As with any other major wine growing area, touring in the 9,000-square-mile Willamette Valley, Oregon’s largest American Viticultural Area (AVA), is best approached selectively and in small chunks.  In our misspent youth when tastings were free, we may have tried to jam seven or more tastings into a single day and discriminated based on what was next closest on the road.  We weren’t overly concerned about matching wine with food or suffering from palate fatigue (coherency and mobility were more of an issue for those who were averse to swirling, sniffing, sipping, spitting and dumping rather than swallowing everything everywhere). 

Based on experiences, good and bad, in tasting through the wine areas of the world, we committed to a semi-brilliant strategy for our recent Oregon Pinot Noir Trail Adventure: making appointments to visit three to four wineries a day, including some over lunch and dinner. The touring focused on learning more about some of the six sub-appellations: Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Yamhill-Carlton, Chehalem Mountains and the adjacent Ribbon Ridge (envision cruising around the different areas in Napa or Sonoma in California, or Tuscany, Burgundy, Bordeaux, New Zealand, wherever).  The leisurely pace gives expert staff (in some cases the winery owners and winemakers) more time to provide deep background on each operation and its approach to viticulture and winemaking (and often pour better wines!) and delve into the terroir and clones, as covered here previously.

The following covers two areas we visited and the highlights.

Dundee Hills  

The Dundee Hills AVA is about 28 miles southwest of Portland and 40 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.  It is where Oregon Pinot Noir pioneer David Lett first planted grapes in 1965 in what he named Eyrie Vineyard.  The AVA currently has some 25 wineries spread over 1,200 vineyard acres.  The AVA website notes that the Dundee Hills area is “effectively an island protected from great climatic variations by surrounding geographic features.”  It has less rain than other areas and because of the elevation has warmer nights and less frost and fog than on the adjacent valley floors. 

In talking with the winemakers and reviewing the literature on the area, I found high universal praise for the terroir – red volcanic Jory soils which were formed from ancient volcanic basalt and consist of silt, clay and loam soils.  The combination of the soil, the weather and the drainage plus choice of clones give winemakers the ingredients for making fine Pinot Noir known in good years for exhibiting a fruity, flowery, berry nose, with elegance on the palate.  We visited three wineries and found fine examples of what the AVA (and the winemakers!) could offer, including some exceptional values.  The following notes are on wines that we ranked in the top 15 to 20 percent of all we tasted.

Anderson Family Cellars Barrel Room


Anderson Family Vineyards

×          Anderson Family, 2007, Chardonnay, Dundee Hills, $24.  Sharp green gold in color; ripe grapes, light oak, butterscotch nose; mid-body; round, balanced, decent acids, long finish.

×          Anderson Family, 2008, Chardonnay, Dundee Hills, $24. Sharp green gold; bigger oak nose than the 2007; Burgundian style; mid-viscosity; round, ripe, long finish.

×          Anderson Family, 2008, Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, $28. Mid-dark; woody nose; tobacco, leather; balanced; soft; very drinkable (food-friendly).

×          Anderson Family, 2009, Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, $28. A hot vintage (alcohol is 14.4); dark garnet; bigger nose; stemmy, ripe grapes, peppery, berries; balanced on the palate; good tannins, fruity finish.

Domaine Drouhin

×          Domaine Drouhin, 2008, Pinot Noir, Laurene Cuvee (Oregon), $65. Bright varietal nose;, stemmy and woody, multi-level; balanced on the palate; lingering fruity, rich finish; good tannins; life left (17 months in wood, three years before release). Food friendly.

Domaine Serene

×          Domaine Serene, 2009, Pinot Noir, Jerusalem Hills, $85.  Mid-garnet; light, weedy, smoky nose, light oak;  elegant, refined; mid-body; balanced; soft but decent tannins; seemingly just starting to evolve into more complexity.

Chehalem Mountain and Ribbon Ridge

This AVA is 20 miles in length and 5 miles wide, with 31 wineries on 1,500 vineyard acres. The area was first planted in 1968 by Dick Erath, formerly of UC Davis.  The elevation goes from 200 to 1,633 feet, resulting in varied annual precipitation (37 inches at the lowest point and 60 inches at the highest) as well as the greatest variation in temperature within the Willamette Valley. These variations can result in three-week differences in the ripening of Pinot noir grapes.  The soils ar
e a combination of Columbia River basalt, ocean sedimentation, and wind-blown soil types.  The long, skinny AVA has several hill tops and ridges, some with fine views of the valley and beyond.  Our traveling band of Pinot Noir hunters visited three wineries in this AVA and had favorites with each.

Alloro Vineyards 

×          Alloro, 2010, Pinot Noir, Riservata, $45. Mid-dark garnet; cherries, pepper, wood on the nose; tight, bigger style (barrel aged 11 months, which is winery norm on reds); mix of new and neutral oak; long finish.

×          Alloro, 2010, Pinot Noir, Justina, $85. (Just 25 cases; single vineyard, three different clones – Pommard, Dijon 777, Dijon 114; 84% new and 16 neutral French oak; barrel aged 11 months)  Dark garnet; gamey, stemmy, berries, wood; mid-big body; deep fruit extract; a big wine that needs time.

Beaux Freres

×          Beaux Freres, 2009, Pinot Noir, Upper Terraces (Ribbon Ridge), $90. Mid-red; berry, wood, earth, stemmy nose; balanced; elegant for its youth; long velvety finish; long-lived.

×          Beaux Freres, 2009, Pinot Noir, Beaux Freres, $80. Light-mid red; light cherry nose, floral, earthy, good fruit; straightforward on the palate; balanced tannins; smooth finish.

J.K. Carriere 

×          J.K. Carriere, 2006, Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $50.  Mid garnet, amber edges from a little age; rich varietal nose, plus minerals, berries, wood (uses whole clusters);  mid-body; rich finish; fine food wine.

J.K. Carriere


Next: the Yamhill-Carlton and Eola-Amity Hills AVAs