Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Oregon’s Willamette Valley AVA

rows and rows of vineyards in Oregon

By: Becky Garrison

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Oregon’s Willamette Valley AVA, which runs from Portland in the North to Eugene in the South. According to the Willamette Valley Wineries Association’s website this AVA consists of 931 vineyards and 736 wineries that represent a total 3,438,000 acres. Currently this AVA has 11 nested AVAs that contain two-thirds of the 1,110+ wineries in Oregon.

  While wine has been made in the Willamette Valley since the 1880s, initially this land was considered too cold and wet to grow great grapes even though it is close to the same latitude as Burgundy, France. In 1965, David and Diana Lett picked up on this distinction and planted 3,000 Pinot noir vines in 1965 at The Eyrie Vineyard near Dundee. Other early wine pioneers included Dick Erath, the Knudsens, and the Sokol Blossers.

  A key factor in the early development of the Willamette Valley was the passage in Oregon of the Land Conservation and Development Act (Senate Bill 100). Signed into law on May 29, 1973, this bill set aside land for future agricultural use.

  This AVA’s last recorded harvest resulted in 84,328 tons, which represents 73.5% of the state’s total crop. The majority of grapes planted are Pinot noir (70%) followed by Pinot gris (16%) and Chardonnay (7.5%). In recent years, some growers have been experimenting with other varietals like Pinot blanc, Riesling, Melon, Gewürztraminer, sparkling wine, Sauvignon blanc, Syrah, and Gamay..

  The region’s general attributes that make this valley ideal for growing cool climate grapes include the protection provided by the Coast Range mountains to the west, the Cascade Mountains to the East, and a series of lower hills at the extreme north of the valley. Drew Voit, Owner/Winemaker, Harper Voit Winery (McMinnville, OR) has been making wine for over twenty-five years, as well as consulting with other wineries situated throughout the Willamette Valley. In his estimation, the Willamette Valley represents the Goldilocks zone in terms of climate and latitude. “We have a particularly long growing season with a cool climate, mild winters, warm and dry summers.”

  Furthermore, the unique characteristics of each of the 11 nested AVAs allow for a surprising wide range of wine expressions. As Voit observes, “There’s diversity even within neighboring vineyards. You really have to listen to each vineyard and embrace the terroir of that particular site.”

  From 2005 to 2006, six sub-AVAs were formed: Dundee Hills, Yamhill-Carlton, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, Chehalem Mountains and Eola-Amity Hills.

Dundee Hills AVA: The Dundee Hills AVA has the distinction of being where the first grapes in the Willamette Valley were planted, and it remains the most densely planted locale in Oregon. The region’s Jory soils are formed in colluvium derived from basic igneous rock resulting in well-drained very deep soils. This soil was named after Jory Hill, a town in Marion Country named after the Jory family who settled this area in 1852. Voit states how this AVA’s soil produces powerful red fruit with strong floral notes and a classic balance.

Ribbon Ridge AVA: With only 500 planted acres, this AVA nestled within the Chehalem Mountains AVA represents the smallest AVA in Oregon, as well as one of the most prestigious wine growing regions in the world. Most vineyards in this AVA are protected climatically by the larger landmasses surrounding it, and are dry farmed due to the lack of aquifers. The area is comprised primarily of the Willakenzie series of well-drained and moderately deep sedimentary soils that are ideal for growing complex Pinot noirs with earth notes of dark cherry and rose petal.

Yamhill-Carlton AVA: Situated at the foothills of the Coastal range, the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, contains around 60,000 acres centered around the hamlets of Carlton and Yamhill. This region was known for logging, nurseries, fruit tree orchards, wheat fields, and logging until 1974 when Pat and Joe Campbell and Roy and Betty Wahle planted Elk Cove Vineyard and Wahle Vineyard respectively. In Voit’s estimation, this region produces intense, dark and rich grapes similar to Ribbon Ridge, though he adds that the wines from Yamhill and Carlton may have similar marine sediments, but they possess different and distinctive aromatic tones.

McMinnville AVA: This AVA begins a few miles to the west of McMinnville and then extends approximately 20 miles south-southwest toward the mouth of the Van Duzer Corridor. This AVA’s most prominent geological feature is the Nestuca Formation, a 2,000-foot bedrock formation consisting of weathered volcanic and sedimentary soil that sits on top of marine bedrock. Pinot noir grapes harvested from this AVA tend to exhibit darker fruit flavors and a strong backbone of tannin rounded out by earth, spice, and mineral notes due to the AVA’s drier and cooler temperatures.

Chehalem Mountains AVA: This AVA’s history dates back to 1968 when Dick Erath purchased 49 acres on Dopp Road in Yamhill County that he named Chehalem Mountain Vineyard. He was joined by other pioneers in the 1970s, including the Adelsheim and Ponzi families. The Chehalem Mountains AVA was formally approved in 2006. The Chehalem Mountains are made up of several spurs, ridges, and hilltops with the tallest point Bald Peak, at 1,633-feet above sea level. These features shelter the vineyards from the high winds that blow south through the Columbia Gorge. The soils found throughout this AVA consist of marine sedimentary soils, volcanic soils, and a series of loess called Laurelwood, which is a a geologically younger windblown silty soil of glacial origin.

Eola-Amity Hills AVA: While this agricultural history of this area near Salem dates back to the mid-1850s, winemakers like Don Byard of Hidden Springs didn’t discover this region as an ideal place for growing high-quality wine grapes until the 1970s. The soils of the Eola-Amity Hills consist predominantly of volcanic basalt from ancient lava flows. This feature when combined with alluvial deposits and marine sedimentary rocks results in a rockier and shallower well-drained soils that result in small grapes that are highly concentrated. As Voit observes, this AVA, is impacted by the Pacific Ocean influence where the winds rapidly cool the valley at night, thus helping the grapes retain their acidity as they ripen. “This produces wines with lots of spicy, savory and other non-fruit characteristics that are very compelling and distinctive.”

