HomeAbout UsWine ReviewsArchivesAdvertiseContact Us

THE GRAPEVINE

Wine Columns

Wine Reviews

WineReviewOnline.com on Twitter

Critics Challenge International Wine Competition

Sommelier Challenge International Wine Competition

Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition

A Willamette Valley Wine Awakening
By Jessica Dupuy
Feb 21, 2017
Printable Version
Email this Article

About eighth years ago, my husband surprised me with a trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  It was before I had spent any time writing about or studying wine.  I remember being taken with the beauty of the valley.  Sweeping views from every hillside with some of the most vivid shades of green I had ever seen.  We spent our time roaming the region stopping in at regal estates like Domaine Serene and homey farmsteads like Bergstrom and Adelsheim.  While I was certainly enamored with many of the wines we sampled, I was uniquely struck by how interwoven the whole production of wine was.  Somehow I could taste the elements of working with dirt, weather, and vine with just the swirl of my glass.  It tasted like farming.  (In a good way.) It wasn’t just some beverage that had magically arrived in my glass.  It was the first time I remember wine tasting like something more than just a beverage.  It tasted like a place. 

Back then, the only thing I knew about Oregon wine was that its popularity was on the rise--particularly regarding Pinot Noir.  While driving around the winding roads, we passed a number of wineries tucked in among the hills, but their presence appeared so unassuming, as if they were simply part of the backdrop.  I certainly would never have guessed that there would one day be upwards of 500 wineries in the 60-mile landscape.  I didn’t realize then that the cool climate of the region offers grapes an ideal long, gentle growing season for Pinot Noir--as well as Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling. 

Today, the valley has evolved into a popular tourist destination country inns and resorts, fine dining, and of course, more wineries.  And perhaps one of the defining characteristics of the more than 700 vineyards spread throughout the region is a commitment to sustainability that have more than 12,500 acres certified as sustainably farmed (more than 50 percent), and many more to come. 

I’ve since been back to the region as someone working within the wine profession and my affinity has only increased.  I’ve hand-picked grape clusters with work crews in the Dundee Hills, taken morning jogs through a hillside vineyard with towering Ponderosa Pines as my companions, and savored a whole hog harvest lunch smothered in velvety mole sauce lovingly layered with spice and soul from the aunt of a work crew member--all thanks to Stoller Family Estates who hosted me for the occasion.  And while I think there are a number of key defining influences that have brought me to study and appreciate the wine world, I have to credit that first trip to Willamette Valley--my first glimpse at that integral relationship from vineyard to glass--as an experience that has made wine a lifetime pursuit. 

So when the Willamette Valley Wineries Association asked me to consider review a hand-selected case of wines from the region to promote an upcoming Austin and Dallas event, Pinot In the City, I was pretty enthusiastic to accept the challenge.  I as part of a challenge to myself, I committed to tasting 12 Willamette Pinot Noirs over 12 consecutive days.  The exercise was an education in and of itself.  I was encouraged to see that each wine still held that sense of place I remember from almost a decade ago.  But I was also impressed to see how each of these wines revealed a unique character and personality all of their own.  Here’s a list of my favorites:

Producer: Stoller Family Estate
Legal Appellation: Willamette Valley
Country: USA
Grape Variety: Pinot Noir
Designation: “Nancy’s”
Vintage: 2011
Score: 95
Price: $70
One of my favorite stops in Dundee Hills, Stoller Vineyards is as idyllic as it is pristine and thoughtfully designed.  In the glass, blackberry and black cherry with warm baking spices and a flourish of red floral notes lead the senses to a luscious palate with a touch of savory herbs and pronounced-yet-well-integrated tannins.  A special wine for a special occasion.

Producer: Lemelson Vineyards
Legal Appellation: Willamette Valley
Grape Variety: Pinot Noir
Designation: “Jerome” Reserve
Vintage: 2011
Score: 95
Price: $50
A little gem I found a couple of years ago on a trip to Willamette Valley.  I liked it so much in the tasting room, I brought a few of them back home to lay down for a while.  As it turns out, time has made this wine even better.  A single vineyard section from this impeccably pristine producer, this Pinot Noir is rich with fresh summer cherry and Chinese five spice but lead by velvety earthy tones and a dusting of ground thyme and dried mushroom.  The finish is bewitching and long-lived and beckons another taste.  I look forward to opening my next bottle in another couple of years.

Producer: Domaine Roy & Fils
Legal Appellation: Willamette Valley
Grape Variety: Pinot Noir
Designation: “Maison Roy & Fils Incline“
Vintage: 2014
Score: 94
Price: $58
From the second generation of the Beaux Freres founding partners, this wine is opulent and elegant and made with a great deal of finesse.  With notes of rich black cherry, violets, chocolate and a touch of tar, this is a complex Pinot Noir.  On the palate, fresh fruit transitions to include died and stewed characteristics with earthy undertones and the addition of dried savory herbs.  Tannins are grippy and well integrated and fading to a finish with tart dried plum and cocoa.  Delicious. 

