When I first began following Oregon’s Pinot Noirs, there were probably fewer than 10 wineries in the Willamette (pronounced, wil LAM ette) Valley, the state’s primary wine region. Now there are over 500 wineries in the Valley, and the number grows every year. The Willamette Valley celebrated its 50th anniversary, 1966, as an official wine region just last year. But the Valley really began its Pinot Noir wine boom in the 1980s, with two great vintages, 1983 and 1985. In fact, almost all of the wineries in the Willamette Valley in northwestern Oregon, south of Portland--were established in the last 40 years, with a few pioneers leading the way in the early 1970s.
Pinot Noir is the main player in Oregon’s wines, along with two white varieties, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Oregon’s wine grapes thrive in its relatively cool climates; this is the main reason Oregon does so well with Pinot Noir. A related prime factor: Oregon coastal mountains are not so high as in the southern Pacific coast, in California. This allows the very cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean to influence the vineyards. If you are familiar primarily with California Pinot Noirs, you will notice that Oregon’s Pinot Noirs are not as fruit-forward as their California cousins. For me, this is one reason that Oregon’s Pinot Noirs do so well at the dinner table, even with full-bodied fish such as salmon, and with poultry, lighter meats, and cheeses.
I associate Willamette Valley’s Pinot Noirs with the Burgundy region in France. As in Burgundy, Oregon--especially the Willamette Valley--is much more prone to vintage variations than California, because of changing weather conditions. Willamette Valley receives much more rain than California; also very cool seasons are not unusual in the Willamette. For example, in the six-year period between 2008 and 2013, 2010 and 2011 were cool vintages producing lighter wines with higher acidity. The four other vintages were warm. The two recent vintages, 2014 and 2015 were quite warm, but 2014 is showing very well. In fact, of recent vintages, 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 have all been rated as outstanding vintages.
The Willamette Valley story began when David Lett, a refuge from California, planted his first Pinot Noir vineyards in Dundee Hills in 1965, and produced Willamette Valley’s first Pinot Noir in a winery he called The Eyrie Vineyards, in 1970. Eyrie was followed by Ponzi Vineyards, Adelsheim Vineyard, Erath Winery, and Sokol Blosser Winery, all of which are still some of Oregon’s leading Pinot Noir wineries.
The Willamette Valley is divided into six sub-regions:
Chehalem Mountains AVA: These are the hills southwest of Portland. This area has been growing rapidly, primarily because of its closeness to the city of Portland. Full-flavored Pinot Noirs are typical of this sub-region. Chehalem Winery, Ponzi Vineyards, and Rex Hill Vineyards are here.
Ribbon Ridge AVA: Although Ribbon Ridge is in the southern tip of the Chehalem Mountains, it has been given its own AVA because it has different soil and climate from the rest of Chehalem Mountains. Ribbon Ridge expresses the classic Oregon character of cranberry aromas and rustic, earthy flavors. Brickhouse Vineyards, Beaux Frères, and Patricia Green Cellars are here.
Dundee Hills AVA: The largest and the oldest sub-region, slightly larger than Chehalem Mountains, with a large number of wineries. Raspberry rather than cranberry aromas are typical of Dundee Hills Pinot Noirs. Many Pinot Noirs from here show elegance and finesse. The Eyrie Vineyards, Domaine Serene, Archery Summit, ROC0 Winery, and Torii Mor Winery are here.
Yamhill-Carlton AVA: This sub-region lies southwest of Ribbon Ridge. It is somewhat warmer than the other sub-regions and the Pinot Noirs here tend to be more fruit-forward, with intense black cherry aromas. WillaKenzie Estate, Penner-Ash Wine Cellar, Anne Amie Vineyards, and Soter Vineyards are here.
McMinnville AVA: Located around the town of McMinnville--in many ways the unofficial capital of Willamette Valley. Rich, flavorful Pinot Noirs with aromas of plum and ripe cherries are found in this sub-region. Yamhill Valley Vineyards and Hyland Estates are here.
Eola-Amity Hills: The southernmost sub-region. Pinot Noirs from here are spicy, with currant and rich plum flavors. Cristom Vineyards, St. Innocent Winery, and Evesham Wood are in the Eola-Amity Hills sub-region.
