By Maggie Walters
I wanted to write a little something about my experience in the beautiful Willamette Valley in Oregon!
This year, I was invited to Oregon Pinot Camp (OPC) – a camp hosted by 40 different wineries in the Willamette Valley. It is a four-day, immersive educational camp that involves lectures, seminars, tours through the vineyard and wineries, and, of course, wine... lots and lots of delicious wine.
Things that surprised me:
The Willamette Valley is an extremely young and growing AVA (American Viticulture Area).
The oldest winery represented at camp was Eyrie Vineyards, their first vintage being 1970; the youngest is Raptor Ridge Winery, their first vintage was 1995 (to give you some perspective). As far as production, there are over 500 wineries in the Willamette Valley and, as a wine producing region, it still accounts for only 5% of the world's wine.
One thing that sets this wine region apart is camaraderie. From the beginning, these winemakers have stuck together in an effort to put themselves on the map. So instead of just promoting one winemaker or vineyard, everyone in the region is promoted as a whole. Everyone strives to create wines that are expressions of the land, instead of individuals. One goal of the camp was to share with us the character of the region through the wines.
Oregon winemakers are kind of nerdy (in the best way).
For example, they just would not stop talking about all of their soils created by volcanoes, ice-age glaciers and massive floods. Here's a little excerpt from a handout from camp to give you an idea of the level of nerdom we're dealing with:
"Thus we have in the Willamette Valley a complex series of soils with interesting and diverse origins:
Marine sediments that were laid down on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Examples: Willakenzie, Bellpine, Chuhulpim, Hazelair, Melbourne, Dupee
Basalts that originated as lava flows from eastern Oregon. Examples: Jory, Nekia, Saum
Windblown Loess silt blown up from the valley floor onto northeast-facing hillsides. Example: Laurelwood
Missoula Flood deposits brought down the Columbia Gorge as the result of a repeatedly melting glacial dam. Examples: Wapato, Woodburn, Willamette "
There are two gigantic mountain ranges that protect the Willamette Valley and its vineyards. To the west is the coastal mountain range, and opposite are the Cascade Mountains. The Cascades protect the valley from the hot desert winds to the east in Idaho, and the coastal range protects against the frigid Pacific Ocean wind (in the heat of summer the Pacific is still an average of 40 degrees). There's a diurnal shift every night with cooling winds from the Pacific Ocean that are funneled through a gap in the coastal range, cooling the grapes at night retaining bright acidity in the grapes. You can literally feel the breezes blow in every night!
When you visit, be sure to pack a sweater, you'll need it (trust me, you want to visit).
To sum it up, these guys have really done their research! One winemaker even dug a deep hole in their vineyard to show us the layers of different soil types offered to their vines; and as time goes on the vine roots grow deeper and deeper accessing layers of complexity offered to them by the soil.
Winemaker Jason Lett from Eyrie Vinyards breaking down vineyard soils:
So what does all of this mean? It means that these winemakers know what they are doing! There's no trial and error here with planting every grape variety under the sun and seeing what sticks. These guys did their research and Pinot Noir reins king in this cool climate region! The region may be young, but they are definitely keeping up with the rest of the wine world with their extensive knowledge and love of the land. You won't find anyone decked out in suits here like Napa, these guys are true farmers!
There is so much more information to share about the nitty-gritty vineyard and winemaker ins and outs, but for now I thought I'd share with you some wines from the region. Because at the end of the day we need to enjoy these labors of love, right?! What's the whole point to all this hard work if we don't?
Wines To Drink Now
- Montinore Pinot Noir
- A to Z Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
- Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Blanc
- Wine by Joe Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris
All of these wines hover around $20 and can be cracked open any day of the week and enjoyed both with and without food. There's nothing too heavy or harsh about these. They can be enjoyed now and don't need time to age!
Heavy Reds to Age or Drink Now With Big Proteins
One myth that was definitely busted for me at Pinot Camp was that "Pinot Noir can't hold up to big proteins." Many winemakers in the Willamette have adopted the use of whole cluster fermentation. This adds body, tannin and an all around "fuller" style. Fret not, if this isn't the most ideal style for you, give this wine some time to age and the grippy tannins and mouth puckering acidity will fall away and reveal a complex, layered and lighter wine in its wake.
- Rex Hill Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
- Alexana Revana Vineyard
Dundee Hills- Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
- Sokol Blosser Estate
Dundee Hills Pinot Noir
- Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir
There you have it, wonderful people! Go out and drink some Oregon wines. Let's support these geeky farmers and let them know they're doing something good! Whether it be something to drink tonight while you're winding down or a special bottle to lay down, there's a bottle out there for you.
As I said before, there were over 40 wineries that participated in this "Pinot Camp" so I have much more to share with ya'll, I just didn't want to lay it all out there at once. I look forward to sharing more of my favorites!