Some of the founding members of Willamette Valley – Jason Lett (son of David and Diane Lett) of … [+]
“Pinot Noir is a particularly philosophical grape,” muses Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards, in Willamette Valley. Arguably the most charismatic grape, devotees recognize its illumination of site as supreme.
Speaking of his Burgundian discovery as “love at first sight,” David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards, credits Pinot Noir as his “raison d’etre” for coming to Oregon in 1965. As his son Jason explains, after falling in love with this finicky grape, his father sought the region best suited to its particularities—finding it in western Oregon.
In 1966, David and Diana Lett removed a derelict orchard, prepared the ground, and planted the first modern grape vines in the region, calling the south end of the Dundee Hills home. The Letts were soon joined by nine like-minded families with the same focus—produce world-class Pinot Noir. Today, the region is home to over 600 wineries, all upholding the original vision.
This past year I took a deep dive into the fruit of their labor, studying and tasting dozens of Pinot Noir wines throughout the valley—resulting in this extensive list of what I consider some of the region’s top bottles. Selecting one bottle from each of these producers was excruciating. I recommend getting to know each of these wineries and journey through their entire portfolios.
A view of Willamette Valley’s Chehalem Mountain AVA from Alloro Vineyard
Chehalem Mountains AVA contains all three important hillside soil types of the region—basaltic, ocean sedimentary, and loess. The highest point in Willamette Valley is located in this AVA, Bald Peak at 1,633 feet, resulting in a geography and climate that differentiates it from the other viticultural areas. Pinot Noir grown here tends to be richer and bigger across the board, more textural and voluptuous.
2017 Ponzi Aurora Vineyard Pinot Noir ($105) dazzles with wild bramble berries, black licorice, cherry cola, dusty cocoa, brown-sugar peppered bacon, rich, bold, layers of tension, structure, silky mouth-feel, long acid-driven finish *In the future, this will be included in the newly established Laurelwood AVA
2017 Alloro Vineyard Riservata Pinot Noir ($50) offers fresh black and blue fruit, exotic spice, cured meat, violets, cherry cola, ample and weighty, rich, refined, elegant, structure *In the future, this will be included in the newly established Laurelwood AVA
2017 Flâneur ‘La Belle Promenade’ Pinot Noir ($55) delivers bright, intense fruit, spice, cherry cola, smooth tannins, elegantly long finish
2015 Adelsheim ‘Elizabeth’s Reserve’ Pinot Noir ($50) the history and breadth of Willamette Valley in a bottle, blue fruit, warm spice, fresh lavender, Herbs de Provence, elegant, refined, feminine, layered, long, silky, collect this last vintage
2017 La Cadeau Merci Reserve Pinot Noir ($80) opens with leaping aromatics, red berries, herbal notes, spice, fresh violets, rich, elegant, silky tannins, lean
2017 Bells Up Winery ‘Candide’ Nemarniki Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir ($54) delivers notes of dark and red berries, Herbs de Provence, fresh lavender, cherry cola, exotic spice, youthful, vibrant
A few of Willamette Valley’s Dundee Hills AVA Winemakers
Dundee Hills AVA is comprised of mostly basaltic soil, with some marine sediment. Known as a gentle place to grow Pinot Noir because it is insulated from daytime heat by the Willamette Valley River and its distance from the winds of the Van Duzer Corridor allows the AVA to cool slowly. Pinot Noirs here tend to be red-fruit driven and softer.
