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The Secret Grapes of the Willamette Valley

An ironic dichotomy characterizes many young wine regions around the world. Lacking the hundreds or even thousands of years worth of cultural precedent that established and then sanctioned certain grape varieties to be grown in specific places, many newer regions seek to identify their defining grape variety. The lessons of recent history make the power of such a strategy quite evident. Chile had its Carmenere. Argentina its Malbec. Marlborough its Sauvignon Blanc.

But the more successful a young region is in establishing a dominant and popular grape variety, the more it tends to plant of that variety, and the less interest (or economic value) there seems to be in planting other grape varieties. Despite clear logic that might suggest it ridiculous to have settled on the ideal grape variety for a given region or country in a mere 20, 30 or even 40 years, the economic pressure and self-reinforcing social dynamics of a rapidly evolving winegrowing community often result in something of a premature zealotry that restricts the kind of experimentation and variety that might benefit any wine region with less than 100 years under its belt.

Oregon’s Willamette Valley represents a perfect case in point. Less than 60 years have elapsed since pioneer David Lett planted Pinot Noir and other cool climate grape varieties in the valley. Few wineries have seen even a single generational handover in that time period, and nearly 75% of the valley’s vines have been planted in the last 25 years.

Of the more than 21,000 acres of vineyards in the Willamette Valley, nearly 93% has been planted to just three grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir accounting for a full 72% of the grape acreage.

This, my friends, is something of a minor crime. It’s hard to say this, loving the region’s Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays as much as I do, and readily acknowledging the extremely high quality of both that the region is clearly so well suited to producing.

But really. The Willamette Valley is just a baby. Sure, it makes amazing Pinot, but what else could it do if we just took the time to explore a little?

Thankfully, some people have been doing just that, and slowly but surely a few grapes are on their way to becoming the best kept secrets of the Willamette Valley.

I’ve written before about Oregon Riesling, which is beginning to get quite good, and has become the valley’s 4th most planted grape variety (with a mere 513 acres under vine). But the notes from my recent tastings focus primarily on Pinot Blanc and Gamay, both of which seem to have real promise, the latter already reaching some truly impressive heights of quality, as you’ll see from my tasting notes below.

Interestingly, the valley’s first winery and the one responsible for introducing Pinot Noir to the region, has also been one of the most adventurous in exploring other grape varieties. In addition to planting Pinot Noir in 1965, David Lett also planted Pinot Meunier and somewhat more remarkably, the first Pinot Gris to be established anywhere outside of Europe. In the 1980s, the winery also planted a small parcel of Gamay, but, unhappy with the particular clone they used and the resulting wines, the winery pulled them out. In 2012, Lett’s son Jason planted the first vines of Trousseau in the Willamette Valley.

“Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have already established their reputation as wines of place,” says the younger Lett. “We have a harder case to prove with Gamay, Pinot Gris, or Trousseau – those wines have no equivalent to a Corton Charlemagne or a La Tâche, because even in their homes they have yet to be taken as seriously as they should. But I firmly believe that, if Oregon growers take these varieties seriously as we have Pinot noir and Chardonnay, we can be recognized as the world pinnacle for their expression.”

In case the notes below don’t fully express my enthusiasm, constrained as they are by their form, suffice it to say that there’s all sorts of goodness to be had, and so much more potential suggested by these wines. The vintners of the Willamette Valley should continue to try out new grape varieties (Lugana, anyone? How about Chenin?) even as Pinot and Chardonnay ascend to new heights. It would be a shame to simply assume that these two were all that the gorgeous landscape was capable of perfecting.

Every young wine region needs more secret grapes.

2015 Domaine Trouvere “Indigine” Pinot Gris, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of apple and citrus zest. In the mouth, citrus and pear flavors have a mouthwatering, racy edge to them and a nice grapefruit pith backdrop. Produced from a mutation the winery found in its Pinot Gris grapes and subsequently propagated on its own. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $28. click to buy.

2015 Yamhill Valley Vineyards Pinot Blanc, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon and lime pith with a hint of white flowers. In the mouth, a light spritz on the palate carries along flavors of apples and pears and a light citrus zest. Excellent acidity. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 8.5 . Cost: $22. click to buy.

2016 Lange Estate Winery “Reserve” Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of pears and white flowers. In the mouth, pears, pear skin, and white flower notes have a wonderful zingy brightness thanks to excellent acidity. Notes of citrus linger in the finish. Barrel fermented in neutral French oak. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $19. click to buy.

2016 Winter’s Hill “Reserve” Pinot Blanc, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon zest, struck match, and vanilla. In the mouth, flavors of vanilla and lemon and unripe apples have a brick_house_gamay_due_east.jpgzippy mouthwatering aspect thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a touch of wood here, but it is restrained. 13.7% alcohol. 149 cases produced. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $29. click to buy.

