A Visit to Willamette Valley, Oregon

After a long day of winery visits, GDP comes back with his six top picks from the Willamette Valley

 


What follows are brief recommendations from a recent visit to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I visited five wineries in a day and was fortunate to taste many wines from each producer, but these six wines stood out as being among the best for each variety and typical of the style and ultra high quality of each producer. I would not hesitate to try any of the wines from these guys. In fact, I seek them out with some regularity.

I’ll follow up with a full tasting report for each visit soon, but for the time being enjoy a snapshot of the Willamette!

Willamette Valley image via Shutterstock

Domaine Drouhin

Domaine Drouhin turns out some of the top wines in the region, period. The focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is hardly surprising since the family is one of the finest producers in Burgundy, the historic home of both grapes.

Obviously DDO, as Domaine Drouhin Oregon is known, is more associated with Pinot Noir, as almost every winery in Oregon is. The truth is that DDO is in no small part responsible for this fame and recognition since they have devoted great resources to their operations from the very beginning. In those early days of the late 1980s, the Willamette Valley was still a footnote in most wine books. The majority of wineries, many of which produced fabulous wines, simply didn’t have the resources necessary to take things to the next level either in production or in marketing.

DDO did, and they shared much of their efforts and rewards with the entire region community. Today, DDO continues these efforts and as much as they did for Pinot Noir, they are gradually helping to put the Willamette Valley on the map for Chardonnay. It would be easy to point out the luxury Cuvee Arthur as being worthy of note, but even their basic Willamette Valley bottling is absolutely delicious and helping to establish a style for the region (lean, fresh and focused).

2010 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Chardonnay

De Ponte Cellars

De Ponte seems to fly under the radar, but maybe the fans of these wines just want to keep them a secret. Their claim to fame, once one deals with the fact that everyone in the Willamette produces some mighty fine Pinot Noir, has to be their Melon de Bourgogne. This is the grape responsible for Muscadet.

Here, one finds a wine with a bit more fat and a bit less minerality, but it is none the worse for it. In fact, it remains one of the country’s finest white wines if you’re looking for crispness and tension. Under normal circumstances, I would continue to talk about it here, but the one wine that gave me the clearest indication of the style and quality of the 2010 vintage in Oregon was De Ponte’s 2010 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir.

If you are looking for an elegant, clear and precise expression of Pinot Noir with all the spicy character that Dundee Hills is famous for, this is the wine for you. A wine that epitomizes the expression of grape and place for me. This needs a year or two in the bottle, but it is simply a great wine.

2010 De Ponte Dundee Hills Pinot Noir

Eyrie Vineyards

Eyrie is where it all started, with David Lett’s dream and what must have been years of unrecognized effort. Someone else would have eventually decided to try making Pinot in the Willamette, but David did it first and he succeeded. Today, David’s son Jason continues down the path which his father blazed.

The wines of the Eyrie Vineyards haven’t changed much over the years, preferring understatement to ostentation and remaining firmly in the camp that values terroir and winemaking as much as fruit. The results tend to be subtle, complex wines that reveal much of their personality after several years in the bottle. That holds true for both the red and white wines that Jason is producing.

While Pinot Gris is an important wine for both Oregon and Eyrie, I tend to prefer Pinot Blanc, both in general and specifically from Eyrie. There’s less weight and more detail in your typical Pinot Blanc and the grape suits the understated Eyrie style perfectly.

2010 Eyrie Pinot Blanc

 

Brooks Winery

Brooks has an interesting history that has seen the winery through the loss of its founder and the ensuing years of difficulty and uncertainty, right through to the present day when winemaker Chris Williams has firmly established the winery as a premier producer.

Like many producers in Oregon, you will find that Brooks produces a full and varied selection of Pinot Noir. The real surprise here is the range of the white wines and, in particular, the Rieslings. Oregon has been promoting Riesling as its great white grape, though the sheer popularity of Pinot Gris can make that difficult. Brooks is poised to change that, at least on a small scale. The Rieslings here are fabulous and the style is electric with even modest residual sugar eclipsed by the succulent acidity that Chris puts in the bottle. The 2011 Bois Joli Riesling is the finest Oregon Riesling I’ve had. Even with 4 percent residual sugar, it drinks like a dry wine. This is a Riesling for acid freaks, but it is pure joy in a bottle if you’re one of them!

