The terroir of the Willamette Valley

Julia Crowley takes us on a journey through the heart of Oregon’s Pinot country with five unique examples of what they do best!

 


The terrain of Oregon's Willamette Valley is made up of bountiful complex micro-climates that play a major role in the dynamism and charisma of the region's variegated Pinot Noirs.  These micro-climates offer diverse geology and soils, so the multiple sub AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) of the larger Willamette Valley AVA have been inherent in identifying and outlining the unique characteristics of different wine growing areas.

Quite difficult to imagine, most of western Oregon was once the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Over millions of years, extremely tumultuous weather and disastrous geological events, like cataclysmic floods, earthquakes, extreme winds and volcanic eruptions, shaped the landscape of the Willamette Valley's diversified micro-climates, geology and soil. From marine sediment soils like Bellpine and Willakenzie, to volcanic basalts like Nekia and Jory, there's also Willamette, Woodburn and Wapato deposits from the Missoula floods - swished down to the valley via the Columbia Gorge during the end of the Ice Age from Montana's Lake Missoula. And that's not all, the Willamette Valley's north-east facing slopes had silt blown up on to them, called Laurelwood, from the valley floor. All of these historically catastrophic events gave vital, distinctive and brilliant characteristics to the wines of today's Willamette Valley.

Although the effects of soil in wine is a hot topic among geologists, I have personally experienced similarities in wines that have been produced from fruit grown in the same AVA. Oregon's Pinot Noirs showcase a sense of the place where their vines thrive, reflecting their terroir like no other grape varietal. Some Pinot Noirs are more terroir-driven than others, expressing their surroundings with intense, memorable characteristics; such as, these five outstanding Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs.

Iota Cellars Pelos Sandberg Vineyard Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir 2011 - Iota in quantity (producing under 1000 cases per year), this little winery is far from iota in quality. From vineyard to bottle, Iota Cellars is truly a family-run operation: winemakers Don and Johanna Sandberg tend to the small vineyard made up of six distinct blocks, while Johanna's sister-in-law Lynne Pelos has the vital role of financial and marketing support. The Pelos Sandberg Vineyard sits at 300-500 feet above sea level and has a unique mesoclimate (climate that's influenced by elevation, slope, aspect or distance from large body of water) made up of both sedimentary and volcanic soils with lots of shale, siltstone and sandstone. The six blocks of vines are dedicated to Pinot Noir, separating the blocks by clonal selection - Dijon 667, Dijon 777 (both on sedimentary soil), Wädenswil (sedimentary soil) and two blocks of Pommard (volcanic soil). I tried three of their 2011 estate Pinot Noirs: a 667 & 777 Dijon Clone Pinot, a Pommard and Wädenswil Clone Pinot and their flagship Eola-Amity Hills Pinot (made up of the four clones from all six blocks). Representing their entire vineyard, unfined, unfiltered and aged for ten months in three year air-dried French oak barrels, this Iota flagship Pinot also received an additional twelve months of bottle aging before its release. Beautiful red and blue fruits, like cherries and blueberries, were highlighted by earth and fall baking spices. Succulent, juicy tannins give it an alluring boldness while vibrant acidity rounds out the concentrated fruit characteristics to perfection. Elegant, yet forward and fearless - full bodied, yet graceful.

