Guide to Oregon’s Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

It is hard to believe that the first Willamette Valley Pinot Noir was released just 50 years ago. Since then, more than 800 wineries have sprung up in Oregon to take advantage of the state’s soil and climate, both of which are prime for Pinot Noir. With such international acclaim, it is no surprise that the Willamette Valley Wineries Association’s motto is “We are Pinot Noir.”

History of Wine in the Willamette Valley

In 1965, David Lett planted Pinot Noir (and other varietals that thrive in cool climates) in the Willamette Valley. Five years later, the region had just five wineries and 35 vineyard acres.

Growth continued, slowly and steadily, thanks to local winemakers who also worked together to select the best clones for the region, pass wine labeling laws that they agreed upon, and establish an unofficial guide for tourists. But it was in 1975, just nine years after the first Pinot Noir planting, that the region’s Pinot gained international acclaim. In 1979, the French food and wine magazine Gault-Millau hosted the Wine Olympics at which The Eyrie Vineyards 1975 South Block Pinot Noir earned a spot in the top ten of the Pinot noir category.

To date, the Willamette Valley has 756 vineyards and 592 wineries. These vineyards and wineries comprise the Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), which in 2002 was divided into six sub-AVAs: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, and Yamhill-Carlton. In January of 2019, the seventh AVA, Van Duzer Corridor, went into effect. The region produces 68% of Oregon’s planted vineyard acreage and 70% of the state’s total wine production.

Willamette Valley climate and terroir

The Willamette Valley is located between the Cascade Mountains and the Coast Range of Oregon, 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean. It is more than 100 miles long and 60 miles wide at its widest. In total, the valley has 24,436 vineyard acres. The majority of the vineyards rest on the valley’s hillsides, where the soil is less fertile and better for growing winegrapes.

The Willamette Valley region has a cool climate, with average growing season temperatures of 55–59 ºF (13–15 ºC), cooler summer days, and a shorter growing season. The valley also receives less rainfall than other areas in the state. (For example, Portland receives an average of 39 inches of annual rainfall, while the McMinnville AVA receives 29 inches.) These conditions make it perfect for growing Pinot Noir, which thrives in cooler climates with little rainfall.

Wines produced in the Willamette Valley

The Willamette Valley produces 83% of the state’s Pinot Noir. The area also produces Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and small quantities of Riesling, Syrah, Pinot Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Second to Pinot Noir is the region’s Pinot Gris, which also thrives in the cooler temperatures of the region. The quality of Willamette Valley Pinot Gris is often a surprise, given the region’s reputation for producing impeccable Pinot Noir. However, Willamette Valley Pinot Gris is fantastic, with notes of creamy pear, melon, and cinnamon alongside very little sweetness.

Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

Quality Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is known for having a harmony of ripeness, structure, elegance, and acidity. The wines are typically garnet in color and medium-to-full-bodied with notes of black or bing cherries, cranberries, plums, and strawberries alongside herbs and spices, such as oregano, cardamom, and cumin. Notes of cola, forest floor, truffle, baking spices, rose petals, tobacco, and tea are also common in high-quality, balanced Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.

Drink Pinot Noir with mushrooms, cedar plank-grilled salmon, and glazed duck breast. Pinot Noir is also an excellent pairing for braised chicken dishes, goat cheese, comte cheese, mushroom risotto, and creamy polenta with herbs.

Suggested Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

2017 Bluebell Chardonnay