The Willamette Valley AVA has emerged as one of the most cherished wine regions of the United States. With more than 25,000 acres under vine, it should come as no surprise that it has quickly become Oregon’s largest AVA. Ask pretty much any wine lover and they’ll marvel about how exquisite Pinot Noirs varietals are from the region. The region’s climate is cooler and closely resembles Burgundy, France, which is also famous for Pinot Noir grapes, or Bourgogne Rogue. While the Willamette Valley AVA grew in popularity because of its red wines, white wines, such as Chardonnay, and several excellent sparkling wines are attracting even more attention to this special wine region.
In this blog, we will explain exactly what an “AVA” is, dig deep into the characteristics of the Willamette Valley AVA, and outline the qualities of the most popular varietals of the region.
What is an “AVA”?
AVA stands for American Viticultural Area. These are officially agreed upon regions that identify the origin of wine, and if a winery uses grapes grown within an AVA they must abide by its rules to be legally sold as coming from this particular region. While AVAs are found all over the United States, we are partial to the products found in California’s Noeth Coast and in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Europe also has its own version of “AVAs” which are named “European Protected Designation of Origin,” or PDO. A key point of distinction between European PDOs and AVAs is that PDOs have strict limits on the grapes allowed as well as the wine styles the producers can make. AVAs don’t have that limitation. Europe uses PDOs to protect the historical wine styles and varieties. In the United States, wine history is still written as we speak, so producers have the freedom to experiment with any variety and style they want to produce. As long as the grapes are grown within the limits of the AVA, the wine can showcase its origin on its label. In some cases, the grapes and style are tied to the AVA, as is the case with Napa and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Where is the Willamette Valley AVA located?
The Willamette Valley AVA lies in the Northwestern part of Oregon, between Portland and Eugene. In the valley created by the Willamette River and with the Coast and Cascade mountain ranges on either side, viticulture has found a perfect place to thrive.
The climate of Willamette Valley AVA
As with most of the West Coast of the United States, the climate of the Willamette Valley AVA is greatly affected by the Pacific Ocean. The Coast Ranges on the west give only a little protection from the cold air and rain coming from the ocean. This makes Oregon and the Willamette Valley AVA one of the coolest viticultural areas of the United States, alongside Carneros AVA in Napa Valley and Santa Barbara County.
Rain is abundant during the winter, but summers can be quite dry. This makes dry farming possible, with very few producers using irrigation. Dry farming, as it’s called, is special because it promotes vineyard sustainability, as no resources are wasted in viticulture.
What’s more, the latitude of the Willamette Valley AVA resembles that of Burgundy in France, placing the region towards the north on the map. This means winters are cold, allowing the vines to go into full dormancy, and the summers have abundant but relatively soft sunlight. All these factors make the Willamette Valley AVA one of the best regions to grow grapes in the USA.
The main grape varieties of California’s North Coast AVA
Pinot Noir is the most grown grape in Oregon and the Willamette Valley as it accounts for 69% of the total plantings. The varietal has found its second home in Oregon and has put the region on the map as one of the top Pinot Noir producing areas in the World, along with Burgundy in France and Central Otago in New Zealand. In the Willamette Valley AVA, Pinot Noir makes wines that are abundantly perfumed with blackcurrant, black cherry, and fine notes of violets. These aromas are gracefully combined with an elegant touch of baking spice and cocoa from aging in French oak barrels. The fresh acidity and refined tannins on the palate are a staple of Willamette Valley AVA Pinot Noir. Try our 2018 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to fully experience what Oregon wine is all about!
The second most planted grape variety of the Willamette Valley AVA is Pinot Gris, a mutation of Pinot Noir, which has light pink skins, instead of red. This makes it equally suitable to the climate of the Willamette Valley and explains the high number of plantings. Pinot Gris makes white wines with elegant lemon and pear aromas and has a rich, creamy mouthfeel.
Chardonnay is the third most grown grape of the Willamette Valley AVA and, from our perspective, its wines are proven to be the hidden gems of the region. The climate, so similar to Burgundy, makes elegant wines, very distinct from the Californian ones. The 2019 Willamette Valley Chardonnay is a perfect example, having a vibrant fresh mouthfeel, together with pure fresh fruit aromas of lemon and apple and hints of vanilla.
The main characteristics of wines from Willamette Valley AVA
The noble Pinot Noir grape dominates red winemaking in Oregon. The wines are not blends, they are made 100% from this grape. Oak use is present but limited since the aromas of Pinot Noir are delicate and easily overshadowed by oak. It pairs well with a variety of dishes, but since the variety does not have high tannins it can also be enjoyed on its own as an aperitif.
The white wines of the Willamette Valley AVA are made from the Chardonnay and Pinot Gris grapes. They express the new wave of American winemaking, as they don’t have high alcohol and their attractiveness comes from booming acidity. They are stress-free wines since they work well both by the glass and as food pairings.
Willamette Valley AVA is becoming one of the hubs of sparkling wine production in the United States, along with Carneros AVA in California’s North Coast. The cool climatic influences of the wine region that come from the Pacific make it possible to harvest grapes that are perfect for sparkling wine production. The varieties grown in the Willamette Valley AVA, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay are also used for the production of Champagne, so are proven to produce the highest quality sparkling wines made with the traditional method in many styles.
A Blanc de Blanc style, like the 2014 Sparkling Brut is made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. Chardonnay created sparkling wines which are destined to age for a long time, giving amazingly complicated aromas of biscuit and brioche, alongside the characteristic fruity notes of the variety. Rosé sparkling wines are also popular in the Willamette Valley AVA, using the traditional Champagne method of blending red and white grapes. The result is a bright salmon-pink sparkling wine with supple aromas of rose and red fruits, which can be found in the 2016 Sparkling Brut Rosé.
Which are the main sub (or child)-AVAs?
There is a debate within the wine community about using the prefix “sub” to define regions found within larger AVAs. Some feel that it insinuates these areas are lower rank or secondary, but we’ll keep our original definition for sub-AVA.
The Willamette Valley AVA was the first AVA in Oregon and is the largest both in size, but also in plantings. It is only natural, that over the years, after a lot of observation from grape-growers and winemakers, some regions were recognized for their different climates and soils. Nine sub-AVAs have been established until today: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, Laurelwood District, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, Tualatin Hills, Van Duzer Corridor, and Yamhill-Carlton. They have been established in the area north of Salem, which is the area with the longest history in viticulture and has the most vineyards.
Wines from these sub-AVAs are expected to show uniquely the grape variety and terroir. The Van Duzer Corridor AVA for example is responsible for some of the lightest Pinot Noirs of Oregon, due to its proximity to the ocean, while wines from the Ribbon Ridge AVA are richer due to the low altitude and rich soil. There are a lot of winemakers however who prefer blending wines from all over the Willamette Valley AVA to create styles that represent them and the region as a whole.
What makes wines from the Willamette Valley AVA special?
The Willamette Valley AVA is a region where the passion and love for wine are clearly reflected in all the products, and the main focus is the reflection of the terroir. Elegance, and freshness, together with bright fruit aromas and gentle oak aromas make the wines some of the most unique in the world. They resemble other great regions, like Burgundy and Champagne in France, but at the same time manage to show their unique personality in a clear way. Oregon and the Willamette Valley AVA produce some of the finest wines in the United States.
The Willamette Valley AVA in Oregon is a star in the wine industry. Amazing grapes, like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, have found a new home in this cool climate wine region. The Willamette Valley AVA offers many diverse wine styles, so there’s always something new to discover, being Red, White, or even Sparkling. By itself, or paired with food, a wine from the Willamette Valley will allow you to explore a more diverse side of the wine world.