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Understanding Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

Understanding Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

If you’ve ever shopped for Oregon Pinot Noir, you’ve probably noticed most bottles on the shelf come from the Willamette Valley. Given 90 percent of the wine produced there is made from this thin-skinned red grape, it’s fair to say Pinot is to Willamette as tequila is to Jalisco.

However, you’ve also likely noticed a sub-appellation, referred to as a nested American Viticultural Area (AVA), listed on the label and wondered about its implications. For example, how does a wine from Yamhill Carlton differ from Chehalem Mountains? What will a wine from Eola-Amity Hills taste like? And are these distinctions noticeable enough in the glass for you to care?

Well, yes and no. If you like Pinot, you’re probably going to enjoy just about anything made in the Willamette. The wines display perfume, elegance, and balance, and fall somewhere between California and Burgundy. However, there are important reasons justifying the creation of nested AVAs given there’s more to wine than just the grape. Soil, micro-climate, diurnal shift (difference between day and nighttime temperatures), altitude, and even clone all impact the flavor and structure of the final product. And that’s before the winemaker gets her hands on the fruit in the winery.

So, if you’ve ever wondered about the six important Willamette AVAs, here’s a shorthand guide to what to expect next time you serve a bottle from one at dinner.

Chehalem Mountains

Chehalem is composed of a chain of hills, about 20 miles long and 5 miles wide, in the north of the Valley. Because of the diversity in soils, elevation and exposure, generalizations about the wines from Chehalem AVA are difficult to make. To wit, the AVA has started dividing itself into smaller sub-zones, e.g., Ribbon Ridge (below). Soils include volcanic basalt known as Jory, loess known as Laurelwood, and marine sedimentary and alluvial known as Willakenzie.

Wine Profile: Grapes planted in loess can give riper, bigger wines that are earthy with red and blue fruit. Grapes planted on Willakenzie give black cherry, black currant, and cola notes. Pinot grown on Jory can evoke cherry pie and spice. Some callChehalem the Volnay or Morey-Saint-Denis of Oregon.

Wineries to find: Adelsheim, Alloro, Ponzi, Raptor Ridge

Ribbon Ridge AVA

The smallest of the nested AVAs, Ribbon Ridge is a subset of the Chehalem Mountains and was delineated largely on its uniform Willakenzie soils. This warmer soil tends to dry out and can contribute to early ripening of grapes. The climate tends to be warmer than other AVAs.

Wine Profile: Lots of red fruits, cranberries, cinnamon stick, and ruby grapefruit. Wines have a lot of energy, vibrancy and prettiness with great potential for complexity and nuance. Some call it the Chambolle-Musigny of Willamette.

Wineries to find: Beaux Freres, Brick House

Dundee Hills AVA

Dundee Hills is the most recognized and awarded of all the AVAs. The swath of vineyards sits north of the town of Dundee and enjoys a slightly warmer climate than the other AVAs. Its location behind McMinville, which receives the full brunt of the Van Duzer winds, means the winds’ ferocity has been reduced from a lion to a breezy lamb by the time it gets to Dundee. Due to the elevation, vineyards sit above the fog line, further contributing to warmer vineyard sites. Soils are well-draining, iron-rich Jory planted with many of the Valley’s oldest vines.

Wine Profile: Red cherry cola, chewing tobacco, cinnamon, clove, smoky with occasional iron character, and the full spectrum of berry fruits.

Wineries to find: Eyrie Vineyards, Archery Summit, Domaine Serene

Yamhill-Carlton AVA

This is a relatively large AVA distinct for the fact that most of its vineyards sit in a rain shadow thrown by the Coast Range and the Chehalem Mountains. The soil is well-draining and predominantly sedimentary. Because the region is enclosed by mountains, it doesn’t get the cooling influence of wind and is therefore warmer. Climate combined with warm sedimentary soils, means Yamhill Carlton fruit typically ripens faster, has lower natural acidity, and results in robust, blue-fruited wines. Vineyard to know: Shea.

Wine profile: Typical flavors include damson plum, blueberry, coffee, and tobacco. The wines are often plush and ripe, the effect exaggerated by lower acidity. The wines can have higher alcohol, a glycerine sweetness, and weightier palate. Oak use is common, and higher alcohol leads to more extraction of the oak characteristics, most notably in the form of a mocha note in the wine. Wines are often called “muscular.”

Wineries to find: Ken Wright Cellars, Lenné Estate, Craft Wine Co.

McMinville AVA

If you’re looking for comparisons to hang a hat on, a region could do worse than be called the Islay Scotch of Oregon, or the Nuits-Saint-Georges of the Willamette. The location of McMinville, west of the town of McMinnville in the Coast Range Foothills at the edge of the Van Duzer corridor, allows for strong wind influence. Ocean breezes keep grapes cool in the afternoon, which in turn helps preserve natural acidity. And wines often have a smoky note. Soils are old and complex, a mixture of sedimentary and basalt. Vineyard to know: Momtazi

Wine profile: Deep in color, with a strong backbone of tannins and acidity. Fruit leans towards plums and the black berry spectrum, mingled with spice and earthy flavors. Often a smoky note, hence the reference to Islay.

Wineries to find: Yamhill Valley Vineyards, Youngberg Hill

Eola-Amity Hills AVA

Like McMinville, Eola-Amity experiences the full effect of the Van Duzer corridor winds, lending the appellation a cooler climate which contributes to smaller berries with thicker skins. The soils are a mix of red dirt and volcanic basalt which lends concentration and depth to the wines. Vineyards to know: Zenith and Temperance Hill.

Wine profile: Known for spiciness; flavors leans towards plums, currants, and tea leaf. Structured tannins and high acidity give these wines the ability to age. Done right, Eola-Amity can evoke Gevrey-Chambertin.

Wineries to find: Bethel Heights, Cristom, Walter Scott