Traveling throughout the world, you quickly learn how protective the major wine-producing regions are of the fruits of their region. This is not just simple pride in workmanship; it’s a matter of economics. Wine producers have spent lifetimes perfecting the craft, and their efforts are protected by hundreds of appellation control systems that dictate where grapes can be grown, who can grow them, and what styles must be produced to use certain names on the label.
In France, that’s the Burgundy region; in Italy, regions like Chianti; and in Spain, it’s the Rioja region. To offset the problem of inferior wines damaging the reputation of the entire region, each wine-producing region observes strict rules for grape growing, harvesting, and production.
With a land mass comparable to continental Europe, it comes as some surprise that the USA did not have these types of appellations until fairly recently. In 1981, the Federal Government enacted legislation creating the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) system. These geographic boundaries are designed to delimit specific regions that meet a list of criteria and are then able to use the name on their wine labels. Very much in line with their European (and elsewhere) counterparts, the AVAs are designed to protect consumers from inferior products and help ensure that wines coming out of a particular AVA to meet consistently high standards. If you are interested in experiencing Oregon wine country and wondering which AVAs to explore, here’s our guide to help you plan your next Willamette Valley wine tour.
The twelve different wine AVAs within the Willamette Valley
A trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley wouldn’t be complete without tasting some of the most outstanding wine available from the different Willamette Valley AVAs. The different AVAs each have unique characteristics that create different aromas and flavors. The Willamette Valley itself is categorized as an AVA, and within this large wine region spanning from Portland south to Eugene, there are twelve smaller regions:
Van Duzer Corridor
Van Duzer Corridor
Famous for producing some of the world’s finest Pinot Noirs, the Willamette Valley is also home to an impressive range of white wines as well as a selection of excellent reds.
Whether you’re interested in exploring the different AVAs individually or taking a Willamette Valley tour that will take you to a selection of them in one day, it’s a good idea to know in advance what each AVA is known for, that way you can make the most of your visit to this sensational wine region.
A look at what makes each Willamette Valley AVA unique
With over 700 wineries, the Willamette Valley is a wine lover’s paradise Each Willamette Valley AVA has its own unique climate and soil, which contributes to the taste of the wine produced within that AVA. That means that your pinot noir from the Dundee Hills will have an entirely different flavor profile than if you were sampling a bottle from Chehalem Mountains.
Let’s look at what makes each Willamette Valley AVA unique:
Established in 2006, this AVA extends across a 70,000-acre area, of which 2,685 acres are dedicated to vineyards. What makes this region so unique is the terroir which includes basaltic, ocean sedimentary, and loess soils. When it comes to pinot noirs, those grown in the Chehalems will display earthier tones that showcase their unique providence. Tending to be richer and darker than wines from nearby areas, pinot noir from the Chehalems is excellent for aging.
It was here, that Willamette Valley wine pioneer David Lett planted the very first vines in the Willamette Valley back in 1966. Nowadays, nearly 2,220 acres of grapes are planted on its lush lands and there are about 100 vineyards within the region. Those living in Portland need only head southwest for 30 miles to find this paradise between two valleys, while the Pacific Coast is 40 miles away to the west – nestled securely by protection from mountain ranges. Since 2005, Dundee Hills has been an official AVA, and the region has become a go-to for wine growers who
Nestled within the Willamette Valley AVA, northwest of the state capitol of Salem, the Eola-Amity Hills AVA is full of character. The hills create a unique microclimate with the east-west running ridges diverting cool ocean from the Van Duzer Corridor. This helps to keep temperatures in check during the ripening season, giving wines from this region a boost of fresh acidity and well-structured complexity. Definitely an AVA worth exploring if you’re a fan of edgier Oregon pinot noirs.
The McMinnville AVA, established in 2005 and located just west of the town of McMinnville, is a cozy cool region nestled in the rolling hills of the Oregon Coast Range. Boasting 39,000 acres, This AVA’s soils mainly contain marine sedimentary loams and silts with alluvial deposits. The cool weather conditions produced by its proximity to the Van Duzer Corridor provide an inviting environment for producing bolder expressions of pinot noir. Wines originating from this AVA typically exhibit a spicy flair paired with an intense but rounder flavor.
Established on July 1, 2005, this 500-acre AVA is the smallest in Oregon, yet yields some of the most impressive wines around. The Willakenzie soil found in this AVA is comprised of volcanic soil that is also known as a marine sedimentary loam. These characteristics result in rich, complex wines that are noted for their dark cherry, earthy, and spice flavors. It’s no wonder that Ribbon Ridge wines boast some of the highest scores accredited by Wine Advocate; nearly 90% receiving 90 points or above in recent years!
Thanks to its setting near the Coast Range and soils of decomposed sandstone and siltstone, Yamhill-Carlton is an ideal place to grow pinot noir grapes. The region’s marine climate provides a nice breeze without too much wind, and since there isn’t much topsoil, it makes sure the grapes get right down to where they need to be. While pinot noirs from Yamhill-Carlton tend to be a bit more masculine in style – with deeper aromas of black fruit, mocha chocolate and tannins that linger – they also have lower acidity levels than those from other AVAs. Established in 2005, this is definitely one AVA that wine aficianados need to add to their list of places to tour.
Van Duzer Corridor
The Van Duzer Corridor AVA is the newest of the Willamette Valley’s AVAs, officially coming into being in 2019. It’s quite vast at 60,000 acres, but only 1,000 are planted. Thanks to its confines between hills and the ocean breezes that funnel through it and into the valley, this region is particularly cool — ideal for viticulture. As a result of these conditions, Pinot Noirs from here have an aromatic range of red fruits alongside eucalyptus notes; they tend to be fuller in color with bolder tannins throughout.