Hyland Estates Coury Pinot Noir 2012 - Planted in 1971 by four families, the 200 acre (100 under vine) Hyland Estates is one of the oldest and largest vineyards in Oregon. Sitting between 600 and 800 feet above sea level in the foothills of the Coastal Range, the vineyard site is made up of mainly two soil types: Nekia and Jory. The vines that were planted in 1971 are own rooted Pommard, Wädenswil, and the very interesting Coury clone. The actual source of the Coury clone is a bit of a mystery. It's believed that the Coury clone was brought to Oregon from Alsace,France, by a man named Charles Coury - one of Oregon's wine growing pioneers. In 1964, Charles Coury was studying viticulture and clonal adaptation in France and became enamored by a particular Pinot clone which he smuggled into the United States in his suitcase. Some say it was jokingly called the 'suitcase clone,' Coury quickly planted it, breeded it and began a nursery of this own-rooted clone that became known as the Coury clone. The founders of Hyland Estate purchased the vines from Charles Coury and planted them in Jory soil on one of the best blocks in the vineyard. This old vine (by Oregon standards) Pinot displayed similar characteristics (like bold tannins and solid acidity) to other Pinots I've had from the McMinnville AVA. It was beautifully seamless onthe palate - characteristics flowed in perfection from the front of the palate to the finish. Medium in body and super juicy, dark fruits, hazelnuts, violets and earth were highlighted by the bold tannins and peppy acidity that crawled back up the center of the palate beckoning another sip.

Lumos North Temperance Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 - I've dubbed 2010 as "the year of the luscious Oregon Pinot Noir." It's a vintage that displays a distinctively lush mouthfeel that is memorable and palate pleasing. Take the excitement of a great vintage and add to it a Pinot Noir from one of the most sought after vineyard sites in the state, Temperance Hill. Add to that an extremely talented duo of winemakers, Dai Crisp and Julia Cattrall (assistant winemaker), and a super fine Pinot Noir is inevitable. Located in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, more than twenty world-renowned Willamette Valley wineries source fruit from Temperance Hill: Bergström, Lange Estate, Elk Cove, Brooks, Adelsheim, St. Innocent and Lumos, to name just a few. Pointing out the fact that I'm a huge fan of all Temperance Hill Pinots I've had, regardless of winemaker or vintage, I asked viticulturalist and vineyard manager of Temperance Hill, Dai Crisp, what makes the vineyard so special. While many aspects play a role, one comment Dai made that really stuck with me: "You could paint a bulls eye on Temperance Hill Vineyard from the Van Duzer Corridor." The Van Duzer Corridor is a break in Oregon's Coastal Mountain Range that allows a coastal breeze to come swishing through the valley in the late summer afternoons, dramatically cooling the temperature where it flows. These cool breezes allow the grapes to hold onto their acidity while ripening. In addition to the cooling coastal breezes, the shallow, well-drained volcanic Nekia, Jory and Ritner soils tend to produce smaller grapes with greater concentration, and no matter which producer of the 20 plus producers that source fruit from Temperance Hill Vineyard, the Temperance Hill wines have always displayed a tremendous concentration of fruit that offers great depth and complexity. With the Lumos North Temperance Hill Pinot Noir, where one little piece of one single block on Jory soil was used to produce this wine, the focus and clarity of the fruit is truly tangible with its vibrant aromas of baked cherry pie, ripe black cherries, and raspberries. Baking spices, brown sugar and rose petals are highlighted by super pronounced savory herbs, forest floor and a dash of white pepper. In flow with the 2010 vintage, it's super juicy and luscious on the palate with a gorgeous texture and mouthfeel. Although the tannins are super fine and well integrated, they are bold enough to be noticed; yet, subtle enough to give the wine a distinctive elegance and delicacy - similar to the bold yet delicate characteristics of the Iota Cellars Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir.

Stoller Family Estate Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2012 - The famed Dundee Hills is where the first grapes were planted in the Willamette Valley, and it's home to some of the state's most world renowned wineries. The volcanic and silt soils here run deep, hold water well, and are somewhat rich. Sitting just 40 miles east of the Coast, the Coastal Range Mountains protect the region from the often extreme coastal climate while creating a microclimate that's warmer than surrounding areas, allowing for steady ripening of the grapes. What was once a turkey farm is now a world class winery with four tiers of Stoller wines: Dundee Hills, approachable estate wines; Reserve, blended lots selected to showcase their flagship Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; Legacy, single clone bottlings of their oldest plantings of Pinot Noir; and Single Acre, micro-plantings of Riesling, Tempranillo and Syrah. Stoller is a model for sustainability with their net zero energy tasting room and balanced agricultural approach to viable farming. Their Dundee Hills "approachable" 2012 Pinot Noir is the spitting image of the expected balanced, terroir-driven Dundee Hills earthy, mushroomy Pinot Noir. Blackberries, dark cherries, root beer, fresh tobacco and loads of earth flow in silky waves from the front of the palate to the back. Delicate tannins and lively, lovely acidity create a well rounded, truly approachable Pinot that is smooth, elegant and most definitely food-friendly. When wine enthusiasts around the world think of a typical Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, this is it. It's a gorgeous representation of what the land lends to the fruit.

Cornerstone Cellars Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2011 - Personally, I am a huge fan of the 2011 vintage. Remembered as the "miracle harvest," the season had some of the coolest days on record up until September, when some of the warmest days on record rolled in. Bud break occurred two weeks later than average and some areas were harvested as late as November. Much to the vintners' nail biting surprise, the fruit came in with incredible depth of character, rich with acidity and concentration. This Cornerstone Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is a great example of a Willamette Valley compilation of meso and microclimates, using fruit from five different AVAs: Yamhill-Carlton, Eaola-Amity, Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge. So, ancient marine sediment soils, volcanic basalt soils and Ice-Age silt blown soils all take a part in this delicious Pinot Noir. Cornerstone Cellars is known for the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, so when they wanted to make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they came to the right place - the Willamette Valley. Cornerstone's 2011 Pinot Noir certainly stands up to its vintages reputation with outstanding vibrant acidity on a beautifully lengthy finish. Concentrated dark cherries and pomegranate are highlighted by delicate earthy notes, cloves and pepper. It's super juicy, complex, has great depth of character and is most definitely a crowd-pleaser. 
 
*For those interested in learning more about the geological history and soils of Oregon, please refer to eolaamiyhills.com. Much of what I learned while researching the Valley's history was discovered on this educational and information-packed website.
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  • Snooth User: opq
    775134 17

    Awesome article! You have just sent me on a quest!

    Sep 02, 2014 at 12:29 PM


  • Snooth User: Julia Crowley
    Hand of Snooth
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    Thanks for reading, @opq! If you've never been to the Willamete Valley or had these wines, I highly recommend both..obviously! ;)

    Sep 02, 2014 at 12:45 PM


  • Once again wine writers focus on the dundee region of the willamette valley. there are great wines being produced in other areas as well. take for example the pinot noirs of Broadley Vineyards in Monroe, or the Pinot Gris or Reisling of High Pass Winery.

    Sep 02, 2014 at 3:38 PM


  • Two great pinots not on the list are JK Carriere and J Christopher.

    Sep 02, 2014 at 4:41 PM


  • Snooth User: Biotite
    1533543 1

    I would add that the Crowley Pinot is very good and could be on this list. Thanks for a nice article.

    Sep 02, 2014 at 5:02 PM


  • Great Article! I would however invite you to the East Valley of the Willamette Valley, currently from Aurora to Silverton and Salem Area. Until around ten years ago it was thought that the East Valley could not compare to the wines of the west. However, now they are growing wines that challenge not only the west valley, but the world.

