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Oregon - the Willamette Valley: a winegrowing cusp

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As you taste wine around the world, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the best examples of certain varietals come from regions you wouldn’t expect to be able to grow grapes in at all. By that, we don’t mean northern Siberia or the Sahara desert, but rather areas where the weather is almost – but not quite – too cold for grapes to fully ripen. It is with pinot noir and syrah that this is most evident – cold climate wines of these varietals generally fetch the highest prices and hold the most prestige.

The Willamette Valley is one of these regions. It remained virtually unplanted until the mid-1960s, when some enterprising winemakers decided to try their luck on this cusp climate so similar to Burgundy. Pinot noir flourished with the long hang time of the grapes, and within a decade the region was known as one of the top locations for pinot noir on the planet, with wines from the Willamette Valley beating out French Burgundy in blind international tastings.

Since then the region has only improved from an influx of world-class winemakers, and a better understanding of the region’s microclimates. There are now six smaller appellations within the Willamette Valley – the Yamhill-Carlton District, the Chehalem Mountains, the Dundee Hills, Ribbon Ridge, McMinnville, and the Eola-Amity Hills.

Like Burgundy, the Willamette Valley is mostly home to small-scale winemakers. The average vineyard size in the Chehalem Mountains, for example, is less than 13 acres, with more than 150 wineries. These producers generally focus on one to four varietals – nearly all make a pinot noir, and many make an Alsace varietal as well, such as riesling, gewürztraminer, or pinot gris. Other varieties planted include chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, sauvignon blanc, malbec, and viognier.

As the largest appellation in the state, and with a close proximity to Portland, the Willamette Valley is the center of most of the state’s wine tourism. The majority of grapes are grown in Yamhill County, and driving the highway there you are likely to see a winery every mile or less. Most wineries now have tasting rooms, and many that don’t are still open for tastings and tours by appointments. Although there are an increasing number of luxury hotels in the region, most people still choose to stay in the city of Portland and taste during day trips to the valley.