2016 Eyrie Pinot Noir Sisters ($45), named for the three Pinot Noir varieties on the site, offers red fruit, floral notes, spice and tea, elegant with a freshness that lifts off the palate
2015 Domaine Drouhin ‘Laurene’ Pinot Noir ($60) offers dark fruit, loads of dried flowers, fresh herbs, roasted hazelnut, spice, a captivating wine, like liquid cashmere, long and sultry, balanced *sold out, 2016 vintage available
2016 Sokol Blosser ‘Orchard’ Pinot Noir ($75) opens with red and blue fruit, spice, dried herbs, violets, chewy tannins, dusty, concentrated, long finish
2016 Stoller Family Estate Reserve Pinot Noir ($40) delivers stewed black berries, rose petals, spice, cured meat, tea, damp underbrush, juicy, vibrant, grippy tannins, fresh, long mineral-driven finish *sold out, 2017 available
2016 Torii Mor ‘Olson Estate Vineyard’ Pinot Noir ($60) offers fresh berries, herbal notes, warm baking spice, licorice, lean, fresh acidity, focused, *sold out, 2017 available
2014 Native Flora ‘The Heretic North Slope’ Pinot Noir ($100) well-aged notes of dusty earth, minerality, smoke, spice, complex yet integrated, elevated, structured with long finish, wild yet sophisticated like its winemaker
A View of Willamette Valley’s Eola-Amity Hills AVA from Bethel Heights Vineyard
Eola-Amity Hills AVA is mostly volcanic basalt from ancient lava flows, combined with marine sedimentary rocks and alluvial deposits. Vineyards are typically planted in shallower soils strongly influenced by the afternoon winds of the Van Duzer Corridor, resulting in smaller, highly concentrated fruit with a bright, elevated character and high acidity.
2014 Antica Terra ‘Antikythera’ Pinot Noir ($150) defies description. Layers of dark fruit, spice, slate driven minerality, forest floor, black tea, concentrated tension, high toned structure, long, dazzling.
2017 Bethel Heights Vineyard ‘Flat Block’ Pinot Noir ($60) opens with fresh red fruit, white tea, fresh herbs, spice, damp underbrush, elegant, complex, silky, long mineral finish
2016 Lingua Franca Estate Pinot Noir ($60) delivers red and black fruit, spice, dried roses, slate-driven minerality, smooth, focused, complex, long finish
2016 Big Table Farm Pelos-Sandberg Pinot Noir ($62) dazzles with bright red fruit, warm baking spice, preserved orange peel, dried roses, elegant, focused tension, chewy tannins, *sold out, I encourage you to buy any of their beautifully crafted wines
2015 Zena Crown ‘Slope’ Pinot Noir ($75) bold notes of dark fruit, spice, black tea, dusty earth, dried tobacco, slate, worn leather, a cab-lovers pinot, powerful tannins, yet elegant, stunning *sold out, 2016 vintage available
2017 Lavinea Temperance Hill Pinot Noir ($75) dazzles with dark ripe berries, warm baking spice, dried herbs, crushed roses, black tea, worn leather, bold with ample body and grippy tannins yet elegant, long acid-driven finish, gorgeous with long age-ability
2018 Brooks Winery Runaway Red Pinot Noir ($28) while an entry-level for Brooks, it’s got a great story, was dear to Jimi, and way over-delivers on price, juicy red fruit, fresh floral notes, spice, kiss of cola, light, approachable, well-structured, super enjoyable
A view of Willamette Valley’s McMinnville AVA from Youngberg Hills Winery
McMinnville AVA is primarily marine sediment, with some basalt and alluvium. It is strongly affected by the late-afternoon winds blowing through the Van Duzer Corridor. Although it is one of the warmest areas during the day, it cools quickly at night. This AVA produces Pinot Noirs that are warmer, bolder, with more spice notes. The fruit is more concentrated with lower yields, higher acidity and tannin traction, not necessarily big wines, just rounder.
2016 Youngberg Hill ‘J Block’ Pinot Noir ($60) delivers plump black fruit, warm baking spice, cherry cola, forest floor, energetic with depth, firm acidity, long tannins
2015 Yamhill Valley Vineyards ‘Tall Poppy’ Pinot Noir ($75) offers tart red and black fruit, baking spice, black tea, crushed roses, smooth, fruit-forward, long finish
2016 Day Wines Momtazi Vineyard Pinot Noir ($54) opens with dark fruit, spice, herbal, forest floor, complex, moody, integrated tannins, driven and balanced
2014 Mayasara Asha Pinot Noir ($45) dazzles with beautifully integrated cherry, smoke, damp underbrush, black tea, and crushed roses, smooth, elegant, drinking at its peak, highly refined
Ribbon Ridge AVA is contained within the larger Chehalem Mountains AVA. The soil is comprised entirely of marine sediment. Same as Yamhill-Carlton AVA. It is geographically protected by the surrounding larger land masses. Pinot Noir is defined here by black fruit, spice, earth, and cocoa, wines boarder on rustic at times with moderate to high structure, fine tannins and high acidity.
2017 Beaux Frères Upper Terrace Pinot Noir ($110) devours the senses with dark chocolate covered cherry, black berries, warm baking spice, cherry cola, crushed lavender, orange hibiscus tea, worn leather, wet granite, seductively graceful, crushed silk palate, wide and long
2018 Bergstrom Le Pré du Col Vineyard Pinot Noir ($80) dazzles with a puree of black berries, exotic spice, black tea, damp underbrush, white pepper, worn leather, ample and bold, layered, broad shouldered, chewy tannins, long mineral driven finish, long age-ability
2016 Trisaetum Winery Ribbon Ridge Estate Pinot Noir ($55) offers tart red and black berries, crushed violets, warm baking and exotic spice, forest floor, white pepper, elegant, vibrant, juicy, lean and silky tannins, mineral-driven finish *sold out, I encourage you to buy any of their beautifully crafted wines
2016 Utopia ‘Paradise’ Estate Reserve Pinot Noir ($65) draws attention with aromas of dark berries, warm baking spice, licorice, forest floor, worn leather, wide on palate with silky tannins, vibrant acidity, long finish
Willamette Valley AVA comprises the entire region from Portland to Eugene. While the northern valley is divided into sub-AVA’s to acknowledge its unique qualities, excellent Pinot Noir is also produced south of Salem—it’s only a matter of time before this too is divided into sub-AVAs. Southern Willamette Valley is home to more than 100 vineyards and 25 wineries. It’s well worth exploration. Learn more from the South Willamette Winery Association.
2017 Iris Vineyard ‘D Block’ Pinot Noir ($39.99) offers tart red and black fruit, warm baking spice, tea, dried roses, toasted hazelnuts, bold and firm on palate, vibrant acidity, mineral finish
2016 King Estate Domaine Pinot Noir ($70) opens with loads of red fruit, warm baking spice, tea, dried roses, rich with nice vibrancy and lift off the palate, lean and focused
2016 Sweet Cheeks Winery ‘Triple Block’ Estate Pinot Noir ($35) delivers loads of fresh bright berries, warm spice, rose petal tea, cherry cola, licorice, silky, approachable, vibrant
View of Willamette Valley’s Yahmill-Carlton AVA from Penner Ash Winery
Yamhill-Carlton AVA is comprised mostly of marine sediment, some of the oldest soil in Willamette Valley, that drain quickly. Appearing like an upside-down shaped “U,” this area is cut off from the central valley heat, instead it is impacted by fog and wind, and has a higher ambient temperature. The Pinot Noir feels fuller across the palate, with fine grain tannins, fruit characteristics appear darker but not riper.
2015 Anne Amie Estate Pinot Noir ($45) offers red and black fruit, baking spice, cola, black tea, worn leather, elegant, lean and focused, long-fine grain tannins
2016 Trisaetum ‘Coastal Range Estate’ Pinot Noir ($55) delivers vibrant dark red fruit, warm baking spice, Chinese five spice, dusty cocoa, white mushroom, minerality and floral notes, sleek and focused energy, high-grain tannins, long acidity
2017 Gran Moraine Pinot Noir ($35) offers red and black berries, crushed red flowers, dusty earth, cured meat, and black tea, bold yet sophisticated, fresh, driven
2016 Wilakenzie Terres Basses Pinot Noir ($75) delivers bold notes of black berries, black tea, forest floor, and cured meat, layered and complex, firm shoulders
2016 Lenne Estate ‘South Slope’ Pinot Noir ($55) opens with juicy red and black fruit, warm baking spice, leather, bold yet approachable, silky texture, long mineral-driven finish
2017 Penner-Ash Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir ($72) explosion of red fruit, warm baking spice, fresh herbs, lavender, damp underbrush, sweet tobacco, layers, poised, silky tannins, long finish