    Sep 02, 2014 at 7:32 PM


  • Snooth User: Julia Crowley
    Hand of Snooth
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    @sonomaexpat -Thanks for reading! I'm the author, and I'd just like to clarify that only one of the five Pinot Noirs was solely from the Dundee AVA. I wrote the article with the intention of recognizing multiple sub AVAs of the Willamette Valley. Other fabulous areas I chose to focus on in the article: 2 were from Eola-Amity (Iota & Lumos); 1 was from McMinnville (Hyland Estates); 1 was from a variety of AVAs including Yamhill-Carlton, Eola-Amity, Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge; therefore, Stoller is the only one from Dundee. Personally, I love Broadley and High Pass, and I plan to do a future article that focuses on wines from some of the wineries in the more southern portion of the Willamette Valley AVA - an area that I would love to see get their own designated AVA (from King Estate up to High Pass & Broadley). I chose these 5 Pinot Noirs (based on an assignment to focus on 5 WV Pinot Noirs) because I find them to truly reflect the characteristics of the uniqueness of the terroir of their AVAs. There are so many exceptional wines in the WV, it was terribly hard to narrow them down to just 5. Hang tight, I'll be bringing a bunch of articles that focus on wines throughout the entire state of Oregon, from Illinois Valley and Elkton AVAs to Columbia Gorge and Oregon's Walla Walla AVA. And I assure, you, High Pass and Broadley will not be forgotten. Again, thanks for reading and I hope you give it another read so you can recognize that I specifically focused on a variety of stand-out, stellar wines that really reflect the nature of their terroirs. Cheers to you!

    Sep 02, 2014 at 7:36 PM


  • Snooth User: Julia Crowley
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    @Caleurogal - I love JK Carriere and J Christopher! Please follow me: as Snooth sends me assignments, I sincerely hope to have the opportunity to feature wines from both of these producers in upcoming articles. Thanks so much for reading!

    Sep 02, 2014 at 7:41 PM


  • Snooth User: Julia Crowley
    Hand of Snooth
    1094165 99,002

    @Biotite - Crowley wines produces some of the finest wines in the state, and I do hope to have the opportunity to feature them here on Snooth as assignments are delegated. I recently tried their 2013 Pinot Blanc (outstanding), and I will be featuring it on my wine-centric website therealwinejulia.com. It should be published within the next few days if you're interested in reading about this particular varietal and wine. Thanks for reading and for the kind words! Please follow me here on Snooth...I am sure that I will, at some point, be writing about Crowley wines, including their Pinot Noir.

    Sep 02, 2014 at 7:54 PM


  • Snooth User: Julia Crowley
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    1094165 99,002

    @Vance-Wilson - I share your excitement for the wines from the eastern portions of the Valley. I cannot wait to write about some recent discoveries. Stay tuned, and thank you so much for reading!

    PS: Are you in Oregon and do you have any specific recommendations? Cheers!

    Sep 02, 2014 at 8:00 PM


  • We live in Eugene and lead a 500 person wine group. Please include some of the southern WIllamette Valley wines -- Broadley and Brigadoon Pinot Noirs to start.

    Sep 02, 2014 at 9:19 PM


  • Snooth User: Julia Crowley
    Hand of Snooth
    1094165 99,002

    @howardbandy - Hello fellow Eugenean! I (obviously) live in Eugene too...and I'm stunned to find out that there is a 500 person wine group here in town that I had no idea about - that's fantastic! We'll need to meet over a glass of...Brigadoon Lylee or Taproot Pinot Noir! :) - and I'm also a huge fan of their Pinot Blanc. Chris, Nick and Matt Shown (and Sheree) do a fantastic job at their vineyard, winery and tasting room.

    As I mentioned above in my response to sonomaexpat, "Personally, I love Broadley and High Pass, and I plan to do a future article that focuses on wines from some of the wineries in the more southern portion of the Willamette Valley AVA - an area that I would love to see get their own designated AVA (from King Estate up to High Pass & Broadley). I chose these 5 Pinot Noirs (based on an assignment to focus on 5 WV Pinot Noirs) because I find them to truly reflect the characteristics of the uniqueness of the terroir of their AVAs. There are so many exceptional wines in the WV, it was terribly hard to narrow them down to just 5. Hang tight, I'll be bringing a bunch of articles that focus on wines throughout the entire state of Oregon, from Illinois Valley and Elkton AVAs to Columbia Gorge and Oregon's Walla Walla AVA. And I assure, you, High Pass and Broadley [and Brigadoon] will not be forgotten."

