Red wine, White Wine and Bubbles…An Introduction to the Willamette Valley of Oregon

Having been here in Oregon now for about four and a half months, starting with a quick introduction via the Wine Bloggers’ Conference held in Portland in September and culminating with the harvest season, I have had a chance to learn a bit about the wonderful valley that I now live in. While it is not Spain’s La Rioja, with its full-bodied sour cherry and oaky Tempranillos and Grenaches, the Willamette Valley of Oregon has another breed of wine, an American story different from that of California and La Rioja.

Oregon‘s wine country, like its people, is slower-paced, more personal and less pretentious than some other wine regions. Oregon is not a state where you will find extremely large wineries; instead you will find wineries with less than 3000 cases made annually. Oregon is dominated by a mom-and-pop type of mentality and a family-like consensus-driven way of working. Oregon’s wines are mostly hand-grown, hand-harvested, hand-sorted, and hand-made. There are very few mechanically harvested wines in Oregon due to differences in training systems throughout the state. Every step of the winemaking process is touched in one way or another by a human. Oregon is also leading the charge for organic, sustainable and biodynamic viticulture.

Located right at the 45th parallel, the Willamette Valley is considered a cool-climate region for grape growing. This region is primarily known for Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris but has also become home to new varietals such as Gruner Veltliner and even Riesling. The valley is protected by the Coast Range but also benefits from the cool marine air. In Willamette Valley it is believed that a cooler climate is more suitable to Pinot Noir than a warmer one. The valley is also known for its soil conditions and mild temperatures, creating the right terroir for its famed Pinot Noir.

A few good friends from Australia who came to visit me right after the harvest season asked me to give them a tour of the region.  I thought it only made sense to take them to a few places I feel represent this valley for them to see and taste…a little red, a little white and some bubbly.

  1. Eola Amity Hills AVA, to visit Bethel Heights.  We had wanted to make it to Cristom and Saint Innnocent. but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough time. We also toured Willamette Valley Vineyard, which is among the largest in production in Oregon. Ted Casteel from Bethel Heights took the time to talk to us about how they got started in 1977. For more information or to visit them, please visit their homepage at Bethel Heights.

2. Chehalem Mountain AVA, to visit the Ponzi Wine Bar.  Founded in 1970, this is another family-owned business that is now a second-generation-run winery, with Michel Ponzi as the Co-Owner, Maria Ponzi as the Director of Sales and Marketing, and their sister, Luiza Ponzi as winemaker. As there honestly was not enough time to drive all the way up to Ponzi’s main location, I took my Australian friends to the Wine Bar they have in Dundee. We had a bite to eat with a nice tasting of wine to accompany it. I had a chance to try their Dolcetto made from an Italian varietal, which was a nice surprise. They make Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and White Riesling, as well as Arneis and Dolcetto, two rare Italian varietals. Please visit them at Ponzi Vineyards.

3. Dundee Hills AVA, to visit Argyle Winery.  In my opinion, Argyle Winery makes some of the best sparkling wines (i.e., Champagne style) in the valley. I would highly recommend a visit to this winery to try their POP Flight.  They have a number of 90+ point wines highly recommended by Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate. They also happen to be located right across the street from the Ponzi Wine Bar, so you can grab a bite and then head over there for after-meal sparkling delights.  Please visit them at Argyle Winery.

When you are looking to find some other great places to visit, do feel free to send me an e-mail, and I will do my best to give you recommendations.  We hope to see more of you in the region to taste some of the great wines coming out of the Willamette Valley.

Cheers!

Why deleafing/thinning is important for Pinot Noir in Oregon

Deleafing is the process of removing excess leaves as a part of vineyard management. This process is done primarily to provide ample ventilation and sunshine to the growing grape cluster during veraison (ripening of the grapes).

It is especially important in Oregon where there is high probability of rain, this would also allow the grapes to quickly dry and receive direct sunlight in order to avoid grape diseases such as mildew or botrytis which would lead to “bad” grapes. Pinot Noir is a an especially delicate grape variety and this additional exposure to sunlight and ventilation will also help it mature properly.

A visit to the beautiful hilltop winery of Elk Cove Vineyards in Oregon

I had the chance to visit winemaker/owner Adam Godlee Campbell at Elk Cove Vineyards following the Wine Bloggers’ Conference in August to talk to him about his stylishly made Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blancs. Elk Cove Vineyards is family owned and operated, started by Pat and Joe Campbell in 1974. Adam, their son, took over in 1995 to manage the winery and make the wines.

Adam Godlee Campbell

Adam explained to me that the name Elk Cove came from a time when they had first moved up to land and found a herd of Roosevelt Elk which roamed nearby, and migrated into the valley each spring.

The winery was established in 1974, their first vintage came out in 1979. They are currently creating single estate wines from five separate sites throughout the Northern Willamette Valley. Windhill, La Bohème, Roosevelt, Mount Richmond and most recently Five Mountain Vineyards were have all been selected for specific site characteristics for their Pinot Noirs based on soil, aspect, and micro-climate. The vineyard uses sustainable agriculture practices and all the fruit is hand harvested.

1999 Sparkling Willamette Valley

Adam led us though a tasting of nearly all their wines, we even had the chance to try their limited edition 1999 Sparkling Willamette Valley wine, their carbonic maceration Old School Pinot Noir, as well as finish with their 2008 Ultima-White Willamette Valley ice wine.

If you get a chance, you have to try their 2011 Pinot Gris Willamette Valley and their 2009 or 2010 Pinot Noir Roosevelt, these were two of my personal favorites!

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2010 Pinot Noir Roosevelt

They have a beautiful winery set on a hilltop in Gaston, Oregon that has incredible views and beautiful scenery. If you are in the area, you can visit them at 27751 NW Olson Road in Gaston, OR 97119 or visit them at http://www.elkcove.com for more information.

Special thanks to Adam for showing us around and allowing us to taste his great wines. Cheers!