“Oregon grapes have it tough,” says Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible. Unpredictable weather changes along with sun and heat shortages in some years pose challenges to winemakers, she explains. Yet somehow complexity and unique characteristics emerge from the struggle to make great wines, particularly in the coolest region in the state: the Willamette Valley.
When he established Eyrie Vineyards in 1966, University of California at Davis-trained enologist David Lett planted the first commercial Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in the Willamette Valley and the first Pinot Gris grapes in the United States. After spending the prior year in France’s cool winemaking regions of Burgundy and Alsace, the 25-year-old winemaker concluded that the best grapes grow in cool regions where ripening is a challenge. “California was just too hot. … That’s why I came to Oregon,” Lett told Wine Spectator in 1983.
Just south of Portland, the region runs along the Willamette River, which lies between the towering Cascade Mountains to the east and the Coast Range Mountains to the west. Here, vineyards dapple the many south-facing mountainsides to maximize sun exposure, while mountains insulate them from excessive rain and winds. The region’s red soils, known as “Jory” and “Nekia,” offer a well-suited grape-growing medium that is free draining with low fertility.
Other pioneering winemakers followed Lett, building on his vision for the region. Today, Willamette and most of Oregon’s wine regions that emerged south of it specialize in Burgundy’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes as well as Alsace’s Pinot Gris. Known as “Pinot Grigio” in Italy, Oregon’s Pinot Gris wines—like their Pinot Noirs—are world class and have superseded Chardonnay as the state’s signature white grape.
Lett, who passed away in 2008, proved his California-Davis instructors wrong for their claim that European grapes would not survive in Oregon, let alone thrive. His 1975 Pinot Noir won first place in a French wine tasting in 1979 and again in 1980, prompting famous Burgundian wine merchant Robert Drouhin to buy land and open a vineyard in the Willamette Valley, as noted in The Oxford Companion to Wine.
Every year, the growing numbers of innovative winemakers meet in nearby McMinnville for the now world-famous International Pinot Noir Celebration—a testimony to the region’s triumph over the skeptics.
Should you take the opportunity to participate, be careful not to mispronounce Willamette (Wil-LAM-ette) to these many proud winemakers. As noted by wine podcaster Tim Elliot, it’s Willamette, damn it!