2011 Bois Joli Riesling

Belle Pente

Brian O’Donnell is Belle Pente’s resident beard, winemaker and owner. If you catch him shortly after his bi-annual trimming, you might miss one of the natural wonders of Oregon. His wines are worth the effort of seeing him anyway, but they just go so hand in hand with that beard that it seems a shame to have one without the other.

Belle Pente’s Pinot Noirs can be stunning. They are fairly rich, in a style that shows what one can achieve with a perfectly positioned site in Yamhill-Carlton. A lot of people make great Pinot in Oregon, but what a lot of people do not do is make great Pinot Gris. Brian is a master with this potentially pedestrian variety. Instead of taking the easy road, Brian produces a traditionally styled Pinot Gris, fermented and aged in large oak fuder. The results speak for themselves whether you’re drinking the off-dry 2006 Pinot Gris Reserve, which remains the most impressive Oregon Pinot Gris to have passed my lips, or his more recent 2007 Estate bottling, which is almost dry and shows the fine blend of freshness and complexity these wines attain.

2007 Belle Pente Estate Pinot Gris

Andrew Rich

It’s easy to think of Oregon as the land of Pinots, and maybe even a little Riesling, but this is as multifaceted and compelling of a region as there is in the U.S. Andrew Rich seems to be on a one-man quest to prove it, whether that means venturing across the Columbia River for some Malbec or Syrah or staying closer to home for some Sauvignon Blanc.

Yes, the Willamette Valley produces Sauvignon Blanc, of all things, and Andrew has set out to make a rather unique version of it. Fermented in a tank and then finished in lightly toasted, cigar shaped barrels, this is not your father’s Oregon Sauvignon Blanc. I can say that quite decisively, since your father didn’t drink Oregon Sauvignon Blanc. You see, there just wasn’t any being, oh forget it. Go and check out this unique example of the fringes of Oregon’s wine culture!

2011 Andrew Rich Sauvignon Blanc Croft Vineyard
After tank-started fermenting, went into a lightly toasted, cigar shaped barrel

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Comments

  • Snooth User: snoman
    229582 204

    Impossible to pick top five from WV.....so many great ones, and many are small production players. Laura Volkman and Patricia Green are at the top of my list.

    Sep 05, 2012 at 4:06 PM


  • Snooth User: Cabking
    658563 31

    How about exploring and writing about Southern Oregon, Rogue Valley? Sure would be nice to see what is going on in the other parts of the state rather than Willamette.

    Sep 05, 2012 at 4:43 PM


  • Snooth User: xhilogirl
    623056 11

    Erath Vineyards is one of my favs.

    Sep 05, 2012 at 4:45 PM


  • Snooth User: Zuiko
    Hand of Snooth
    540750 796

    Montinore Estate is worth checking out in the northern part of the valley. They specialize in Germanic wines, with several Rieslings, Gewurztraminers and Muller Thurgaus. There are other wines produced by them as well. Their 2005 Sweet Reserve Riesling really put them on the map for me.

    Sep 05, 2012 at 4:50 PM


  • Winderlea, Patricia Green, Ayoub and Brickhouse deserve mention as well.

    Sep 05, 2012 at 4:59 PM


  • Snooth User: jimgullo
    305658 4

    Some really nice calls here, from where I stand as a WV resident. Belle Pente and DePonte fly well under the radar, and are both terrific. Winemaker Isabelle Dutartre of DePonte also makes her own label, 1789 Wines, that holds its own with any Pinot here. Scott Paul's Audrey PN is first-rate, and Robert Brittan does wonderful things with chard and PN for Winderlea and his own label, Brittan Vineyards.

    Sep 05, 2012 at 5:21 PM


  • Snooth User: cbkjnk
    996242 34

    The Four Graces and Torii Mor are tops in my cellar.

    Sep 05, 2012 at 5:26 PM


  • Snooth User: deercreekvineyards
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    622712 40

    I agree with Cabking..In my opinion there never seems to be much focus on Southern Oregon wines. Southern Oregon has so much diversity in varietals and microclimates. it kinda irks us especially when we know that many of the wineries up north purchase their fruit from southern Oregon to blend with theirs. Added note for those that dont think that the quality of the wines are not up to par compared to the Williamette Valley. Take a look at this years S.F. Chronicles Wine Competition winners, the majority of the wines that won medals from Oregon were from Southern Oregon vintners. Food for thought folks!

