Winemaking in the Willamette Valley dates back to the 1950s thanks to the insight and rebellious spirit of three Davis University graduates in California. They believed Oregon is the perfect place for growing varieties with a preference for a cooler climate. Between 1965 and 1968, David Lett, Charles Curie and Dick Eart, each set their way into the valley, despite the profound opinion of their professors that it was impossible to gow grapes in Oregon.
They are the first to plant Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, as well as small quantities of related varieties, including Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling. Over the next decade, the number of wineries in the valley steadily increases. In 1979, David Letts Pinot Noir won second place at the Paris Olympics in Paris, outpacing most of its colleagues from Burgundy. The press spreads the news around the world, creating the modern Oregon as a location for superb wine.
Willamette Valley became official AVA in 1983. Today it is recognized as one of the largest wine regions in the world, most well-known for its award-winning Pinot Noir.
The Willamette Valley stretches for 240 km along the river of the same name until it flows into the ocean. It is protected by the coast to the west, by the Cascades to the east and by a series of hilly chains to the north.
Not all parts of the Willamette Valley are suitable for viticulture. The largest concentration of wineries is to the west of it where the slopes are protected by the ocean or among the numerous valleys created by its tributaries.
Willamette is the cultural and political heart of Oregon and is home to about 70 percent of the state's population, including the largest cities, such as Portland to the north, Eugene to the south and the capital Salem, located in the middle of the valley.
The Willamette Valley enjoys a relatively mild climate with cool, humid winters and warm, dry summers. Moisture is abundant, but most rainfall occurs in the winter and not during the growing season. This temperate climate, coupled with marine influences on the coast, makes the cultivation conditions in the valley ideal for cool-grown varieties. The valley gets more sunny hours during the growing season than any other area of the state. The difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures allows the wine to develop its taste and complexity, while preserving its natural acidity.
The Willamette Valley is an old volcanic and sedimentary seabed covered with gravel, mud, rocks and stones brought by the floods 10-15 years ago. In the Willamette Valley there are three main soil types:
Jurassic, reddish - you'll find it on the Dundee hills. Pinot Noir, grown on this soil, tastes like a cherry pie: fruity, sweet and spicy.
Sedimentary - mostly in the surface layer called Willakenzie (the name comes from the Willamette and McKenzie rivers). Usually this soil would be considered too nutritious for viticulture, but it comprises a very shallow layer - only eighty centimeters at places. It does not retain water in the summer, so the youngest vines are almost immediately exposed to hydro stress.
With Pinot Noir from these soils, tannins and acids stand out, in a way similar to what you find in Burgundy. The feeling of strength and balance between acidity and tannins, similar to an iron fist in a velvet glove. These are wines that age very well.
Loess - loess is clay stacked by winds that remained after the retreat of glaciers 12-15,000 years ago. It is friable and easily eroded. The aroma flavors of Pinot Noir, grown in these soils, is a red fruit with notes of earth and white pepper.
Vineyards and Varietals
More than 70% of Oregon's vineyards are located in the Willamette Valley. Pinot Noir is one of the varietals that represents the terroir well. That is why the variety of terroirs, which often switch in short distances from each other, creates wines with distinctly local character. The almost nine thousand hectares of vineyards are planted with 73% Pinot Noir, 12% Pinot Gry, 6% Chardonnay, 2% Riesling, 1% Pinot Blanc and 6% other varieties.
Winemaking and Wines
The ever-changing landscape structure, as well as the unpredictable weather patterns, make the valley difficult for general conclusions in terms of soil types and the style of wines. While climate and topography also play an important role in the nature of wine, soils and seedlings are crucial factors for what makes the Willamette Valley so unique and ideally suited for Pinot Noir.
Over the years, six sub-areas have been created in the northern part, which represent 60% of the vineyards throughout the valley: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton.