Without a doubt, the best region in Oregon for growing top-tier Pinot Noir is the Willamette Valley. This relatively cool, dry American Viticultural Area (AVA) located in the northwest region of the state produces wines that are perfectly balanced in virtually every way. The best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is deeply concentrated in flavor, yet also soft and graceful. It’s earthy, but also sweetly fruity and full of bright red berry flavors like cranberry and cherry. Some wine critics even compare Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to top-quality Burgundy. For instance, Master of Wine Jancis Robinson says, “Oregonian Pinots [have] the same sort of autumnal mulch aromas as a mature Burgundy, and certainly the same sort of delicate balance.” Some of the top wine producers in the world also recognize the region’s great potential. For example, noted California producer Sine Qua Non saw something incredibly special about this region and decided to purchase new land here. The gamble paid off, as some of Sine Qua Non’s finest wines come from the Willamette Valley.
For these and many other reasons, investing in Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is a wise choice for collectors, particularly those looking for a subtle, elegant take on this popular variety. Our detailed guide to the Willamette Valley will take you on a tour of the most collectible and delectable wines from this region.
Why You Should Collect Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is considered by many professional wine critics to be a step above other Pinots from the New World. For example, in 2010, renowned critic Jancis Robinson attended a blind tasting event where she had the opportunity to try 65 different Pinot Noir wines from Australia, California, Chile, New Zealand, and Oregon. The hosts presented a blind flight of 13 wines from each country and didn’t tell attendees where each flight was from. Robinson says the first flight she tried was the most impressive and many of these wines were leagues above the competition. That first flight, it was later revealed, was Oregonian Pinot Noir. Robinson says, “I did think as I tasted it that it was probably the Oregon one since the wines were subtle, gentle, fresh but not too emphatically tart, sweet, or alcoholic.” Out of all of the wines she tasted at this event, she said three were particularly striking:
- 2007 Domaine Drouhin
- 2008 Amity Bass Hill Vineyard
- 2006 Lemelson Six Vineyards
It’s no coincidence that all of these wines are from the Willamette Valley AVA, as this part of Oregon is ideal for growing Pinot Noir. Beyond grape quality, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is also growing more popular among wine collectors who want to resell their wine. Market demand for Pinot Noir has increased by an average of eight percent every year since 2013. By comparison, average market demand in the wine industry as a whole has only increased by about two percent per year in the same timeframe. Increased demand means that these wines are selling for higher prices on the secondary market, making them potentially profitable investments for collectors interested in wine as an asset class.
What makes Willamette Valley the perfect place for producing top-quality, valuable Pinot Noir that critics and collectors love? Terroir and climate play a major role.
Willamette Valley Climate and Terroir
Pinot Noir is a cool weather variety that thrives in mild areas like the Willamette Valley. In the winter, the weather in the valley is cool and rainy, which replenishes the water table deep underground. By the time summer rolls around, the rain clouds largely disappear and the weather becomes much warmer and drier. The vines still have access to water deep under the earth, but the lack of rainfall in the summer means that the fruit never becomes too diluted. Diurnal temperature swings also give Willamette Valley Pinot Noir greater complexity. During the summer growing season, the days are warm and sunny–contributing to ripe and concentrated grapes–while the nights are much cooler, which keeps acidity high.
The best vineyards in the Willamette Valley are located on south-facing slopes, as these areas typically get cooling fog in the early morning hours of the summer.
The soil and vineyard location also have an impact on Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Vineyards located at higher elevations have a type of volcanic soil called red Jory, which is very fast-draining. This prevents fruit dilution, even when the area experiences heavier rainfall than usual. The best vineyards are also located on south-facing slopes, as these areas typically get cooling fog in the early morning hours of the summer. This increases acidity in the grapes and helps balance out the sweet, concentrated fruit flavors.
Whether you’re buying Willamette Valley Pinot Noir because it’s among the most delicious and complex wines in the New World or you want to buy wines that will increase the value of your collection, there are many great options to choose from. To narrow down your search, you’ll want to take a more detailed look at the styles of Pinot Noir made in each of the Willamette Valley’s six distinctive sub-AVAs.
Willamette Valley’s Best Subregions
Willamette Valley Pinot Noir isn’t uniform in style. While most of these wines have a few notable shared characteristics like earthiness, high acidity, and red fruit flavors, there’s also a lot of variation in this AVA. For this reason, the United States Tax and Trade Bureau has split the Willamette Valley region into smaller sub-AVAs based on their unique microclimates and winemaking styles. There are six sub-AVAs within the larger Willamette Valley region:
This area is known for producing Willamette Valley Pinot Noir that sits on the bolder end of the spectrum. You’ll find notes of bright red cherry, cinnamon, and very prominent tannins. The Chehalem Mountain area isn’t the place to find delicate, nuanced Pinot Noir, but if you want wines that are fruity, approachable, and pair well with a variety of foods, this AVA has you covered.
This is one of the oldest and most established sub-AVAs of the Willamette Valley. A wide variety of styles is made here, from fruit-forward wines to more complex, earthy Pinots. Almost all wines from this region have prominent tannins and red berry flavors, the most notable being raspberry. There are also a number of collectible and valuable wines made here by estates like Domaine Serene and ROCO Wine Cellar. However, because the quality and price of Pinot Noir vary so much in this sub-AVA, it’s important to research the producer and vintage tasting notes before you invest.
