It is easy to compare Oregon’s wine industry to that of Burgundy in France or even California; there are definite influences from both places in the Willamette Valley, where almost three quarters of the state’s wine is produced.
Influences should not be confused with character and spirit though, because the Willamette Valley’s wines are unique expressions, particularly when it comes to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The wine industry in the Willamette Valley didn’t really get started until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most of the industry pioneers in Oregon came up from California.
These pioneers from California joined with the few already existing Oregon wine makers at the time to establish the fledgling industry in the Willamette Valley.
In 1979, David Lett, the owner-winemaker of Eyrie Vineyards known as “Papa Pinot” in Oregon, entered his 1975 Reserve Pinot Noir into the Wine Olympics organized in France. The wine placed 10th in the world, earning the Willamette Valley its first international recognition as a wine-producing region.
Eventually, Oregon winemakers established close ties with their counterparts in Burgundy, which led to investment and collaboration in the Willamette Valley, beginning with the purchase of land for vineyards in the Dundee Hills by noted Burgundy producer Maison Joseph Drouhin in 1988.
The idea of terroir and its impact on wine is difficult for many outside of Europe to understand. At its most basic, terroir is the combination of climate conditions, soil composition, elevation of a vineyard, and its positioning to the sun, as well as other environmental factors that all combine to impart a sense of place on grapes grown there.
Certain wine grapes are very susceptible to the influences of terroir and the wines produced by these grapes reflect those nuances.
The rolling hills, climate and soil composition of the Burgundy region of France produce what are widely considered the best expressions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, two wine grapes that are known to strongly reflect their terroir.
The world-class wines being produced in the Willamette Valley tend to be more Burgundian in style than other New World wines, but the end product is distinctly Oregonian, and there is good reason why some might even prefer wines coming from there over those from France.
The Willamette Valley straddles the 45th parallel north, the imaginary line halfway between the equator and the North Pole. It is at this general latitude, (plus or minus three degrees, where the temperatures are just right for grape growing), where most of the world’s greatest wines are produced.
Sheltered between a coastal mountain range to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east, the Willamette Valley has a maritime climate that produces warm, long, dry summers. The diurnal temperature swing brings warm days and cool nights, perfect for development of grapes that will yield complex aromas and flavors and good acidity in wine.
After climate, soil composition has the second most significant impact on wines and the Willamette Valley – as the result of a diverse geological history – is blessed with wide variety of soil types, each of which have a distinctive influence on the wines produced from the grapes grown in them.
All about the soil
There are three different soil categories in Oregon, the most significant of which is the reddish-brown basalt-based volcanic soil that is rich in nutrients and minerals. The most important of the volcanic soils is called Jory, which was officially adopted as Oregon’s “state soil” in 2011. Wines produced from grapes grown in Jory soil tend to have rich red fruit flavors and distinguishable minerality. The vineyards in the Dundee Hills region of the Willamette Valley mostly have Jory soils and produce some of the most famous Oregon Pinot Noirs.
Another major soil type in the Willamette Valley is a sedimentary, which was created from marine sediments when western Oregon was at the bottom of a deep ocean about 15 million years ago. Grape vines grown in this soil tend to have to struggle for nutrients, ultimately yielding wines with dark fruit flavors that are powerful and structured, much like many of the best wines in Burgundy. The most known marine sedimentary soil in the Willamette Valley is called Willakenzie.
The third major category of soil in the Willamette Valley is Loess, which is created by windblown silts. Mostly found on the northern slope of the Chehalem Mountains in the northern part of the Willamette Valley, this soil produces wines with spiciness and bright red fruit flavors.
Without a doubt, the most important grape grown in Willamette Valley is Pinot Noir. Nearly 90 percent of all of Oregon’s Pinot Noir production comes from the Willamette Valley, with more than 14,000 acres of the grape planted.
With climatic conditions and the variety of soils almost perfect for Pinot Noir, the Willamette Valley produces world-class wines from the grape.
Many of the Pinot Noirs that go to market are made with blends of grapes grown in two or more soil types, or at least blends of grapes grown in different vineyards. However, winemakers are increasingly producing wines made from grapes grown in a single vineyard in order to express their terroir. For example, Elk Cove Vineyard produces seven different single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Domaine Serene produces six, while other wineries are increasingly producing at least one single-vineyard Pinot Noir as they identify the best plots for growing grapes.
The single-vineyard wines come from plots with different soils and different elevations, giving each of them distinct qualities, even when made using the exact same method in any given year. What’s more, these single-vineyard Pinot Noirs display significant vintage variations due to summer temperature and rainfall variations.
Since grape growing is a relatively recent phenomenon in Oregon, it will take some time for the characteristics of Willamette Valley single-vineyard wines to become widely known, but with their production very limited – a few hundred cases for some single vineyards – most will only be available directly from the winery.
For the same reason – terroir – that Pinot Noir grapes grow well in Oregon, so should Chardonnay grapes.
Compared to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay is easy to grow and can thrive in a much wider latitude band. Chardonnay can grow equally as well in the cold climate of Champagne in France as it can in the warm Napa Valley climate, although the expressions of the grape are much different, with one being much more acidic and the other being fruitier.
Although the Willamette Valley presented a good potential terroir for Chardonnay, at least in theory, Oregon winemakers weren’t able to coax the best out of the grape. It turned out they were using the wrong plants, specifically clones of Chardonnay vines from California, where the climate is much warmer.
It wasn’t until the year 2000 when Dijon clones from Burgundy became readily available that wineries in Willamette Valley started replacing their Chardonnay vines. The results were impressive, and although only about 1,100 acres of Chardonnay are now planted in Willamette Valley – less than half of Oregon’s iconic white wine, Pinot Gris – the quality of wine has improved dramatically.
Aged in French oak barrels instead of American oak, Willamette Valley Chardonnays are Burgundian in style, with fruit flavors similar to the warmer climates of southern Burgundy like in Fuissé, but with a minerality that makes it more like Chablis in northern Burgundy. Ultimately, Willamette Valley Chardonnay is unique unto itself, a beautiful expression of the grape unlike any other and a rising star in Oregon winemaking.