Guest Blog Post: Part 2

July 22, 2018

“It’s Willamette, Damnit!”:  Diving in to the Deep End of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
 
The Willamette Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area) is famous for complex and nuanced Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir grape is known for its expression of “sense of place” – meaning the wines reflect the land and the conditions in which it is grown more than most varietals.  In this blog series, I’ll explore the geological history of the Willamette Valley and how the combination of soils and microclimates contribute to the many expressions of Pinot Noir from this highly-acclaimed young wine region.
 
Part 2:  It’s a Dirt-y Business
 
In Part 1, we learned about the tumultuous geological history of the Willamette Valley, complete with earthquakes, volcanic lava flows, and floods of biblical proportions.  The combination of these events over several dozen millennia gave the valley a unique combination of four distinct soil types:  ancient marine sedimentary soils, volcanic basalt, windblown loess, and fertile topsoil.
 
In addition to world-class grapes, the valley is a perfect place to cultivate a myriad of agricultural products ranging from grass seed, nursery stock and Christmas trees, to berries, hops, and hazelnuts.  Most of these crops are grown on or near the valley floor in the deep, nutrient-rich topsoil deposited by the Missoula Floods around 15,000 years ago.
 
Generally, however, you won’t find vineyards in the valley.  Wine grapes actually need to struggle a bit in order to produce fruit that is concentrated and complex.  The same soil that is ideal for most agricultural products is less-than-ideal for grapes.  Thus, most vineyards in the Willamette Valley are planted at 200’ elevation and higher – above the flood line.  If you look at a topographical map of the sub-AVAs, you’ll notice that the boundaries trace a line around the hillsides at approximately the 200’ level.
 
The Sub-AVAs
 
To date, there are six designated sub-AVAs in the Willamette Valley:  Dundee Hills, Yamhill-Carlton, Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge, Eola-Amity, and McMinnville.  Each sub-AVA has a unique combination of soil types and microclimates that can lead to very distinctive expressions of Pinot Noir.  We’ll take a closer look at three of the sub-AVAs that exemplify one of the three main soil types.  (Note: within each major category of soil there are many sub-classifications, but we’ll save that rabbit hole for another day.)
 
The Dundee Hills AVA is often thought to be the quintessential, classic Willamette Valley sub-AVA.  It is where the first vineyards were planted in 1965 and predominantly consists of a red volcanic clay soil called Jory that was deposited at the surface by huge fissures beginning around 15 million years ago.  The reddish tint is from high quantities of iron and clay.  The soil is relatively high in nutrients and retains moisture well, making it highly suitable for agriculture.  The minerality of the soil tends to yield a red-fruit profile in Pinot Noir, with aromas of strawberry, raspberry, and cherry.  There is also often a sweetly spicy note to wines from the Dundee Hills, like a hint of cardamom or cinnamon.
 
The Ribbon Ridge AVA is the smallest of the six in terms of land area, and its hillsides are a reminder that this land was once at the bottom of the ocean, where the wave action is still carved into the undulating landscape.  The major soil in this area is ancient marine sedimentary deposits, made up of fossilized sea creatures, shells, and coral all ground down into a fine, gritty powder.  The vines have to work a bit harder in this dirt, but that effort pays off with darker fruit aromas and flavors such as blueberry, black cherry, and dark chocolate, and cola.
 
The Chehalem Mountains AVA has a highly varied soil composition, but its northeastern-facing slopes are great places to find vineyards planted in windblown loess.  This soil is very fine and powdery, and erosion is a concern.  Wines grown in this soil often have a mixed berry profile with hints of licorice and cedar.
 
Thanks to the tumultuous geological history of the Willamette Valley, it is rare to find a vineyard that has only one type of soil.  Most bottlings of Pinot Noir come from vines planted in multiple categories and sub-classifications, leading to ever more complex flavor profiles.  Throw in the added variables of vine clones, rootstocks, site elevation, aspect, farming techniques, and winemaking decisions, and you have a near-infinite number of possible unique expressions.  The fun part is tasting through to find which one(s) appeal most to you.
 
 
Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willamette_Valley
http://www.winetouroregon.com/soil_types.html
https://www.oregonlive.com/foodday/index.ssf/2011/05/the_dirt_on_willamette_valley.html
http://willamettewines.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Soil-into-Wine-2014.pdf


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