Wines from Eola-Amity Hills are among the most complex and collectible in Oregon. One portion of this sub-AVA is a southeastern-facing slope that gets ample sunlight coupled with cool, diurnal temperature swings at night. The most reputable producers are located here, including St. Innocent. Wines from this area are rich and concentrated, but they’re not as full-bodied or bold as those made in the Chehalem Mountains and they have more nuanced flavors of spice, as well as darker fruit flavors like plum and red currant. If you’re looking for a layered wine that has some aging potential, Pinots from this sub-AVA are a good option.
Like Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville wines are also a darker version of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. These wines have similar plum, red currant, and black cherry flavors, but some have even greater earthiness than wines from Eola-Amity Hills. Vines planted on eastern-facing slopes are sheltered from wind and rain, so the wines made here are richer and more fruit-forward than those facing south. Vines on the southern-facing slopes receive more coastal winds, so they are more acidic and herbaceous. If you enjoy wines with dark fruit flavors and savory earthiness, this is a great sub-AVA to explore.
Ribbon Ridge is a relatively recent addition to the roster of Willamette Valley sub-AVAs. Originally, it was part of the Chehalem Mountains AVA, but it received its own AVA status because the terroir is quite different here. Large landmasses nearby protect it from the elements, so this area is warmer and drier than the Chehalem Mountain area. The soil is also unique here. Ribbon Ridge’s ocean sedimentary soil is finer than the volcanic soils located in many other parts of the Willamette Valley and it is very low in fertility, which makes it perfect for cultivating grapes. The vines here tend to be more water-starved than other areas, and as such the grapes are very ripe and intense. You’ll find bright flavors of cranberry as well as earthy notes of truffle. As an added benefit, many of these wines are very age-worthy and valuable.
Some of the best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is made in Yamhill-Carlton. Most vineyards are planted on low slopes that receive a great deal of sunlight in the summer; however, cooling oceanic winds prevent the grapes from becoming overly ripe. The nights are also quite cool in this sub-AVA, producing wines that strike a perfect balance between acidity and a ripe concentration of fruit. Some of the wines are very fruit-forward and have dark fruit flavors, while others are more elegant and layered. Many Yamhill-Carlton wines also have enticing flavors of vanilla and baking spices due to the popularity of French oak aging in the area.
Tasting notes can help you determine how high in quality Willamette Valley AVA wines are.
Any regions that fall outside of these smaller AVAs are simply labeled “Willamette Valley AVA.” You’ll also see this label on wines that are made from a blend of grapes grown in multiple sub-AVAs. It’s harder to pin down the characteristic flavors of wines that are labeled like this, as they could be made in any location and from grapes grown in one vineyard or many. Tasting notes can help you determine how high in quality these Willamette Valley AVA wines are. The producer’s reputation and winemaking style also impact the flavor and value of the wine, so it’s important to weigh each of these factors.
The Top Willamette Valley Producers
The best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir producers typically make wines that are consistent in quality from year to year, even in relatively difficult vintages. For this reason, many collectors tend to stick with top-rated Oregonian producers that make wines in the style they love to drink (or that is most valuable on the secondary market). Some of the most valuable, reputable, and popular producers in this region are:
|Big Table Farm|
|ROCO Wine Cellar|
|Sine Qua Non|
This region is home to many passionate and experienced winemakers that are dedicated to crafting the finest Pinot Noir possible, and the list above is just a small sample of some of the best-known producers from the AVA. Many experienced winemakers and vineyard owners are now purchasing property in the Willamette Valley region because the climate and soil are so well-suited for growing Pinot Noir. As a result, we’ll likely see many more outstanding producers emerge from this region in the near future.
Can Oregon Pinot Noir Age?
Willamette Valley Pinot Noir can age for longer periods of time than many wines made in hotter regions of the New World. The AVA is cooler than most areas of California and Australia (two places known for their Pinot Noir production), which gives the wines made here higher acidity. High acidity, in turn, increases a wine’s aging potential. However, this isn’t the complete story. Countries like New Zealand and Chile are also relatively cool and make wines that are high in acidity. So, what sets Willamette Valley Pinot Noir apart? It’s a combination of terroir and winemaking techniques. The best producers in the Willamette Valley age their wines for months–sometimes more than a year–in French oak, just as many Burgundy producers do. The extended time in oak adds flavors of vanilla and baking spices to the wine and also increases its aging potential. If you want to invest in Willamette Valley Pinot Noir that will age well, look for producers like Evening Land and Sine Qua Non that have well-integrated oak flavors in their wines.
The best Willamette Valley vintages for aging are those that come from cooler years.
The finest Willamette Valley Pinot Noir can age for 15 to 20 years, sometimes longer. These wines often taste quite soft and plush in their youth, but laying them down for longer periods of time allows them to really open up and express their full depth of flavor. The best Willamette Valley vintages for aging are those that come from cooler years. Warm weather vintages are delicious and full of powerful, food-friendly fruit flavors that make these wines a joy to drink young. Whether you’re looking for a wine to lay down for many years or a complex young wine to serve with dinner, you’ll find it all in the Willamette Valley.
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