Then there is the region’s huge Willamette Valley AVA. All vineyards outside of the six sub-regions use this AVA only, plus many other fine wineries who have chosen to not use a sub-AVA . Also, wineries that blend grapes of vineyards from different areas must use the general Willamette Valley AVA.
Although each sub-region has distinctive soil and/or different climate variations, it takes a true Oregon Pinot Noir wine expert--perhaps some of the winemakers--to identify the correct sub-region in a blind tasting.
Many of my favorite Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs are not part the above sub-region listings. For example, five of my special favorites--Elk Cove Vineyards, Lange Estate Winery, Cooper Mountain Vineyards, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, and Bethel Heights Vineyard--consistently make outstanding Pinot Noirs.
Three other Pinot Noir wineries mentioned above which I love are The Eyrie Vineyards (perhaps the most-delicately styled Pinot Noirs, but so long-lived); Ponzi Vineyards; and ROCO Winery--owned by Rollin Soles, the genius behind Argyle Winery in Oregon--one of the best sparkling wine estates in the U.S.
Recently, I did a tasting of 12 Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs, mainly from the 2014 vintage. These are not single-vineyard or Reserve Pinot Noirs; they are all the standard Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs of the wineries. My notes follow, along with my rating and the estimated retail price of the wine:
Broadley Vineyards 2014 ($20): Dry, fruity, and flavorful, with ripe cherry aromas and flavors. Good acidity, made in a lighter style, which I prefer in Pinot Noirs. An excellent value! 91
Montinore Estate 2014 ($20): Rich, dry, and tannic. Ripe cherry aromas and flavors, but its acidity counteracts the ripeness. It will benefit from ageing. 89
Anne Amie Vineyards 2014 ($25): Candied dark cherry aromas with rich flavors. A substantial Pinot Noir, with some tannin and a long finish. 89
A to Z Wineworks 2014 ($19): Soft, dry, and fruity, with a good concentration of cherry and berry fruit. Harmonious, with good acidity and a lengthy finish. Real value here! 90
Erath Winery 2014 ($19): Dry, good depth of dark cherry flavors. It has concentration on the finish, with good acidity. Avoids over-ripeness. Fine value! 90
Adelsheim Vineyard 2014 ($32): Deep color, with tannin, grip, and concentrated dark cherry and berry flavors. Fruit is emphasized , some oak in the finish, needs time. 90
Elk Cove Vineyards 2014 ($29): Viscous, rich, and silky, with fragrant Pinot Noir aroma, elegantly styled; dark cherry flavors with high acidity. For me, a great Pinot Noir, the best in this group when tasted together. 93
Ponzi Vineyards "Tavola" 2014 ($25): Good depth and balance, with creamy texture. Tart cherry and strawberry flavors. Ripe fruit, slightly sweet, but good acidity balances it. Will keep well, like all Ponzi Pinot Noirs. 91
R. Stuart & Co. 2014 ($28): Dry, subtle, perfumed dark cherry aromas. Fruity and rich, with concentrated, fruity finish. A bit on the ripe side. 89
Chehalem Winery 2014 ($32): A big, rich Pinot Noir with ripe cherry aromas and flavors, with a touch of vanilla oak. Lots of depth and concentration, with some sweetness. Good acidity helps the touch of over-ripeness. 90
ROCO Winery 2014 ($30): Tart cherry and strawberry aromas with some oak tannins a bright, lively Pinot Noir with depth of flavors. Good acidity, with an impressive finish. 90
Cooper Mountain Vineyards 2013 ($25): Full-bodied, with ripe cherry aromas and concentrated, fruity flavors. A solid wine, showing well for a 2013, not a great vintage. 90
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The tasting was very impressive, with 9 of the 12 wines receiving a 90 or better rating. Obviously, 2014 is a very good vintage for Oregon’s Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs. And no Reserve or Single-Vineyard Pinot Noirs (which are in the $35 to $45 price range) were tasted. Elk Cove Vineyards was my particular favorite, but so many others showed well. The Eyrie Vineyards, Lange Estate, and Domaine Drouhin Oregon, three consistently good Pinot Noirs , were not tasted.
For me, the big surprise was how well the inexpensive wines showed. The tasting confirmed my opinion of the quality and value of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs.