The Willamette Valley AVA is Oregon’s largest wine-producing region. Amidst a growing concern about protecting the use of “Oregon” and “Willamette Valley” on wine labels, producers in the the region are looking to subdivide the Willamette Valley AVA in order to further distinguish its distinctive terroirs. Four groups have filed what are called perfected petitions for new AVAs with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Once the applications have passed through a public comment and review period—a process that typically takes one to two years—the new names can begin appearing on labels and in marketing materials.
Don’t expect the name “Willamette Valley” to disappear, though. Lynn Helmel, the beverage director at Portland’s Irving Street Kitchen, says that Oregon winemakers have indicated that a lot of people are talking about dual labeling—using both the sub-AVA name as well as Willamette Valley on the label. “The Willamette Valley is known nationally,” she points out. “But also, as they [market] their wines internationally, it’s helpful to have that [identifier] on the label.”
The new AVAs will enhance the marketability of the wine, says Dan Dusschee, the owner of Freedom Hill Vineyard in Dallas, which falls in the Mount Pisgah, Polk County, Oregon AVA. “It’s just an added arrow in the quiver to have for the future,” he says. “We’ll see more and more of these pop up. I think it’s about time, given the age of the industry.”
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning Daily Dispatch newsletter—delivered to your inbox every week.
SevenFifty Daily spoke with Oregon wine professionals to find out what buyers should expect from these prospective new AVAs. Not surprisingly, most of the wines coming out of this region will be Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, but grapes grown in the different areas offer delicious terroir-driven nuances that express the unique features of their respective subregions.
Mount Pisgah, Polk County, Oregon AVA
At 5,500 acres, the new Mount Pisgah, Polk County, Oregon AVA near Dallas will be among Oregon’s smallest. (The name helps distinguish Polk County’s Mount Pisgah from a peak with the same moniker in nearby Lane County.) “The area’s focused on a unique geological formation occurring only within the AVA,” says Dusschee. Under the soil is what’s known as Siletz River volcanics, which are the oldest rock formations in the valley. These older deposits have had more time to break down, which means the grapevines can more easily access their minerals. Dusschee says that’s evident in the wines, which he describes as deeper and more earthy than others from the Willamette Valley.
“We’re fortunate in that we’re kind of open to the valley floor in terms of air drainage,” he says, “so cool air is going down and warm air is coming up. We’re not warm like the Red Hills or Yamhill-Carlton, but we’re warmer than people thought we’d be 30 years ago.” Although the area produces mostly Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, Brad Ford, the winemaker at Illahe Vineyards in Dallas, has been experimenting with some more unusual varieties. “We have one of the biggest plantings of Grüner Veltliner in the state,” he says. He also works with Lagrein, Dolcetto, and other Italian grapes.
The proposed Laurelwood AVA covers the northern slopes of the Chehalem Mountains near the towns of Forest Grove, Scholls, and Sherwood. “What differentiates us from the rest of the Chehalem Mountains AVA is that the area is almost all [made up of] the Laurelwood soil group,” says Kevin Johnson, the owner of Dion Vineyard in Cornelius. “What we wanted to do was add some differentiation to the Chehalem Mountains by calling out the subset principally on soils.” During the Missoula Flood period some 10,000-plus years ago, this area was covered by what’s known as a Missoula Flood loess soil. The material blew in on the strong winds that were common during that era. Those deposits are rich in iron, which gives the soil a reddish color and contributes to the unique flavor of local wines.
Kevin’s father, Ron, and Luisa Ponzi, the winemaker at Ponzi Vineyards started talking about an AVA on the northern slopes 10 years ago. “Since that time, we’ve only grown in the conviction that it’s an area that’s a little different,” Kevin Johnson says. “What I notice when I’m tasting Pinot Noir in particular is that we get similar red fruit notes like a volcanic or Jory soil might get, but to use a musical reference, we get it an octave higher. There’s also some spiciness—typically white pepper.”
“The Laurelwood soil type will give wine more of a bright, spicy flavor when the vines are young but will take on more bass notes as the vines age, creating wines with [notes of] dark fruit, violet, and black tea,” says Helmel. The region’s rainy, cooler climate is also expected to produce Pinot Noir with darker fruit flavors and violet or lavender aromatics. Watch for Pinot Gris and Chardonnay from this area as well.
Lower Long Tom AVA
Located between Corvallis and Eugene, the Lower Long Tom AVA will be the southernmost appellation in the Willamette Valley. Most of the wineries in the Lower Long Tom are growing in shallow Bellpine soil, a marine sedimentary soil, so the vines have to work hard to gain enough water and nutrients. The area also runs up against Prairie Mountain, which shelters it from some rain and cold and gusty winds. “It helps us to ripen grapes a little earlier or have longer hang times,” says Dieter Boehm, the owner of High Pass Winery in Junction City. “That gives us more ripe flavors and great tannic structure.”
Nearly all the wineries here grow Pinot Noir, but the warmer temperatures and sheltered conditions have led some to experiment with grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. There is even some Pinot Meunier, and Helmel points to the James Rahn Rainsong Pinot Meunier, made with grapes from Rainsong Vineyard in Cheshire, as an excellent example of what people can expect from this region. “I think that varietal thrives there,” she says, “because [Pinot Meunier] can sometimes be a little thin in cool climates, but the [climatic conditions of this area] allow it to be more expressive and captivating.”
Tualatin Hills AVA
The Tualatin Hills AVA is a 144,000-acre area that aligns with the watershed of the Tualatin River near suburban Portland. “It’s kind of a horseshoe-shaped basin opening to the east and going up against the foothills of the coastal range in the very northwest corner of the valley,” says Rudy Marchesi, a partner at Montinore Estate in Forest Grove. This area has Laurelwood soil, but unlike the proposed neighboring Laurelwood AVA, it’s in a rain shadow and has slightly higher temperatures.
“I’ve talked with other growers, and everyone in the area agrees we have something unique going,” says Marchesi, who credits Alfredo Apolloni, the owner and winemaker at Apolloni Vineyards in Forest Grove, with jump-starting the application process, and Mike Kuenz, a managing partner and vineyard manager at David Hill Vineyards and Winery, also in Forest Grove, for helping complete it. “Our Pinot Noirs have much more berry, like blackberry and raspberry, [than other Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs] and a distinctive spicy quality to the finish.”
The Pinot Gris cultivated in this area tends to have the apple and pear flavors one expects from a Willamette Valley Pinot Gris, but with superimposed citrus, grassy, or herbal notes. Says Marchesi, “It’s almost as if someone blended in some Sauvignon Blanc.”
Buyers can expect to see all of these AVAs add new producers in the coming years. “The Tualatin Hills AVA is still a young region, like the Willamette Valley, and there are many sites still to be explored,” says Marchesi. “It’s a pretty exciting time to be here.” As new wineries come in, the current winnowing down of what makes these smaller wine-growing districts unique will help them—as well as legacy producers—stand out in the crowded Willamette Valley wine landscape.
Sophia McDonald is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and on websites, including Wine Enthusiast, Eating Well, Sip Northwest, and 1859 Oregon’s Magazine.