This Episode's Region

Willamette Valley

Willamette Valley

Established in 1984, Oregon's Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) extends north-to-south from the Columbia River to just past of the city of Eugene to the Calapooya Mountains. East-to-west, the region stretches from the Cascade Mountains to the Oregon Coast Range. It is the state's largest AVA, with roughly 5,200 square miles that encompass the V-shaped drainage basin of the Willamette River. More than 20 varieties of grapes are produced in some 200 Willamette Valley vineyards, but it is the elegant Pinot Noir that has won the region international recognition.

The Willamette Valley lies at almost the same latitude as France's Burgundy region. A little over 40 years ago, pioneers of Oregon's wine-making industry brought Pinot Noir grapes to the area hoping they could survive and yield spectacular wines such as those the French had been producing for centuries. The climate seemed appropriate--long daylight hours, with overall mild conditions, including rainy, cool winters and dry, warm summers. The diurnal temperature swing of warm days and cool nights would allow for a longer growing season, necessary for development of flavor and complexity as well as retention of natural acidity.

Ironically, most soil of the Willamette Valley is not suitable for growing Pinot Noir. The Valley's basin terroir is too rich. The great Pinots of the Willamette Valley all grow at elevations above 300 feet. These higher areas escaped the fertile marine deposits of the Missoula glacial floods that occurred between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago. Where the Pinot Noir grapes are grown, the soil is volcanic, not sedimentary. It tends to be silty and reddish from clay, and only between 4 and 5 feet deep--as opposed to half a mile deep in the basin.

The first Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs were planted in the late 1960s in the Dundee Hills, about 30 miles southwest of Portland. It wasn't until David Lett--one of three original planters of Pinot Noir in the region--entered his Oregon Pinot Noir in the Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiad in 1979 that most of the rest of the world came to know Oregon as a great wine-making region. Lett's wine won third place, beating out many of France's finest labels. The Willamette Valley officially became an AVA five years later. Since then, the area has become one of the premier wine-producing regions in the world, renowned for its exquisite Pinot Noir.

For more on Wilamette Valley Pinot Noir, click here.

Photo of Willamette Valley by Ron Kaplan.

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Tasting Notes From This Episode

• The first winery in Oregon Territory was the Valley View Vineyard in the Rogue Valley, established in the 1850s, a few years before Oregon became a state. Valley View was owned by Swiss immigrant Peter Britt. To learn more about Oregon wine country visit www.oregonwine.org.

• Most Oregon vineyards, including those in the Willamette Valley, are located on the western, “wet side” of the Cascade Mountains. To the north, In Washington State, the opposite is true. Vineyards there are located east of the Cascades, on the mountain range’s “dry side.”

• Pinot Noir is an ancient grape variety, known to have been used to make wine in Burgundy as early as the first century, A.D. Its name means “black pine” in French. The grapes are very dark, considered “black,” and the clusters are cylindrical, resembling large pine cones.

• Some experts were pessimistic about bringing Pinots to Oregon. Often called “finicky” (and worse) by frustrated growers, the Pinot Noir vine or grape can be easily destroyed by cold, heat, wind, disease, insects, and myriad other viticultural calamities or even mild disturbances.

• The Pinot Noir variety is prone to spontaneous genetic mutation, more so than almost any other grape. As a result, there are hundreds of slightly different clones of this particular grapevine cultivated worldwide. Each clone has its own subtly unique DNA.

• The 2004 film Sideways starring Paul Giamatti impacted wine sales in the United States. Paul Giamatti’s character (wine aficionado Miles Raymond) raved about Pinot Noirs throughout the film, but he made disparaging remarks constantly about Merlots. In the year after the movie’s release, sales increased 16% for Pinot Noir wines, while Merlot sales dropped 2%.