The Willamette Valley is Oregon’s oldest wine region. The 150-mile long Pacific Northwest valley runs from the Portland metro area in the north to Eugene in the south. It is protected from the east by the Cascade Mountains, from the west by the Coast Range mountains, and from the north by hills.
The area has a long, gentle growing season. The warm summer days give way to cool evenings. Autumn brings some rain but also has plenty of sunny days. All this makes it perfect for cool climate grapes. In fact, the valley contains over 700 wineries and produces two-thirds of the state’s wines.
Willamette Valley and Its Many AVAs
An AVA (American Viticultural Area) is a grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features such as weather, soil, or altitude that distinguish it from how grapes are grown in the surrounding regions.
While wines differed greatly within AVAs (not to speak of among the sub-AVAs within those AVAs) among wineries, and from vintage to vintage, they have similar characteristics, based on their particular growing conditions.
Willamette Valley Oregon has many AVAs. While the region is best known for Pinot Noirs, it also produces Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Rieslings among others.
Soil Makes a Big Difference
Three different types of soil are interspersed within the Willamette Valley. Each soil type plays a large role in the wines that come from the area.
- Jory is the Willamette Valley’s most prominent volcanic soil. It is rich in clay and iron, has a reddish color, and is rich in nutrients. It holds water well. Pinot Noirs grown in Jory soil generally have a minerality and earthy flavor with a bright red fruit profile that tastes of cherries, red plums, and red currants.
- Loess is wind-blown silty loam produced largely from glacier dust. This soil has both marine and volcanic components. It is shallow, drains well, and erodes easily. The medium brown color contains iron and sodium chloride. Pinot Noirs produced from this soil generally have brighter red fruit (think blueberry and plum) and an earthy quality and perhaps some white pepper.
- Marine sedimentary sandstone soil feels like talcum powder and is super dry. It produces robust wines with dense black fruit flavors (such as blackberry, huckleberry, and current), cola, coffee, and chocolate. The Pinot Noirs tend to be less approachable when young and tend to have relatively long cellar potential compared to wines from other growing regions.
Let’s try to decipher some of the mysteries of the vast Willamette Valley and its nested AVAs in alphabetical order.
At over 100 square miles, the Chehalem Mountains AVA is one of the largest in Willamette Valley. It is located 19 miles southwest of Portland and 45 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. The mountains allow grapes to be grown at multiple elevations and shelter the vines from the wind.
The combination of volcanic and marine sedimentary soils, high elevations, and cooler temperatures produce wines that are structured, lightly extracted, and with red fruit (especially, strawberry and red cherry) taste. Warmer years tend to produce darker more intense fruit flavors.
The Dundee Hills AVA is approximately 28 miles southwest of Portland. The AVA is generally characterized by well-draining red Jory soil which holds heat and helps make this the warmest of Willamette Valley AVAs. Dundee Hills tends to produce deep red cherry and plum-based fruit-focused wines with iron-based minerality and spices (such as cinnamon, clove, and cardamom) and an underlayer of complex, earthy, and forest. In addition to Pinot Noir, it produces Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and sparkling wines.
The Eola-Amity Hills AVA is at the southern end of the valley, northwest of Salem. Its Jory basalt soils are overlaid with red clay. The cool afternoon breeze provides long cool growing seasons and helps the grapes retain their acid. The result is bigger structured, wines with darker fruits that are minerally with nice acidity. In addition to Pinot Noir, you will find Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gamay Noir.
Laurelwood is a sub-AVA of the Chehalem Mountains AVA and is west of Portland. Pinot Noir also dominates the grapes grown in this sedimentary topsoil with underlying basalt. Its well-draining soils are rich in iron and Missoula flood deposits. The AVA produces Burgundian-style Pinot Noirs that are light and elegant with well-defined tannins. Younger vines tend to produce wines with bright, spicy flavors such as cherry, blackberry, and white pepper. Older vines produce deeper dark fruit with violet aromas. Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are also grown.
The Lower Long Tom AVA is located between Eugene and Corvallis Oregon. The marine sedimentary soils are deep and well-drained. Combined with lower precipitation due to being in the Coast Range rain shadow and the area’s winds, growers use more open canopies. With vines getting more light and air exposure, the berries tend to be smaller and have more intense fruit and skin. Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc are the main grapes grown here.
The McMinnville AVA is west of the McMinnville town and about 40 miles southwest of Portland. It lies on porous marine sedimentary bedrock and is cooled by the marine winds that funnel through the Van Duzer Corridor. Its Pinot Noirs typically have strong (at least for Pinot Noirs) fine-grained tannins with dark fruit, spice, mineral, and earthy notes. Its whites are often bright and fruity.
Willamette Valley’s newest AVA is located about 15 miles west of Salem Oregon. The mostly marine sedimentary shallow soils promote berry development and the clay’s water-holding capacity enables little or no irrigation. The lack of wind in the area reduces the amount of water lost by the vines.
This small but densely planted AVA has warmer winters and cooler summers than other AVAs. Its densely planted vineyards primarily produce Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, as well as Pinot Blanc and Tempranillo.
Ribbon Ridge is a sub-AVA of Chehalem Mountains and is in the southwest foothills of the mountains. The moderate microclimate of this smallest Oregon AVA consists largely of marine sedimentary soil which retains water but has low nutrients. The AVA has a lower elevation, warmer temperatures, and less rainfall than surrounding Willamette AVAs. The result is a longer growing season. Its Pinot Noirs tend to have darker cherry fruit flavors with some minerality and more earth and spice than those from its neighbors. Not surprisingly, its Pinot Noirs consistently receive very high scores. In addition to Pinot Noir, the area also grows Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gamay.
The Tualatin Hills AVA is west of Portland and is in the northwest corner of Willamette Valley. It has a large concentration of volcanic soil mixed with loess. The AVA enjoys cool springtime temperatures followed by more temperate and dryer conditions in the fall. Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Chardonnay are among the grapes grown here.
The Van Duzer Corridor AVA is about 50 miles southwest of Portland and 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. The strong Pacific winds make this the coolest and windiness of the Willamette Valley AVAs. The soil is mostly marine sedimentary. Its thicker skin pinot grapes have more tannin and acid than most of the others. The Pinots Noirs are typically highly extracted with deep colors, dark fruit, and savory earthy tastes. The white wines tend to have bright fruit and acid-driven profiles. The area is known for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc.
The Yamhill-Carlton AVA is at the northern end of the Willamette Valley, 35 miles southwest of Portland and 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. The soil is well-draining marine bedrock sedimentary soil. Being in a rain shadow gives the area a drier climate. The surrounding geography protects the AVA from extreme weather which results in having the earliest harvest dates in the Willamette Valley. The area tends to produce ripe, floral, spicy wines with dark fruit tastes. Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay are the main grapes.
But Wait There’s More
To learn more about this area as well as what wineries to visit and where to eat, check out our other blogs on Willamette Valley.