The rolling hills of Willamette Valley, draped with cool Pacific fog and beset by a drizzling rain that never quite requires an umbrella, are probably the best-known vistas for Oregon wines. The beautiful countryside is perfect for growing the finicky pinot noir grapes. So I was pleased to find that my oldest daughter’s choice of college: Oregon State University (OSU) — not the Ducks — was situated such that I had to drive through Willamette Valley from the airport in Portland. The hour-and-a-half drive would typically take several days in order to wander among the vineyards and sample their delicious fare.
I had a chance to have a long tasting with Don Crank III, who is one of the winemakers at Willamette Valley Vineyards, just south of Salem. He was really happy to be working with some of the oldest vines in Oregon (“old vine” generally means that the vine has lower yields, but has more intensely concentrated flavors in the fruit). The pinot noir wine produced from the older “South Block” vineyard yields some of my favorite wines. On the flip side of the rich South Block would be the “Pinot Noir Candy” they call Whole Cluster Fermented Pinot Noir — a super-refreshing red, perfect for a hot-weather barbecue quaff. Another great wine from the area is pinot gris. This white wine does well in this climate, and Willamette Valley Vineyard’s pinot gris has notes of grapefruit and honey, a long, balanced finish and a rich mouth feel. Their riesling is slightly sweet, yet crisp — with hints of lychee and honeysuckle.
We have a great pinot noir from the Willamette Valley at 45 Central Wine Bar: North Valley Reserve, from Soter Vineyards in the Yamhill-Carlton American Viticultural Area. It is loaded with cherry and plum flavors with a bit of chocolate in a layered finish with a touch of minerality. The Soter Vineyards also produce Planet Oregon, which is sourced from sustainable Oregon vineyards. It’s said to be made to “drink early and often” ($1 is donated to the Oregon Environmental Council for every bottle sold).
Left Coast Cellars has a new twist to pinot noir, a white one. By carefully crushing the grapes and not letting the skins interact with the juice, they produce a lightly creamy and delicious and lightly sweet white wine. Drive though Willamette Valley or drop by 45 Central and give the wines a taste.