The Laurelwood District stands out among the other wine districts of the Willamette Valley, thanks to its unique soil series. Marked most prominently by its namesake soil type, the illustrious Laurelwood soil is composed of a 15-million-year-old basalt base, which is covered with a loess top layer. Perfect for viticulture, this soil — along with the region’s marine climate and adequate drainage that prevents fungal issues — makes the Laurelwood District a force to be reckoned with. Pinot noirs from here tend to have a much riper character than those from other AVAs in the Willamette Valley, with notes of black cherry, raspberry, and spice. With over 33,000 acres at its command, this area is sure to continue to prove itself as a superior site for growing exceptional wines for generations to come.
Lower Long Tom
In hindsight, it’s almost as if Nature knew that the Lower Long Tom Watershed was destined to become a remarkable winegrowing region. The west side of the watershed, in particular, provides some of the world’s best conditions for cultivating premium vinifera vineyards. With the soils formed from ancient marine sediments and clay-loams on top of sandstone bedrocks, the challenges provide growers with an unmatched opportunity to create powerful wines that uniquely reflect this breathtaking landscape. From this moment forward, it is up to passionate winemakers in the Lower Long Tom AVA to bring out these qualities in each bottle they craft – a true testament to the vision of this unique American Viticultural Area.
Mt. Pisgah, Polk County
Standing proudly over the wineries and vineyards of Polk County, Mount Pisgah stands as testament to the unique combination of conditions that help produce some of Oregon’s most exquisite wines. Formed an astounding 65 million years ago by a sea floor volcano and since covered with marine sediment and pushed up out of the ocean, this geological wonder grants its grape-growing beneficiaries with deep complexity in their shallow soils, ideal conditions for making and aging wine, and a delicious range of flavors to enjoy in each glass.
Tualatin Hills, a unique area known for its extraordinary soil, offers some of the best growing conditions in Oregon. With an elevation range from 200 to 1,000 feet and a rain shadow from the Coast Range providing slightly lower rainfall and cooler temperatures in springtime, Tualatin Hills contains the largest Laurelwood soil concentration in the state. This windblown volcanic soil mixed with basalt loess was deposited by the Missoula Floods 12,000 years ago and allows for temperate dryness during peak harvest season, producing grapes that are rich in character. Pinot noirs from the Tualatin Hills have a great balance between fruit and earth, with notes of raspberry and vanilla.
This is one of the smaller AVAs in the Willamette Valley and is located northwest of Dundee. The sedimentary soils and temperate climate make it an ideal place for Pinot Noir, and it’s known for producing wines with a distinctive spicy character.
Located to the west of Salem, the vineyards here benefit from the cooling afternoon breezes coming off the Pacific Ocean. The wines from this AVA are known for their bright acidity and deep fruit flavors, especially the Pinot Noirs.
Situated to the west of the town of McMinnville, the vineyards in this AVA are planted on both volcanic and marine sedimentary soils. This unique soil composition, combined with the region’s climate, results in bold, earthy Pinot Noirs.
Van Duzer Corridor
This is one of the newer AVAs in the Willamette Valley. Located west of Salem, it’s influenced heavily by coastal winds which provide a significant diurnal temperature shift, perfect for ripening grapes. This area is known for its Pinot Noirs with pronounced minerality.
Located just west of the city of Hillsboro, this AVA features a mix of volcanic and sedimentary soils. The wines from this region, particularly the Pinot Noirs, are known for their elegance and bright fruit flavors.
Tasting your way through the Willamette Valley
The world of pinot noir can seem daunting at first, with all its subtle variations and distinct AVAs. Yet to truly realize the scope of the possibilities for this fine variety, there is nothing more freeing than exploring all that it has to offer.
The Willamette Valley offers something for just about every wine lover, from the die-hard pinot noir fan to the connoisseur that appreciates variety. Alongside carefully crafted pinot noirs, you’ll find chardonnay and pinot gris in abundance, making it easy to sample the terroir of the lush region. Of course, there is also the opportunity to discover a lesser-known grape varietal like syrah, riesling, gamay, or pinot blanc – all of which thrive in this remarkable valley. A foray into Willamette’s vineyards can turn up some delightful surprises for even the most discerning drinker.
When you take some time to savor a bottle from each AVA and appreciate every nuance, you will discover that each region holds an exciting surprise in store.
A great Oregon wine tour
If you want to explore the beauty of Oregon while enjoying some incredible wine, then a wine tour in the Willamette Valley is definitely the way to go. For wine lovers, there is no better choice than traversing through this picturesque area and experiencing some truly exceptional wines. From small family-owned Willamette Valley wineries that offer intimate wine tastings and boutique tasting rooms to larger operations, there is something for everyone here. Plus, taking a wine tour does more than just give you access to delicious wine; it allows you to explore the history and culture of wine-making in Oregon as well!
Whether you want to learn more about the history of wine-making in Oregon or simply enjoy a leisurely day of wine tasting, at Wine History Tours we have the perfect tour for you.
Serious sippers and novices alike will find delight in Wine History Tours’ full day private tour to explore four of Oregon’s most iconic American Viticulture Areas. Very few experiences can top the sweeping vistas, gorgeous sunsets and picturesque vineyards that you’ll discover in Dundee Hills, Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton, and Chehalem Mountains. Willamette Valley tours offer an opportunity to observe the unique geography, terrain, soils and climate of each AVA as well as sample some of Oregon’s finest wines made by the most renowned winemakers that have played an important role in crafting Oregon’s winemaking history. We cannot wait to welcome you and share with you what we believe is the best wine tour of the Willamette Valley.