First planted here in 1966, Pinot Noir now occupies three-quarters of Willamette Valley’s vineyards. Among the laissez-faire American AVAs, it is essentially a mono-varietal region focused on the exposition of Pinot Noir.
Framed by the Cascade Mountains and the Coast Range, the Willamette Valley extends for 120 miles from the suburbs of Portland south to Eugene, but most of its marquee vineyards are assembled in a small arc of hillsides between Salem and Dundee. The Eola-Amity Hills AVA, one of six demarcated regions within the larger valley, is located west of Salem at the southern end of this crescent. Adjacent to the Van Duzer Corridor, a gap in the Coast Range that funnels cold Pacific wind inland, the Eola-Amity Hills are a savage terrain for winegrowing. The region’s name recalls Aeolus, god of wind, and the grapes here must defend against wind’s constant assault. Berry size remains small; skins are thick. It is the last region in the Willamette Valley to harvest, and the grapes ripen slowly, experiencing prolonged aromatic and phenolic development.
Proximity to the Pacific, rather than the extreme seasonal flux of the continental interior, allows the Willamette Valley to accumulate annual temperature and degree-day averages similar to those in Burgundy. Yet these summations are achieved differently—in the Willamette Valley, the growing season is longer and drier, with fewer summer heat spikes and only rare episodes of hail. In July and August, the Willamette Valley experiences only moderate heat, with temperatures seldom surpassing 90° F. But despite a longer, even growing season and the gift of summer sunshine, Willamette Valley’s winemakers, like those in the Côte d’Or, endure sleepless nights as fall weather approaches with its attendant fog, capricious rains, and the specter of frost threatening a year’s work. Adaptation, and a little luck, are key to navigating the valley’s climate and preserving its promise of lithe and luminous Pinot Noir.
Burgundy’s famed limestone is absent in Oregon. Here, the ground below was forged through seafloor upheaval, volcanic power, and catastrophic floods at the close of the last ice age. The Willamette Valley’s best Pinot Noir is grown on slopes of windblown loess, uplifted marine sediment, and reddish volcanic soils. Formed from weathered basalt and younger than the marine sedimentary layers underneath, the volcanic series are associated with some of the most classic examples of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Volcanic soils color the Dundee Hills red and characterize many of Eola-Amity Hills’ most important sites, including Zena Crown. The nutrient-poor, well-drained Jory series is the most abundant volcanic type throughout the valley, as well as the state’s official soil. Along with the shallower basaltic series Nekia and Witzel, Jory sculpts wines of lighter color and more expressive red fruit aromas—a stark contrast to the darker fruit flavors and heft conjured from marine-derived soil series elsewhere in Willamette Valley.
In the Eola-Amity Hills, our volcanic soils help maintain aromatic lift, our climate keeps acidity buoyant, and the punishing winds piping through the Van Duzer Corridor add an overcoat of structured tannin.