cool fog envelops bare grapevines and whispers promises of future fruit, Oregon’s
Willamette Valley hums with more wine appreciation than ever before.
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
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
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.
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.
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”.
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?”
underestimate the delights of visiting stand-alone tasting rooms, too. On the
main road in the town of Dundee, Argyle
Winery, which grows its grapes nearby in the Dundee Hills and in other
Willamette Valley AVAs, offers a flight of four sparkling wines, including a rosé
and a brut blended with pinot noir grapes. As an adventurous option best saved
for spring, summer or fall, when the days are longer and the rain lighter, ditch
the car and ride a bicycle between tasting rooms to more intimately experience
the rolling hills and cloud bursts. Bike rentals are available in Portland at
numerous bike shops, but you will have to either drive the bike to wine country
or take it on the train as far west as you can go. Beginners should opt for an organised
tour leaving from Portland; try Pedal Bike Tours
which offers 10-mile intermediate-level tours for $89 per person and stops at
three wineries before returning to town with you and the bikes in a van.
Willamette Valley’s wine country tourism infrastructure is still developing. There
is a wide range of bed and breakfasts – from
the high-end, Tuscan-styled Black
Walnut Inn three miles west of Dundee, to Abbey Road Farm, 10 miles west of
Dundee, with its grain silos converted to guest rooms – and only a handful of
those is Hotel Oregon, an
excellent budget option that is part of the McMenamins empire, which turns
historic buildings in Oregon and Washington into whimsical lodging, dining and drinking
destinations, In addition to 48 European-style guest rooms with shared
bathrooms, the hotel offers a four storey-high rooftop bar with views of the
town of McMinnville, 12 miles from Dundee. You don’t have to wander far from
the hotel to taste wine. Head to nearby Willamette
Valley Vineyards Wine Center, R
Stuart and Co, or Panther
first large-scale luxury resort in the region, the Allison Inn and Spa in the town of Newburg,
five miles from Dundee, offers a posh launch pad for wine aficionados. Rooms
are well appointed and have views of the property’s own vineyard and
surrounding hazelnut orchards, while the onsite spa treatments feature herbs,
grapes and other natural ingredients. Its Jory restaurant serves
farm-to-table cuisine, including house-cured meats, a grilled Wagyu beef burger
made with pinot noir and Pacific oysters on the half shell, and has an
impressive wine list with hard-to-find local drops.
most part, the best wine country restaurants are located close to each other in
the towns of McMinnville, Dundee and Newberg, although there are exceptions,
including the Joel Palmer House in
Dayton, six miles from Dundee, which specialises in wild mushrooms, including a
crème brulee made with candy cap mushrooms, and the French-focused Cuvee in Carlton, 14 miles from Dundee, which
serves boeuf bourguignon and steak and frites.
spring, the revamped Paulée
restaurant in Dundee opened to rave reviews for its modern cuisine by chef
Daniel Mondok. All the ingredients on the menu are locally sourced, from the tuna
poke – a raw fish salad with apple and ginger – to the peppercorn duck with
rice, baby bok choy and smoked black tea jus.
McMinnville, Thistle offers an
intimate setting complete with chalkboard menu and candlelight. Dishes of duck
liver paté, braised oxtail and gnocchi with black trumpet mushrooms are
inspired by deliveries from local farmers and harvesters. Around the corner, Nick’s Italian Cafe remains an
established classic, with exceptional wood fired pizzas and handmade pastas.