Willamette Valley, Oregon
Today we venture to the Land of the Free, and more specifically to the Pacific Northwest, to a wine region known as the Willamette Valley in the state of Oregon. Whilst southern neighbour California accounts for near 90% of the wine made in the USA every year, Oregon is the quiet achiever, standing in big brother California’s shadow, but achieving greatness on its own terms. So what is it that makes Willamette wines great? As with most things, to find the answer, we have to look to history first.
For a high quality region with several established sub-regions (more on that later), Willamette has a very short history. Whilst early settlers dabbled with grapes as a crop (mainly because they needed wine for the sacrament) in the mid 19th century, nobody stuck at it for long. When disease and prohibition came to Oregon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, making wine here completely stopped, and nobody really noticed- after all, it was just too cold to grow grapes here. It wasn’t until 1966 that David Lett came to Willamette, looking for somewhere to grow the grape he was obsessed with; Pinot Noir. David had tried in California, however it was too hot, and the vines kept making sweet, jammy and heartless Pinot. David was the first to plant here in the north of the Willamette Valley, and would later become known as ‘Papa Pinot’. But things weren’t easy in those first few years- by 1970 there were only 5 wineries, tending 35 hectares of grapes. Yields were low, the work in the vineyard was endless, and life seemed so much easier on the other side of the fence in California where the sun was always shining and the American public were rediscovering a love for wine. But the wines of Willamette were just so good; someone had to take notice soon.
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The quality of the wine from Willamette is truly what sets it apart from other regions not only in the USA, but across all of the New World- but how can quality always be a focus for everyone? Well, the answer comes from a bill passed in 1977, which required the agreement of every single winery owner in the region– actually not that hard seeing as this fledgling industry was still so small. This legislation was based on Burgundian appellation restrictions which greatly emphasised use of specific clones suited to the Willamette conditions, maximum vine yields, and maximum alcohols and sugar content in final wines. This legislation still stands today, and continues to be the strictest standard in the whole of the USA. So quality is a part of the region, totally intertwined with it and not optional. If you want to make cheap and cheerful Pinot Noir, you’d best look somewhere else. In 1983, Willamette was awarded its own separate American Viticultural Area (AVA), which winemakers could now officially put on their labels. Today there are 6 sub-regions, which are from north to south; Yamhill-Carlton District, Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills, McMinnville and the most famous, Eola-Amity Hills. Each has a distinct style of wine with those in the north being more full bodied, and in the south where it becomes hillier and the soil poorer, the wines become lighter. Within the whole of Willamette, a whopping 531 wineries are found today- a bit of a jump up from the 1970s!
As mentioned above, Pinot Noir was the first grape variety planted here in Willamette, and today continues to be the go-to variety of the whole region. Just over 75% of all wine that comes from this region is Pinot Noir, and 82% of the Pinot Noir in the entire state of Oregon comes from Willamette. Pinot from Willamette tastes like Burgundy from a warm vintage; it possesses the elegance, structure and haunting power that Pinot Noir is famous for, but gives a touch more warmth and power than its French counterparts. This is mainly due to the climate of Willamette, which averages 26 degrees during the day in the growing season, dropping to a chilly 10 degrees overnight as coastal breezes off the icy Pacific Ocean settle over the region. This retains the grape’s extreme acid and gives it longevity, balance and finesse. The weather in Willamette can be brutal too- the abundant rain is great for thirsty Pinot, but this can lead to under-ripeness and diseases in wetter vintages. Just like Burgundy, drinkers need to pay close attention to vintage when buying wines from Willamette. Pinot Gris and Chardonnay are the next most-grown varietals, with tiny amounts of Riesling and Gewurztraminer making up the rest.
The wines of Oregon have made it a point to distinguish themselves as the opposite of southern neighbour California by making small amounts of wines that are light, ethereal and difficult to understand for the uninitiated. These are not wines that jump out of the glass at you or box you about the ears with 16.5% alcohol- they draw you in quietly, seducing with subtlety. These are wines that match perfectly to food- they aren’t a meal on their own. As a result, some of the most in-the-know of the wine world (especially when it comes to Pinot Noir) have set down roots in the Willamette Valley, partnering with up-and-coming local producers to get the word out that the wines of Williamette, and Oregon in general are the real deal. Burgundian producers Maison Joseph Drouhin and Louis Jadot, as well as the influential Jackson Family Wines from down south in California all make wines here, believing Willamette to be one of the key regions for high quality New World Pinot Noir production. There’s no denying that Pinot Noir is on the up in the USA (just watch the movie Sideways for the reason why!), and on the crest of the wave is Willamette. In 2012, Wine Spectator magazine features Oregon wine as the cover story, highlighting the perfect match between the Willamette Valley climate and the Pinot noir grape. Harvey Steiman’s extensive review of Willamette Valley Pinots concludes, “Pinot noir has found an American home” in Oregon. It may have taken 40 years, but Willamette’s time has finally come!
Wine Sales Manager