During college I passed through the Willamette Valley any number of times on my way from California up to my school, just south of the Canadian border, but it would some time before I made a visit that paid any attention to the area’s wine. In 2004 I had just begun writing about wine, and would soon take my first sommelier job. The valley’s Pinots were a particularly hot commodity with the New York sommelier community at the time; the whites – Chardonnay, mostly, received some attention, largely thanks to a few standouts.
Setting aside the seemingly inevitable “How Burgundian are they?” comparisons, at the time it was becoming more and more of a commonplace to contrast Willamette Valley’s Pinots with those from California, which were also receiving quite a lot of notice, of course. The latter were often stereotyped as being more fruit-driven than those of Oregon, but I think the more intriguing contrast was structural, with a firmness and drier tannins giving the Oregon wines an austere quality that seemed more cerebral and “serious” when tasted alongside lusher, softer examples from the Sonoma Coast or the Russian River Valley.
In either case, whether from Russian River, Willamette, or elsewhere, the wines were surprisingly big when one considers the traditional archetype of Pinot – burly, in some cases, or from northern California, more likely, voluptuous. This seemed especially the case during my visit, but then, many wineries were showing their 2003s at the time – one of the hottest, possibly the hottest, vintage of the millennium to date. This was a period when big, extracted red wines were highly praised, but the 2003 vintage was extreme enough that the majority of the producers who showed me 2003 wines on that trip either expressed some sort of regret about the excess muscle on the wines, proudly explained how they made minimized the impact of the heat, or both.
One of the great prizes of actually visiting a wine region – something I’ve had scant opportunities to do this past year – is to get the geography in one’s head in way that really says something about the wines. The winemakers I talked to were glad to oblige, and the valley was abuzz with talk of the nascent sub-AVAs, several of which would become official the following year. A vintage like 2003 can obscure these sorts of differences, and while I came away with some sense for the different soils – mostly simply summed up as a contrast between marine sediments and volcanic, basaltic soils – I didn’t come away with as clear a sense of difference as I might have.
That has changed, of course. Vintages have gone up and down in quality, as befits a cool, maritime climate, but especially across the series of excellent vintages in the mid-2010s, the character and distinctive attributes of the six sub-AVAs created in 2005 and 2006 – Yamhill-Carlton, Dundee Hills, and Chehalem Mountains, for example – have become more and more clear. It would seem their success inspired the creation of additional, neighboring AVAs like the Van Duzer Corridor and Laurelwood District in 2019 and 2020. A general move toward less oak, lower alcohol, and less or gentler extraction, found in many parts of the winemaking world, has not missed the Willamette Valley, and that, too, has aided these AVAs in defining their particular traits and individuality.
Rather than indulge in a big-picture overview of the many AVAs, I’ll zoom in on one to give you an idea what I mean. Yamhill-Carlton, In the foothills north of McMinnville, was one of the first sub-AVAs to receive approval, and is home to many well-established names including Ken Wright, Elk Cove, and Willakenzie. Dick Shea’s vineyard, from which producers from all over Willamette source and often make single vineyard examples, was also a pioneer here, planting near the end of the 1980s.
The soils are largely marine sediments, but elevation plays a large factor in giving the region’s vineyards their character. Ken Wright says that most of the best vineyards there lie between 250’ and 850’ above sea level. The nearby mountains also offer some protection from inclement weather. Pinot Noir makes up three-quarters of the area’s plantings. The wines seem to share a firm but transparent structure and a supporting spine of acidity. While fruit character can vary, a savoriness is typically apparent on the palate and finish. Chardonnay plays a smaller role in Yamhill-Carlton, occupying less than 5% of the vineyards, but there are some notable examples being made. These often show a pleasant mix of citrus and yellow tree fruit, though the regional resemblance is not as sharply defined as in the Pinot Noirs.
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Some Recommended Yamhill-Carlton wines from the 2018 vintage:
Elk Cove "La Boheme" Pinot Noir 2018:
Made from one of the highest vineyards in the appellation, with own-rooted vines clinging to steep, well-draining slopes. A savory character dominates, leaven by a healthy streak of dark raspberry and mineral and cocoa powder undertones. It’s a medium-bodied wine, structured but not firm, with light tannins and good length.
Penner-Ash Estate Pinot Noir 2018:
Sourced from nine different blocks, each broken down further into a variety of small lot ferments. Unusually for the areas, the vineyards do include some basaltic bedrock among the more common sedimental formations. Aromatic, the wine shows red fruit, floral, and spice notes on the nose, supported by an almost oyster-shell mineral character, and a savoriness on the finish. Lighter, and elegant, with more overt structure, tighter tannins, and good length.
Ken Wright Savoya Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018:
The Savoya Vineyard lies at about 400’ elevation, facing southeast, where it receives plenty of morning light but none of the more intense late afternoon sun. Floral notes surround a deep fruit center of plum and cherry, with spice, anise, and mineral notes becoming more pronounced on the palate. On the fuller side, but with a supporting vein of acidity and firm, well-balanced tannins. The finish is long and savory.
Beacon Hill, Beacon Hill Vineyard Chardonnay 2018:
Sourced from a lower elevation vineyard on the eastern edge of the appellation. Generous on the nose, with pear, apple, and ripe meyer lemon notes all balanced by a chalk-like minerality and lively acidity. This medium-bodied wine sees some new oak, but carries it very well. Only available direct from the winery.
Big Table Farm Chardonnay 2018:
Sourced from two sites in the appellation, Big Table’s Yamhill-Carlton Chardonnay is done in an oxidative style, low-intervention style, with no new oak. It’s racy and acid-driven, showing flinty mineral, spice, and yellow plum notes. With Chardonnay making up 1/3 of their production, Big Table is more invested in the variety than many of their neighbors, and continues to plant more vines in the higher portions of the vineyard.
Willakenzie Chardonnay 2018:
While Chardonnay is only 2% of Willakenzie’s output, it is growing. The 20128 is aromatic, with floral, apple, and lemon notes, plus a hint of spice and vanilla on the palate.
Nicolas Jay ‘Bishop Creek’ Chardonnay 2018:
Dating only to 2012, this is a collaboration between Jean-Nicolas Meo of Meo-Camuzet in Burgundy and music entrepreneur Jay Boberg. The Bishop Creek vineyard lies in a higher elevation spot on the western edge of the AVA. The vines were originally Pinot Gris, but were grafted over to Chardonnay in 2015. This is a dense, textured wine, but not heavy at all thanks to its vibrant acidity. It’s medium-bodied and shows a mix of pear and yellow plum fruit with a hint of spice.