I remember well that first special Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley that I drank almost 17 years ago.
It was a Beaux Freres Willamette Valley Pinot Noir from the early nineties that gave me a sense that this was an up-and-coming region. The Pinot Noirs of the WV remind me of Burgundy and this viticultural region is now hitting its stride and presents incredible opportunity for wine retailers and enthusiasts.
While the region also makes some nice Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, it is Pinot Noir that makes it stand out. Like Burgundy, I have found that wines from this region are often vintage-driven. Wonderful vintages like the 2012, 2014 and 2015 are fruit-driven and very appealing, while vintages like 2011 and 2013 are generally disappointing, with many wines lacking enough fruit and having little complexity.
I am especially excited about the last two vintages. I really enjoy the wines from the bumper crop of 2014, and it’s proving to be a very consumer friendly-vintage. I have tasted several 2015 barrel samples and this has all the hallmarks of back-to-back beautiful vintages. My most recent trip was in June, and the winemaking community is indeed excited about their most recent harvest. Last year was another ideal growing season with lots of warm weather, nice flower sets and large grape clusters. Harvest came early in late September and early October, with super quality and generally high yields.
I have continued to drink many wines from this region over the years and have seen the landscape develop and mature into the big leagues. With Burgundy prices skyrocketing with several tiny vintages, the quality and size of the WV crops is expanding, with pricing still relatively reasonable.
And WV Pinot Noir is a nice and more affordable alternative to Burgundy, as the wines share some stylistic similarities.
I recently spoke with Eola Hills Winery owner Tom Huggins, who purchased a 32-acre plot in the WV for a song in 1982 and has now expanded to produce almost 100,000 cases annually under the leadership of talented winemaker Steve Anderson. Huggins explained that, “the region is very much like Burgundy, as Oregon’s climate is more temperate due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, and the sheltered effect between the coast and Cascade Mountain ranges”.
The region has caught the attention of many big wineries and all the major players seem to be exploring getting a toehold into this region. In just the last couple years, the Jackson Family purchased Penner-Ash and Chateau Ste. Michele Estates purchased Erath Winery. There are now about 500 wineries in this region and production continues to expand.
A dynamic wine program should include Pinot Noirs from this region.
It’s worth loading up on well-made wines from the better vintages and steering away from the more challenging vintages. I gravitate towards wineries that produce fruit-driven wines, as that is ultimately what pleases the consumer. With many choices, retailers can find opportunities for delicious wines with style and grace that offer outstanding value in the Willamette Valley.