WHILE WASHINGTON’S Yakima and Walla Walla valleys have enjoyed big shares of buzz the past year on the occasions of their 30th anniversaries of being federally recognized as wine-growing regions, Oregon’s largest and oldest appellation also has quietly turned three decades old.
The Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area is a vast, 3.3-million-acre expanse that stretches from the Columbia River in the north past Eugene in the south. The federal government deemed it an official AVA in December 1983, and it has since developed into Oregon’s most-planted and most-often-mispronounced wine region (it’s “will-AM-it” not “WILL-uh-met”).
If you haven’t explored the Willamette Valley recently, now is a perfect time. May is Oregon Wine Month, and May 24-26 is the annual Memorial Weekend in Wine Country celebration, in which nearly every winery in the region opens its doors, pulls the bungs on barrels of new wines and welcomes pinot noir lovers to enjoy a few sips.
The most interesting area in the Willamette Valley is its northern reaches, the ancestral home of Oregon’s famous pinot noir and a region that has been further subdivided into six smaller appellations in the past decade. This redefinition of Oregon wine country is utterly fascinating because these small areas just a few miles apart produce pinot noirs that are delicately distinctive.
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The bright, high-toned wines of the Dundee Hills and the earthy, truffly pinots in nearby Yamhill-Carlton remind us that the Willamette Valley is far from the wine-producing monoculture it might otherwise appear to be from the outside. Rather, every little ridge overlooking the Willamette River offers intriguing nuances in the glass that are like a sensual whisper in a lover’s ear.
Thanks to elegant fruit and mild tannins, Oregon pinot noir is easy to like. Yet its enigmatic complexities can make it perplexing and difficult to fully understand and appreciate. But this is why we take the journey and travel the valley’s bucolic back roads in search of the ethereal.
Book a long weekend to the heart of Oregon wine country and experience an odyssey through a region that is unlike anything we will find here in Washington.
Andy Perdue is a wine author, journalist and international judge. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.