Oregon has become one of the world’s great wine regions yet continues to feel like a place that’s up-and-coming. Both native producers and outside investors (particularly from France and California) are drawn to its cool climate, relaxed atmosphere and highly respected reputation for Pinot Noir and, increasingly, Chardonnay.
Senior Contributing Editor Virginie Boone visited recently to see what’s going on.
In Oregon, it’s “more about the place than the winemaker”
Farming biodynamically, organically and regeneratively in Oregon isn’t cutting edge, it’s the norm. Many vineyards incorporate animals to graze and make compost, employ biodynamic preparations rather than commercial sprays, and grow things other than grapes, making it less of a monoculture than other wine regions.
But more than anything, there’s a mindset that values land above all.
“We have a European model,” Tom Mortimer of Le Cadeau told me. “It’s more about the place than the winemaker; more about the clones, the soils, the aspects.”
Mortimer settled on his piece of land in 1996—28 acres of raw hillside property in the Chehalem Mountains of Willamette Valley, where he began by planting a handful of acres of Pinot Noir on a high-elevation slope. Rootstock and clonal diversity were key for him. But ultimately, he homed in on the soils.
“The impact of Le Cadeau’s ‘basalt cobble’ soils on our grapes, and ultimately our wines, cannot be underestimated,” he said. “The Witzel series soils provide exceptional drainage.”
That’s important because the seasonal rain accumulation in Oregon is typically 40 inches, which means soil moisture needs to dissipate (ideally) before grape clusters form on the vines.
Mortimer and others consider Oregon’s soils to be extreme, able to offer a true “sense of place” when combined with the clonal diversity that’s existed from the start, and the meticulous farming practices woven into the culture.
“The result is small berries, open-cluster morphology, intense flavors and old-world wine character,” he adds.
There are other reasons for this hyper-focus on site, including more of a back-to-the-land, farming-first ethos found in Oregon, a commitment to biodiversity (the Willamette Valley alone grows more than 170 different crops) and an independent mindset that doesn’t worry much about how consumers or the trade will perceive these types of practices.
“In 2011 I went Biodynamic, and I haven’t had to thin [the grapes] since,” said Wayne Bailey of Youngberg Hill Vineyards. “The vines manage themselves. After three to five years, it’s amazing how alive the wines still are, you get a healthier product.”
It’s helped to have great leaders in the region, from Tony and Michelle Soter of Soter Vineyards, who made their first Oregon wines in 1997, to Rudy Marchesi at Montinore, which was planted in 1982, to Jimi Brooks of Brooks Winery, founded in 1998, who inspired such farming practices. These properties have long been Demeter-certified Biodynamic. And their influence has been so broad that today it feels more common to visit a winery in Oregon that’s Biodynamic/organic/regenerative than one that isn’t.
Don’t Overlook the Big Producers (or the Small Producers)
In California, large producers are often dismissed (not always deservedly) for making mediocre wines, while small producers tend to be celebrated (also not always deservedly) for being more quality-minded.
In Oregon, some of the biggest names in the game are making tremendously impressive wines. Brooks and Soter, as just two examples, continue to make complex, collectible wines and are fantastically welcoming places to visit. At the same time, tiny producers like Le Cadeau, Martin Woods Winery and Eila Wines are also producing world-class wines.
It’s estimated that 75% of wineries in the Willamette Valley make fewer than 5,000 cases per year. Which means there are lots of great small producers in the region, many of whom don’t own land or facilities of their own, but who can make their wines at shared custom crush houses like Carlton Winemaker Studio.
New Appellations Reflect Oregon’s Maturation As A Wine Region
Oregon, and particularly the Willamette Valley, has established a reputation for making some of the finest Pinot Noirs in the world. This is well-deserved, a reflection of its ideal climate and culture for creating wines of elegance and finesse.
One exciting development that’s taken place as the region has matured is the increasingly precise attention being paid to parsing, understanding and defining the area’s range of terroirs.
Oregon’s soils are a mix of volcanic rock, marine sediments and wind-blown loess underlying the vineyards. These marginally fertile, well-drained soils encourage the vines to struggle just enough late in the growing season to mature the fruit without becoming too rich or ripe.
Producers here like to talk about the Missoula Flood, an Ice Age event that caused a glacial lake in Montana to flood the Willamette Valley some 15,000 years ago, leaving alluvium sediments throughout the area. Coast Range and Columbia River Basalts also come into play.
As a result, smaller appellations that reflect this diversity of climate and soil continue to be created, from Yamhill-Carlton, Dundee Hills and Chehalem Mountains in the northwestern corner of the Willamette Valley, to appellations farther south, including Eola-Amity Hills and the Van Duzer Corridor, which funnels cool air directly from the Pacific Ocean.
This diversity makes for a lovely range of Oregon Pinots, from the Eila 2021 Violet Pinot Noir sourced from the higher-elevation Le Cadeau Vineyard in Chehalem Mountains and Martin Woods 2021 Koosah Vineyard Pinot from Eola-Amity Hills, which is floral and spicy with perfect structure, to the meatier Youngberg Hill 2018 Natasha Pinot Noir made from own-rooted, 35-year-old vines in the McMinnville AVA. Also incredible is Soter’s Origin Series 2021 Chehalam Mountains Pinot Noir.
You Should be Drinking More Oregon Whites
While Pinot Noir remains the star—and the majority of what’s produced in the state—the white wines coming out of Oregon are increasingly sought after. For good reason: they’re spectacular.
Chardonnay is rising in popularity, but Oregon has a long history of producing great Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Riesling, as well as racy, acid-driven sparkling wines, with brands like Argyle dominant in the category, and many Pinot Noir-dominant producers beginning to make at least one Methode Champenoise sparkling wine.
There’s plenty of obscure stuff worth checking out, too. Bells Up Winery in the Chehalem Mountains AVA has a rare planting of Seyval Blanc, a hybrid variety grown mostly in England, which it makes into a sparkling Brut and still wine.
But back to Chardonnay: Oregon might possibly be making even better Chardonnay than it does Pinot Noir, and that’s saying a lot.
Many producers came to Chardonnay later in their trajectories. Le Cadeau for example, made its first Pinot Noir in 2002, but didn’t get to Chardonnay until 2017. Regardless, it hasn’t taken long for many winemakers to start producing world-class expressions of it. Recommendations include: Soter Vineyards 2020 Chardonnay, Youngberg Hill 2021 Chardonnay, Bailey Family 2018 Chardonnay, Hundred Suns 2021 Old Eight Cut Chardonnay, Big Table Farm 2021 The Wild Bee Chardonnay and Le Cadeau 2021 Chardonnay. Not to mention anything from Walter Scott.
Martin Woods, which sources grapes from three of the Willamette Valley’s coolest-climate AVAs, has three standout 2021 Chardonnays: Pearlstad Vineyard, grown in Chablis-like soils; Koosah Vineyard, grown at higher elevation in volcanic soils; and Yamhill Valley Vineyard, which winemaker Evan Martin says is “the most compelling Chardonnay I get to make every year.”
Martin goes even further, saying 2021 was one of Oregon’s most phenomenal vintages, especially for Chardonnay, calling it “the most compelling ever for Chardonnay in the Willamette.”
Go out there and get some.