When wine drinkers think of Oregon wine, they often think of the Willamette Valley. Yet one of the major takeaways from the recent Wine Media Conference held in Oregon is the Oregon wine industry is much more than just what is taking place in the Willamette Valley.
Participants took part in two excursions in Southern Oregon, one situated in the far southern part of the state that included forays into the Umpqua, Applegate, and Rogue valley AVAs and the second taking place in the Umpqua Valley AVA.
Based on how quickly these two excursions sold and on reviews from participants, southern Oregon is perhaps the most exciting wine growing region in the state right now. One benefit of this area is the warmer climate allows for vastly more grape varietals to be grown. While travelers to Oregon (especially wine media) love tasting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it was a joy for those on the southern excursions to taste many other varietals.
Hood River is one of the main towns on the Oregon side of the Columbia River upstream from Portland. It is the center of the Columbia Gorge and Columbia Valley AVAs. The geology, lifestyle, and grape growing here is distinctly different from that of the Willamette Valley. Our post-conference excursion even included a stop at nearby Mount Hood, towering over the valleys leading down to Hood River.
Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill Carlton, and Other Hills
What is perhaps most fascinating about the term Willamette Valley in respect to grape growing is that it is not even the valley floor itself that is most prized. The Willamette Valley AVA includes eight sub or nested AVAs, all of which are located in the north of the valley and all of which are defined by the hillside geology on which they reside.
For example, the Ribbon Ridge AVA is the smallest AVA in the state, yet is producing some of the most exciting Pinot Noirs in Oregon. The AVA is new (2005) and the Ribbon Ridge Winegrowers’ Association began only in 2014. The ridge top vineyards are beautiful and very distinct from the flat valley floor.
Another example is the Yamhill Carlton region. In speaking with owner Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars, one of the masters of Pinot Noir in the world, our post-conference excursion group learned why the hillside locations are so important. Ken explained the Missoula floods that swept over the Willamette Valley 10,000 years ago brought in large amounts of topsoil perfect for agricultural but that wine grapes produce their best flavors when the roots can reach the “mother rock” below, which is possible on the surrounding hills but not when the topsoil is too deep. This is why all six of those nesting AVAs within the Willamette Valley are on hilltop towns in the northern area of the valley.
While the Willamette Valley dominates the area geographically, running from the Columbia River in the north to the past Eugene in the south, and from the Cascade foothills in the east to the Coast Range foothills in the west, it is a bit of a misnomer for most wineries in the state and in the Willamette Valley AVA. To truly experience Oregon’s wine industry, as the lucky Wine Media Conference participants did, head for the hills.