When most people think of wine regions in the United States, they usually picture somewhere in California. Areas like Napa Valley, Sonoma, and Paso Robles are practically synonymous with wine cultivation. But one award winning wine area that many enthusiasts have not heard of is Willamette Valley, Oregon.
The Williamette Valley is not the only good wine country in Oregon, but it is the most prominent, productive, and profitable. This of course begs the question: how are Willamette Valley wines unique to Oregon?
In summary, Willamette Valley’s strength comes from incredibly rich soil and a stable, cool climate perfect for wine grape cultivation, among other factors.
The Geography of Willamette Valley
Willamette Valley sits between the Columbia River in Portland and the Calapooya Mountains near the city of Eugene. In addition the county’s namesake, the Willamette River, runs through the valley and creates a fertile river basin filled with tributaries. This means that the entire valley is naturally irrigated by the Willamette, the Columbia, and their branching tributaries.
This excellent agricultural geography is in part created by the elevation of the region. Willamette Valley is flanked to the east by the Calapooya and Cascade Mountains with hills in the north. These high areas funnel water down through the Willamette Valley river basin to create their fertile, irrigated soil.
The elevated areas around Willamette Valley also provide from protection from the elements as they create an area of cool, damp climate to their west. They do this by blocking rain clouds coming from the Pacific, which create rain in the mountains which runs down to the ocean, creating the river valley.
Finally, Willamette Valley also benefits from having once been a volcanic region, since volcanic soil is rich in nutrients with excellent water drainage. The higher areas of the county, around 300 feet above sea level, are full of rich volcanic soil which, combined with the many rivers running through the valley, is perfect for sustaining crops.
The natural features of Willamette Valley such as its namesake river and its eastern mountains, combine to create an agricultural zone perfect for growing grapes. This is one of the factors that explains how Willamette Valley wines are unique to Oregon.
The Climate of Willamette Valley
Willamette Valley has an incredibly mild and consistent climate throughout most of the year, perfect for cultivation. These conditions are ideal for both warm and cool weather grapes, such as those used in Pinot Noir.
The summers in Willamette are warm and dry, seeing plenty of sunlight without becoming too hot to grow grapes. More sunlight also means a longer growing season, which means more grapes to produce wine in the long run.
Meanwhile, the winters in Willamette Valley are cool and wet, seeing most of the rain in the county with little to no snowfall each year. This winter rain is also important because this means the key growing seasons are dry, so crops are not overwatered or damaged by hard, cold rain.
During the growing season the long, warm days are capped off with short, cool nights, creating a natural, gradual change in temperature. These changes help grapes to develop without destroying their natural qualities like acidity, creating a more complex flavor.
This climate is balanced by the influence of wet, eastern winds from the Pacific Ocean being trapped by the mountain ranges to the north. Caught between these two forces, Willamette’s climate is kept remarkably stable and gentle year round.
Willamette Valley boasts an incredible climate, not only maintaining the right temperature for a wide range of grapes to thrive, but staying consistent and mild throughout the year. An excellent agricultural climate also explains how Willamette County wine is unique to Oregon.
The Vineyards and Wineries of Willamette Valley
Willamette Valley has the largest concentration of vineyards and wineries in Oregon due to its remarkable climate and geology. These facilities are scattered across the seven appellations in the valley, each of which has its own unique characteristics such as soil, temperature, and elevation.
These areas are dotted by hundreds of vineyards and wineries, most of which are located west of the Willamette River. They are often nestled into the slopes of the western hills or river valleys, which protect the facilities from winds coming off the Pacific Ocean while giving them easy river access for irrigation.
Many vineyards and wineries also exist at higher altitudes where the soil is richer and the cooler temperatures create more variety. On average most Willamette Valley vineyards and wineries sit a few hundred feet above sea level, with some mountain facilities can be over one thousand feet above sea level.
The ability to set vineyards and wineries in a number of different climates, while still being sheltered from the elements and irrigated, is another factor that makes Willamette Valley wines unique to Oregon.
The Wines of Willamette Valley
Willamette Valley is home to a wide assortment of high quality wines, but they are famous for their cold-climate, high altitude varieties. This include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay, with their Pinot Noir in particular being one of the region’s top wines.
In addition to these Willamette Valley boasts a wide array of different wines across its many climates and regions. They grow red, white, even sparkling wine in multiple flavors and forms, sometimes within the same vineyard or winery.
This massive variety does not reduce their attention to detail or quality, however, as Willamette Valley facilities pride themselves on an artisanal, small-case approach to wine making. Creating wine in smaller batches, the vintners of Willamette Valley can exert more control and care over their wine.
A combination of high quality and great wine grape diversity, stemming from their unique natural surroundings, is what truly makes Willamette Valley wines unique to Oregon.
Willamette Valley and its wine industry are unique to Oregon for a number of key reasons. These include their strong geography, rich soil, easy access to water, and stable climate, all of which contribute to an excellent grape growing region. Combined with their quality over quantity approach to wine making, and the wines of Willamette Valley are truly unique to Oregon