With an annual rainfall of over 40 inches, short seasonal sunlight & cool temperatures, how has the Willamette Valley gained international recognition as one of the most highly-regarded wine regions of the world?
In true Lewis & Clark fashion, it all came down to a gamble. The first modern grape-growers, post-Prohibition, planted the first vines in the mid-60’s, despite the fair warnings from southern skeptics, their then-professors at UC-Davis. At the time, it was common belief that Vitis vinifera (European grape species) wouldn’t thrive in Oregon’s cool climate. However, shrugging off this notion, David Lett, of Eyrie Vineyards, decided to plant the first Pinot noir vines in the valley, along with other cool climate white varietals (Pinot gris, Chardonnay & Riesling). A couple years later in 1979, David Lett entered his Pinot noir into a Paris blind-tasting competition and received third-place, forever putting Oregon on the map as a serious contender. Now over 50 years later since the first plantings, the 2016 census reports 725 active wineries in Oregon, 554 of which reside in the once criticized Willamette Valley. A standing testament to the first trailblazers of this northern industry.
So why has wine thrived here?
Location, location, location. Although cooler than most wine growing regions, the Willamette Valley has a combination of the right climate, latitudinal placement, topography & soil structure to allow suitable grape varietals to truly flourish. The Willamette Valley is considered a Maritime Climate due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, sitting only 50 miles from the Oregon coast. This means the climate is temperate throughout the year, seeing mild seasonal temperature swings. Moreover, the valley sees most of its moisture in the off-season, heavy winter rainfall gives way to dry summers for optimal grape growing conditions. The earth’s tilt also favors the valley with a 45-degree north latitude placement, allowing greater extended sunlight during the summer months. Additionally, this shared latitudinal placement pays homage to our favorite grape’s first home in France, where the famous Cote d’Or is located, considered Burgundy’s “golden slope” of Pinot Noir. The Willamette Valley’s topography is also vital to its viticultural success. Southern-facing slopes with high elevations create prime vineyard sites. These slopes contain well-drained and nutrient deficient soils that cause vines to focus energy on small, concentrated bunches.
Here, Pinot noir is the leading grape. Roughly 72% of the vines planted in the Willamette Valley are Pinot noir. It’s an early-ripening, cool-climate varietal that has undoubtedly led to the valley’s recognition. Pinot gris is the leading white varietal, however Chardonnay is quickly making its charge. Riesling & Gamay are also planted in lesser amounts.
Winemaking here is not for the faint of heart, as this northern landscape verges our grapes on the fringe of ripeness. However, the coolness of the climate makes for delicate bodied wines with acid driven precision. Today, most of the vineyards & wineries are small-scale, family estates. Our valley has a wholesome reputation as being community driven & down-to-earth. Together, we’re trying to raise attention to this unique and very loved slice of earth.
Sources: Check 'em out!
The Wine Bible