As the old saying goes, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." Well, on a recent business trip, the next best thing happened to me. I went to Portland, Ore., for work and fell in love -- again -- with the Willamette Valley.
The Willamette Valley is Oregon's leading wine producing region, featuring more than 200 wineries spread out over its six distinct appellations, including Eola-Amity Hills, Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill Carlton. This long, broad valley runs for more than 100 miles, from the Columbia River in the North and stopping just short of the town of Eugene in the South.
The Coast Range to the west of the Valley provides a natural barrier to the Pacific Ocean, while the Cascade Range to the East locks in cool moist air, providing a long, cool growing region where the wet winter and spring months are followed by warm summer days. The cooling effect of the maritime influence drops the nighttime temperatures during the summer, allowing the grapes to develop beautiful acidity. Many of the farmers in the valley liken the finicky climate to the famous pinot noir and chardonnay grape-growing region of Burgundy, France, where each harvest is unique. But in the end, the wines are as distinctive as the vineyards they come from and the winemakers who produce them.
Here are some of my current Willamette favorites; retail prices are approximate.
The same climate and soil composition that favors pinot noir also loves chardonnay. And the Winderlea Vineyards and Winery, nestled in the Dundee Hills district, takes full advantage of its location to produce the beautifully crafted 2011 Winderlea Chardonnay ($38). The judicious use of new French oak barrels (about 20 percent) produces a wine with scents of ripe apple and toasty oak. Flavors of apple and nectarine hit the front of the palate and are complimented on the bright, clean finish by citrusy notes of Meyer lemon and Key lime. QPR 9
Location, location, location is important in Oregon, so Josh Bergstrom decided to take some of the best grapes from vineyards sourced from separate districts throughout the Willamette Valley to make the 2011 Cumberland Reserve Pinot Noir ($42). The pretty bouquet sports scents of red cherry and bright red berry. Flavors of cherry, baking spices and clove feel silky smooth in the mouth. A hint of cocoa on the back of the palate really adds a delightful note to the beautiful, lush finish. According to Bergstrom, this wine captures the essence of what Oregon pinot noirs are so well known for. QPR 9
Lynn Penner-Ash moved from Washington, D.C., to California to pursue a degree in botany at the University of California, Davis, but was intrigued by grape-growing, so in her junior year she changed majors to viticulture. Shortly after working a harvest at Domaine Chandon, she was seduced by winemaking and switched her major to enology. Good thing, too, since her 2010 Penner-Ash Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir ($60) is stunning. Located in the Eola-Amity Hills district, the consistently cool climate and well-drained volcanic soils of the Zena Crown vineyard yield fruit that produces a wine with a distinctive nose of earthy cherry, rhubarb and candied ginger. Rich flavors of dark cherry, ripe strawberry and black tea are well-integrated with the fine, sweet tannins that flow through on the long, lush finish. QPR 9.5
About 20 different winemakers use the pinot noir grapes that come from Dick and Deirdre Shea's 140-acre property in the Yamhill Carlton district. And while many of their wines are delicious, the wines produced by the Shea's stand alone. The grapes used in the 2010 Block 7 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($56) come from a coveted, gently sloping, south-facing vineyard and produce a wine that displays beautiful aromas of violets and cranberry. Earthy flavors of strawberry, orange peel and black cherry coat the palate. Spicy notes of pepper and wild cherry add complexity to the lush finish. QPR 10
Note: QPR is a rating system that compares the quality a wine delivers relative to the price. A QPR of 10 is considered an excellent value.