  From 2019 to 2022, five additional nested AVAs were formed: Van Duzer Corridor, Tualatin Hills, Laurelwood District, Lower Tom AVA and Mount Pisgah, Polk County, Oregon.

The Van Duzer Corridor AVA: This AVA, which went into effect in 2019, consists primarily of marine sediments is a natural break in the Coast Range results in afternoon winds that are 40 to 50 percent stronger when compared to other Willamette Valley AVAs. Voit works extensively with this AVA that he describes as the most Pacific Ocean influenced place in the Valley. “If a vineyard is in the windward blast zone of those strong breezes, there’s rapid cooling in the evening and howling winds. The winds are a little more delicate on leeward side of the hills.” This wind variability leads diverse wines that are both compelling and distinctive with an overall a cooling afternoon effect that dries out the vine canopy and degrees the presence of fungus, along with thickening the grape skins, which produces and abundance of tannin and anthocyanins (color).

The Tualatin Hills AVA: 2020 marked the approval of the Tualatin Hills AVA, a 15-mile stretch of land situated in the far Northwestern corner of the Willamette Valley that is is defined by the watershed of the Tualatin River with an elevation range between 200 and 1,000 feet. This AVA has a lower rainfall, cooler springtime temperatures and more temperate and drier weather during fall harvest as it’s sheltered by the Coast Range and Chehalem mountains. In addition, this AVA features the largest concentration in Oregon of Laurelwood soil, which is a windblown volcanic soil mixed with basalt (loess) deposited by the Missoula Floods at the end of the last ice age.

Laurelwood District AVA: In this same year the Laurelwood District AVA, which comprises more than 25 wineries and 70 vineyards, got approved as a result of petitioning by Ponzi Vineyards and Dion Vineyards. This AVA nested within the Chehalem Mountains AVA comprises more than 25 wineries and 70 vineyards with Laurelwood soil as the predominant soil found on the north- and east-facing slope of the Chehalem Mountains. The Laurelwood District AVA encompasses over 33,000 acres and includes the highest elevation in the Willamette Valley, at 1,633 feet. Laurelwood soil is composed of a 15-million-year-old basalt base with a loess (windblown freshwater silt) top layer accumulated over the past 200,000 years and at depths of 4’ to 0” depending on the elevation.

Lower Long Tom AVA: The next AVA to be approved was the Lower Long Tom AVA, which was established in November 2021 and is situated at the southern Willamette Valley. The AVA’s 24 vineyards are located on stream-cut ridge lines running east to west This AVA is situated within the west side of the Lower Long Tom Watershed and dominated by Bellpine soil. This term is used to describe moderately deep, well drained soils that are formed in the colluvium and residuum derived from sedimentary rocks. This region tends to have hotter days and cooler nights with more planting at higher evaluations. Voit observes how this combination tends to produce intense exotic wines that are unlike anything in the valley.

Mount Pisgah, Polk County, Oregon:  The latest AVA is Mount Pisgah, Polk County, Oregon AVA established in June 2022. Located 15 miles west of Salem, Oregon, this AVA is defined by the rain shadow of Laurel Mountain to the west, a mild influence from the Van Duzer winds, and the warmth of the Willamette River. While this is the Valley’s second smallest AVA at 5,530 acres, it’s also one of the most densely planted AVAs was 584 acres planted with Willakenzie, Bellpine, and Jory, along with some Nekia soils.

The Future of Willamette Valley Wine

  Even though the number of wineries in the Willamette Valley has doubled since 2005, most wineries fall into the boutique category producing under 5,00 cases a year with many of the vineyards and wineries remaining family owned and operated. Prior to 1990 only two major Pinot noir clones represented the vast majority of Pinot noir grapes produced in the Willamette Valley Since then, these vineyards now plant over a dozen varieties of Pinot nor clones.

  As a testament to this region’s commitment to sustainability and regenerative agriculture, Oregon produces 1% of wine made in US but is home to 52% of Demtmer Certified Biodynamic wineries. Other similar initiatives include Salmon Safe, which promotes products made without pesticides or causing runoff that would harm salmon and LIVE (LoW Impact Viticulture and Enology) certification of sustainable practices.

  In Voit’s estimation, the quality of vineyard farming and winemaking has exponentially grown and expanded resulting in wines with fewer technical flaws. “This is partly because the industry is older. But also, climate change put us into a position where we need to understand how to deal with very difficult seasons,” Voit says.

  In celebration of this region’s bounty, the International Pinot Noir Celebration was launched in 1987 as an annual summer celebration held in July that brings together international Pinot Noir producers, Northwest chefs, and wine aficionados for a celebratory educational weekend. Also in 2000, a group of Oregon wineries launched Oregon Pinot Camp, a weekend of presentations, seminars, and tastings dedicated to Pinot Noir. While this event was designed as a one-time event but has since become an annual summer event.

  As a sign of the region’s push towards diversity, the Willamette Valley is host to the Asian American Pacific Islanders Food and Wine Fest in May, the Queer Wine Fest in June, and the Women in Wine: Fermenting Change in Oregon Conference in July. Other Willamette Valley wine events reported in earlier issues of The Grapevine Magazine include Women in Wine (May/June 2023) and Alt Wine Festival (March/April 2023) with upcoming events posted at the Willamette Valley Wine’s website at https://www.willamettewines.com/things-to-do/events

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