2016 The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of apple and pear and a touch of white flowers. In the mouth, juicy flavors of apple, unripe pear and a hint of sarsaparilla make for a complex and delicious mouthful. Excellent acidity is welded to wet chalkboard minerality that lingers for a long while in the finish. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2017 Brooks Vineyards Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith and white flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously mineral flavors of lemon pith, grapefruit pith and a touch of white flowers are backed by wet chalkboard notes and a chalky texture that lingers through a long finish. Zippy, with fantastic acidity. 12.5% alcohol. 850 cases produced. Score: around 9. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2016 Chehalem “Stoller Vineyards” Pinot Blanc, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and citrus pith and a touch of honey. In the mouth, gorgeous and bright flavors of apple, lemon zest, and a touch of vanilla have a wonderful zip to them thanks to excellent acidity. Lemony flavors linger for a long time in the finish. 13.2% alcohol. 295 cases produced. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2016 Torii Mor Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine smells of apples and lime zest. In the mouth, extremely racy lime and grapefruit flavors mix with a touch of green apple for a deliciously zippy experience with bass notes of wet chalkboard. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2015 Left Coast Cellars “Left Bank” Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest blonde in color, this wine smells of citrus pith and Asian pears. In the mouth, flavors of pastry cream and apples and lemon pith have a silky texture with acidity that sneaks up on you instead of hitting you over the head. Very pretty lemon and apple notes with a backdrop of wet pavement. Fermented and aged on the lees in stainless steel. 13.5% alcohol. 450 cases produced. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $16. click to buy.

2015 Anne Amie Vineyards “Twelve Oaks Estate” Gamay Noir, Chehalem Mountains, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor, mushrooms and black raspberries. In the mouth, mulberry and raspberry flavors have a wonderful earthy undertone even as excellent acidity keeps the fruit bright and fresh. There’s a touch of tannin, powdery and subtle that lingers through the finish with notes of cedar. Aged for 10 months in French oak, of which about 58% were new and one year old barrels. 13.6% alcohol. 240 cases produced. Score: around 9. Cost: $21. click to buy.

2015 Brick House “Due East” Gamay Noir, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of crushed herbs, roses and exotic wood oils. In the mouth, fantastically bright flavors of bitter orange, raspberry, mulberry and dried flowers are swirling and technicolor in their shifting, shimmering melange, nudged at times by tannins flexing their muscles at the edge of the mouth. Phenomenal fresh herbs and floral notes linger in the finish with a citrus kick. This wine, frankly, blew my mind. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $??

2017 Patton Valley Vineyard “PTG” Red Blend, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale ruby in color, easily passing for a rosé, this wine smells of freshly plucked strawberries and raspberries. In the mouth, fantastic acidity zings while a faint petillance prickles the front of the tongue, and silky textured flavors of strawberry and raspberry course across the palate. Unusual and quite tasty, begging to be served ice cold on a hot summer’s day. A 100% whole cluster fermented field blend of 50% Gamay Noir, 44% Pinot Noir, 5% Chardonnay, and 1% Pinot Gris. Aged for 3 months in neutral oak. 12.7% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2016 Brick House Gamay Noir, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine has a slightly shy nose of sour cherry and mulberry aromas. In the mouth, juicy sour cherry and raspberry flavors zip across the palate thanks to fantastic acidity. Faint dried herbal notes linger in the background, as do faint, powdery tannins. A citrus note lingers in the finish with a touch of earth. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30 click to buy.

2016 Omero Cellars “Parental Advisory Explicit Content – Minimus” Red Blend, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and plum and a touch of sweaty saddle. In the mouth, lightly tacky tannins grip the tongue and the edges of the mouth as flavors of sour cherry, cedar and mulberries linger through a moderate finish. Excellent acidity and a nice underlying wet pavement minerality. An odd, but distinctive, blend of 40% Cabernet Franc, 40% Mondeuse and 20% Gamay Noir. 12.7% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2015 Chehalem “Ridgecrest Vineyards” Gamay Noir, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mulberries, cherries, and a hint of cedar. In the mouth, gorgeously bright mulberry, blueberry and black raspberry flavors have a fantastic zing to them thanks to excellent acidity. A hint of cedar lingers with dried herbs and bright fruit in the finish. Positively gulpable. Aged in neutral oak. 14.1% alcohol. 195 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $23. click to buy.

2016 Omero Cellars Gamay Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of stewed cherries and wet felt. In the mouth, bright boysenberry and mulberry flavors are held in a taut, muscular fist of tannins. Excellent acidity keeps the fruit fresh and bright, with just the tiniest hint of funk adding some complexity. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2016 The Eyrie Vineyards Trousseau, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of struck match, sour cherries, and raspberries. In the mouth, beautifully aromatic flavors of strawberry and raspberry are nestled in a fleecy blanket of tannins and crackling wet pavement minerality. Very young, this wine needs some air at the start, but then opens up into an expressive earthy berry mix that is surprisingly broad shouldered. This wine comes from the first planting of Trousseau in Oregon, in 2012. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $32. click to buy.

Let me pause here a moment before offering two final tasting notes that I would like to use to underscore my point. The wines above are all current releases, and represent relatively new work by Willamette Vintners. But the two wines that follow show that early explorations had already proven fruitful. These two library examples from The Eyrie Vineyards demonstrate with little doubt that there is more to the Willamette Valley than Pinot Noir, even as much as they do the depth of David Lett’s skill and vision.

1988 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of beeswax, bee pollen, and yellow flowers. In the mouth brilliant mineral, bee pollen, wet stones, and savory dried honey and chamomile flavors linger for a long time in the finish. Alsace eat your heart out. This wine is incredible. Supple, gorgeous, and deeply resonant. Alcohol unknown. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

1985 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Meunier, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Pale brick red in the glass, this wine smells of brown sugar, red apple skin, and cedar mulling spices. In the mouth, cloves, cinnamon, red apple skin, dried orange peel and mixed potpourri flavors have a nice tangy and spicy sourness to them along with a juiciness from still vibrant acidity. Nice longish finish. Alcohol unknown. Score: around 9.

Image of rows of Pinot Noir in Dundee Oregon courtesy of Bigstock.