduri Chardonnay. Vibrant acidity, citrus, apple, and white floral notes preserved during tank fermentation, creamy texture from sur lie aging, and subtle oak from partial barrel aging are thus some of the hallmarks of Oregon Chardonnay. Many winemakers are also crafting bubblies with great success; Gran Moraine’s sparkling brut rosé is a pristine, Chardonnay-led expression that you will not want to miss.
Fresh and vivacious, Oregon Chardonnay pairs beautifully with so many foods and offers immense quality for the price. Producers are now focused on allowing terroir to shine by creating vineyard-designate Chardonnays that approach Grand Cru white Burgundies at a lower price point. YourWineStore is excited to bring you a wide selection of these elegant, complex, and age-worthy bottles.
Excited to try Oregon Chardonnay? Try these pairings: