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As winter’s cool fog envelops bare grapevines and whispers promises of future fruit, Oregon’s Willamette Valley hums with more wine appreciation than ever before.
With a proliferation of hilltop tasting rooms scattered among tiny rural towns, as well as a crush of restaurants with extensive wine lists and top-notch sommeliers, it is easy to compare the region to the way California’s Napa Valley was more than four decades ago, when dirt roads connected small-batch winemakers with big aspirations.
But at the same time, the Willamette Valley – Oregon’s largest wine producing region – has developed a modest air of sophistication, with its cadre of well-appointed bed and breakfasts, a large-scale luxury resort and plate after plate of delectable farm-to-table cuisine.
While California has its big cabernets and buttery chardonnays, Willamette Valley winemakers have become famous for the finicky, cool weather pinot noir grape. When Oregon’s wine pioneers planted the state’s first vines in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, no one was sure whether, despite sharing similar climates, the grape would thrive as it does in Burgundy, the French region that made pinot noir famous.
But it did, and a sea of earthy, fruity, spicy and nuanced Oregon pinot noirs have poured out of the valley over the last three decades, many to critical acclaim. Hunting for your favourite drop is best done in person, as the region’s is home to more than 250 wineries and many of the smaller winemakers don’t distribute outside of the state. Winter is also one of the best times to visit; the tasting rooms are quiet and calm, and it is easy to get restaurant reservations.
The Willamette Valley stretches between three mountain ranges, the Coast Range, Cascade Mountains and Klamath Mountains; is 100 miles long; and is home to the cities of Portland and Eugene. Even though Portland may seem like an ideal home base for a visit to wine country, sleeping closer to the vines means more immersion in Oregon’s wine scene, plus access to more tastings. Consider focusing on one of the valley’s smaller six AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) during a single outing. When planning your trip, start with a good map, like the one that is available online from Willamette Valley Wineries, and check the hours for every tasting room in advance as they may change depending on the season and day of the week.
In the densely planted Dundee Hills AVA, which is just 30 miles southwest from Portland, a tasting room itinerary could include Domaine Drouhin Oregon, which is owned by a French winemaking family and features an opulent tasting room overlooking the estate’s 90 acres of hillside grapevines. Many of the winery’s pinot noirs are aged in barrels from Burgundy, and they are widely regarded for their balance and elegance. Or you could try Erath Winery, which was founded by winemaking pioneer Dick Erath who planted his first grapes in the Dundee Hills in 1969. His range of pinot noirs – some with earthy muscle and depth, while others are lighter and silky with fruit – are on display at the modest tasting room next to the vineyards.
Aside from the stunning scenery, vineyard tasting rooms offer visitors the chance to soak up the details of the land and hands that produced the wines, from the colour of the earth to the shape of the hillsides – the elements that help create what the French termed “terroir”.
“Wine people want to learn about where their wine is from,” explained David Millman, managing director of Domaine Drouhin Oregon. “What’s the story? Who are the people? How was it grown?”