Unlike most of Europe, Oregon’s Willamette Valley does not have a long and storied history of winemaking. In fact, today’s modern wine industry was born in the 1960s by ordinary folks who wanted to escape from the chains of corporate drudgery. Many of them had no previous wine-growing nor wine-making experience! They bought land on which the farmers of the valley could not grow crops. They read what books were available at the time to help them figure out what to plant. And much like the pioneers of yesteryear, they all helped each other out! The modern-day Willamette Valley still retains that bucolic and rustic feel: more like farm country, less like an amusement park.
The Willamette Valley is located just south of Portland. It is 150 miles long and 50 miles wide, a true valley surrounded by mountains — the Coastal Range to the west and the taller Cascade Range to the east. The valley was formed millions of years ago when giant ice dams broke in western Montana and flooded and scoured much of Washington and Oregon in a catastrophic event called the Missoula Floods. Volcanoes did the rest of the work.
Unlike California, which grows an amazing array of grapes, Oregon is mainly known only for one: Pinot Noir. And unlike most Californian Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is light on its feet and more akin to red Burgundy. Flavors of red cherry, strawberry and even cola spring forth from the glass, along with notes of a farm garden, lavender and cedar. I find Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to be light bodied, light on tannins and high in acidity, which make it an ideal candidate for pairing with food. Grilled salmon, herb-rubbed pork roast, mushroom risotto and seared ahi tuna are all fantastic pairings with Pinot Noir. (Another little hint — Pinot Noir pairs very successfully with all the items found on the Thanksgiving table). Some over-the-top producers are Ponzi, Domaine Drouhin and Bethel Heights.
That’s not to say that only Pinot Noir comes from the Willamette Valley. Many whites are produced as well — wines like Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Riesling. These whites are crisp and fruity. High-quality Chardonnay is also being produced with a kiss of French oak and ripe fruit which pairs beautifully with a wide range of seafood, chicken and pasta dishes. Broiled lobster and oysters on the half shell could have no better accompaniment. I believe we will be seeing more and more elegant Chardonnay coming from the Willamette Valley each year as producers find better clones and sites. Some of my favorite producers for whites are Domaine Serene, Adelsheim and Van Duzer.
The Willamette Valley has a lot to offer in wines for everyday drinking as well as for special occasions. These wines pair superbly with our local seafood and lifestyle here in Southwest Florida. It’s a perfect match!
About the Author: Dinah Leach is the Wine Director and Sommelier for Angelina’s Ristorante of Bonita Springs. Please feel free to contact her with any wine questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.