    I'm a regular on KPNWs Wake Up Call with Robb Holloway and Bill Lundun here in Eugene, and I think I've mentioned Brigadoon as being one of my favorite wineries here each and every time I've been on the show. So, have no fear, there will be many more articles to come that focus on all areas of Oregon, I was just recently brought on board by Snooth as their Oregon Correspondent, and this is my first article. The amazing farmers, wine growers, winemakers and wineries of Oregon are my focus, and my heart truly belongs to Oregon wine and its industry.

    Does your group meet on a regular basis?

    Sep 03, 2014 at 12:50 AM


  • Snooth User: Pourfarm
    1017020 19

    Could you please publish pricing on these wines?

    Sep 03, 2014 at 12:07 PM


  • Snooth User: Julia Crowley
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    @pourfarm - Thanks for reading and for your interest! Here are the suggested retail prices:

    Iota Cellars: $38
    Hyland Estates Coury: $60
    Lumos Wine North Temperance Hill: $48
    Stoller Family Estate: $30
    Cornerstone Cellars: $50

    Sep 03, 2014 at 1:28 PM


  • Snooth User: vin0vin0
    Hand of Snooth
    357808 7,224

    Julia, love the article(s) and look forward to reading more!

    We've been to the WV a couple times now and absolutely love the Pinots, as well as the pinot blanc and chardonnay. If anyone’s interested here's a link to my trip report from 2013 (http://www.snooth.com/talk/topic/re...).

    Next time out I'm thinking we may try the Umpqua Valley - would love to hear about any of your favorites in that region.

    Sep 03, 2014 at 1:30 PM


  • A wonderful bit of writing! As a journalist myself, who reads a lot about wine, I was very impressed with your handling of all that detail and your personal comments. Clear and to the point, you kept me reading. I'm a Californian with some Eugene roots. My grandmother was a Bailey from the Bailey ranch southwest of Eugene. There is still an Old Bailey Road out of Eugene, I think. And I love Oregon wines, including Pinot Gris, which doesn't seem to have a great following.

    Sep 03, 2014 at 1:34 PM


  • Snooth User: Julia Crowley
    Hand of Snooth
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    @vin0vin0 - I am a huge fan of both the Pinot Blancs and, especially, the Chardonnays (which I truly believe will be Oregon's next big thing)...

    I will certainly be writing about the wines and wineries of the Umpqua Valley (hopefully in the very near future). I do have some personal favorites there, like Abacela's Albarinos and Tempranillos. Reustle Prayer Rock has an incredible Gruner Veltliner and they are in a cooler portion of the Umpqua, so their Pinots have beautiful finesse. Delfino makes great Cabs & beautiful Gewurztraminers! I could go on and on and will go into much detail soon. Please follow me if you haven't already - I'm sure you'll be interested in reading my future Umpqua piece!

    I will read your article now, thanks for sharing that!

    Sep 03, 2014 at 1:52 PM


  • Snooth User: Julia Crowley
    Hand of Snooth
    1094165 99,002

    @nativeplant - Thank you kindly for the nice comment! There is, indeed, Bailey Hill Road. In fact, there's a great winery (Noble Estate) just off of Bailey Hill; as well as, Bailey Hill being one of the main roads that lead out to southern Willamette Valley wine country - to King Estate, Silvan Ridge, Sweet Cheeks, Chateau Lorane and more...I used to live off of Bailey hill, so I know the area well.

    I'm right there with you on the Pinot Gris. It's really a versatile varietal here because its characteristics not only rely on its terroir, but the winemaker's style of winemaking can highly influence a Pinot Gris. Jesse Lange of Lange Estate wines made the first barrel fermented Pinot Gris in the state, and it was so different than the normal stainless steel Gris'. Now many people are barrel aging them. And the lees play a big role in its versatility, as well. I've noticed that many wine enthusiasts don't seem to explore them enough to give them a fair chance - they are all so different, depending on so many factors. I hope to write about all of this soon.

    Thanks again for your kind words, nice to become acquainted! Cheers -

    Sep 03, 2014 at 2:07 PM


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