    Sep 05, 2012 at 5:28 PM


  • Snooth User: craigis
    1047628 9

    In my opinion your list is missing some of the very top Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chards in the WV: Domaine Serene, Beau Freres, Chehalem, Brick House, Rex Hill (A to Z is probably one of the WV best values), and Panther Creek. There are so many great Pinot Noirs in Oregon, (albeit there are good and not so good Pinots by any measure) it's really a very personal taste/experience). Run down to your local wine store and pick up some WV Pinot Noirs and have a "blind" tasting with friends.

    BTW: There's also a bunch of good eats in the area too: run down to McMinnville and have dinner (or lunch) and Nick's Italian Cafe, and Recipe, A Neighborhood Kitchen in Newberg is terrific.

    Sep 05, 2012 at 6:45 PM


  • My favourite producer is Argyle. They have some world class sparkling wines there.

    Sep 05, 2012 at 6:52 PM


  • Although certainly not the first, Eyrie is a respected producer here in the Willamette making some tasty juice.

    Sep 05, 2012 at 8:00 PM


  • Snooth User: craigis
    1047628 9

    If I understand correctly, Eyrie was the first Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in WV and the first Pinot Gris in America. We tasted Eyrie vintages in their McMinnville tasting room on our last trip to the IPNC (in McMinnville) and found their wines good but not our favorite.

    Get your hands on a Domaine Serene 2007 Evanstad Reserve, their 2008 Evenstad Reserve (even their 2009 Jerusalem Hill Pinot Noir) and see how they compare to the award winning Eyrie. (Note: Domaine Serene facility atop the picturesque mountains in Yamhill County are arguably the most awe-inspiring in WV. For the views, you must also visit Domaine Drouhin atop the Dundee Hills with their stunning views. The facility has a somewhat "corporate" look and feel, pricey tasting and a little overpriced wines. Again, putting awards aside, taste is a very subjective thing.

    Sep 05, 2012 at 8:40 PM


  • for over 25 years RIBBON RIDGE has been producing the best pinot noirs in or.

    Sep 05, 2012 at 8:49 PM


  • Hey Craig, technically, it was David Hill Winery who claims fame to Willamette Valley’s oldest Pinot Noir Vines. http://www.davidhillwinery.com/page...

    Agreed, Eyrie was first in Pinot Gris (not only in WV but in America!)

    Sep 05, 2012 at 10:47 PM


  • Snooth User: AMFeM
    290730 50

    Of course, with so many excellent wines to choose from, picking a handful and calling them tops is open to question. I love Domaine Serene, DePonte, Four Graces and Argyle, all mentioned either in the article or comments. My absolute favorite is Archery Summit, and I also like another "under the radar" winery, Soter.

    Sep 06, 2012 at 11:09 AM


  • Domaine Serene, Erath, St. Innocent, some of my favorites. White Rose is not to be missed. 2007 one of the worst vintages ever in Willamette 2008 one of the best. 2009 is good but not as much aging potential as 2008. 2007 had a lot of rain late in the season which caught most vineyards flat footed and they could not harvest in time.

    Sep 06, 2012 at 2:27 PM


  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 5,962

    Cabking, you are, of course, correct. The powers that be at Snooth do not necessarily look under every rock to teach us about every under-appreciated wine, or grape variety, or producer or region. (GDP's recent article on Chilean old-vine Carignan notwithstanding.) However, you can do your part. Go over to the Snooth Forum and start a discussion of wines from the Rogue Valley. There are a bunch of us who hang out there and would very much enjoy hearing about it. I for one would be very interested. I had no idea that there was wine coming from there. I would make the same suggestion to deercreekvineyards, but I suspect that his/her exposition might be viewed by some as a bit self serving.

    Sep 06, 2012 at 7:54 PM


  • Snooth User: Finfan
    809217 1

    There is a boutique winery by the name of White Rose Estate which is very close to Domaine Serene. Their Pinot Noirs are wonderfully smooth.

    Sep 06, 2012 at 8:41 PM


  • I believe that White Rose is the same. Fantastic Pinots!
    http://whiterosewines.com/

    Sep 07, 2012 at 12:43 AM


  • Check out Youngberg Hill and Evesham Wood Pinots. They are as "smooth as silk".They remind of a beautiful Burgundy

    Sep 07, 2012 at 5:05 PM


  • Snooth User: chazt
    1132095 16

    Look for Cloudline Pinot Noir. It's from the folks at Domaine Drouhin and a great value!

    Sep 09, 2012 at 10:55 AM


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