Producer: Pike Road
Legal Appellation: Willamette Valley
Grape Variety: Pinot Noir
Vintage: 2014
Score: 91
Price: $19
Ruby red in the glass with notes of bright cherry and cranberry, cocoa and cola, and a touch of earthy mushroom and dried sage, this friendly wine is a perfect companion for grilled salmon or Neapolitan-style pizza.  This kid sister to Elk Cove Vineyards offers a budget-friendly option for those looking for elegance and value in one bottle. 
 
Producer: Willamette Valley Winery
Legal Appellation: Willamette Valley
Grape Variety: Pinot Noir
Designation:  Whole Cluster
Vintage:  2014
Score: 92
Price: $22
Opulent and elegant, this wine is an instant crowd-pleaser.  The fruit is rich and concentrated n both the nose and the palate with macerated blackberry, cassis, blueberry, cherry and strawberry leading the senses balanced with warm baking spices, smoky charcuterie and a subtle earthiness.  This luscious expression of Pinot Noir gains its rich structure from whole cluster fermentation, a stylistic choice during the winemaking process that affords this wine a fresh and velvety body. 

Producer: Chehalem Winery
Legal Appellation: Willamette Valley
Country of Origin: USA
Grape Variety: Pinot Noir
VIntage: 2013
Score: 92
Price: $32
A happy blend from three unique vineyards, this wine adds elegance and finesse to the everyday Pinot Noir.  Cranberry, cinnamon, rosemary, and smoke.  I imagine this may be a little bit how heaven smells at the first breathe of autumn.  The palate is like the warm hug of an old friend, with a touch of tart red fruit, savory herbs and sautéed mushrooms that finishes with soft tannin and a thirst for more.  For $32, I’d welcome a glass of this everyday, indeed. 

Producer name: Rex Hill Winery 2014
Legal appellation:  Willamette Valley
Country of origin: USA
Grape Variety: Pinot Noir
Vintage:  2014
Score: 95
Retail price:  $35
Like a king on a hilltop, this wine is royal with a sweeping view of the rich terroir this region has to offer.  Aromas of red cherry and warm, dusty earth, crushed violets, dried sage, and cinnamon all greet the sense after a few swirls in the glass.  There’s a lot going on here.  But that’s not all.  Deep, brooding concentrated fruit is offset by earth and dried mushroom on the palate.  Grippy tannins usher through a slow, lingering finish. 

Producer: Vista Hills
Legal Appellation: Willamette Valley
Country of Origin: USA
Grape Variety: Pinot Noir
Designation:  “Treehouse”
Vintage: 2014
Score:  90
Price: $28
This estate Pinot Noir for Vista Hills Vineyard and Winery of the Dundee Hills AVA is a beautiful flagship wine revealing aromas of concentrated cassis and cherry cordial with notes of milk chocolate, red flowers, and anise.  A deep, brooding expression of Pinot Noir, this wine bas a well-integrated mouthfeel that is both complex and approachable.

Producer name: Domaine Serene
Legal appellation: Willamette Valley
Grape Variety: Pinot Noir
Proprietary name of wine: “Evenstad Reserve”
Vintage date (or NV):  2013
Score: 96
Retail price:  $70
Well the hits just keep on coming….  This elegant beauty serves as the flagship wine for Domaine Serene, and if it's meant to represent the level of quality coming from this producer, the bar is set pretty high.  Complexity with restraint best describes this wine.  Aromas of black cherry and cranberry mingle with dried mushroom and savory herbs leading to a concentration of fruit on the palate that is tart and alluring with notes of white pepper and black tea on the finish.  A beautiful wine. 

Producer: North Valley Vineyards
Legal Appellation: Willamette Valley
Grape Variety: Pinot Noir
Vintage: 2014
Designation: Reserve
Score: 92
Price: $55
A partnership between acclaimed Soter Vineyards and Willamette valley wine grower, James Cahill and marketing expert Brian Sypher, this wine is a blend of Pinot Noir from 5 specific vineyard sites located in what many consider the concentration of the finest vineyards in Willamette Valley, namely the North Valley.  Sub-appellations of within the North Valley include Dundee Hills, Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton and Eola-Amity Hills.  This wine is a beautiful expression of the character this region has to offer.  Notes of concentrated black cherry and blackberry are delivered in a velvet envelope of vanilla cream.  On the palate, the structure is firm, but generous, offering a broad canvas of tart fruit, dark turned earth and lingering tannin.