When we talk about wine regions, we see the big picture: Napa, Sonoma, Santa Ynez Valley, Willamette Valley, etc.
Each region is then broken up into AVAs (American Viticulture Areas). How each AVA is determined is based on a common set of attributes and microclimates that contribute to the uniqueness of the wines produced. As wine regions have evolved in the United States, new AVAs have been created.
It is not just about buying a wine from Napa, but is it from Howell Mountain AVA, Diamond Mountain AVA, Spring Mountain AVA or another AVA? What about Sonoma? What about the Santa Ynez Valley?
And what about the Willamette Valley? Do you know what the AVAs are within the Willamette Valley? Can you tell the difference between one AVA and another?
The Willamette Valley makes up only 1 percent of the wine made in the United States. Yet, Oregon is ranked fifth in production and third in number of wineries, the average winery producing 12,000 cases and the median size producing 4,000 cases.
The Willamette Valley is 150 miles long and 60 miles wide, covering 3,438,000 acres (5372 square miles) of which 23,524 are planted to vines. The region runs from Portland in the north to Eugene in the south and lies between the Coast Range to the west and the Cascade Range to the east.
The Willamette Valley makes up 70 percent of Oregon’s population. The soil origins are volcanic and today there is a layer cake of soils, with primarily marine sediment and volcanic loss.
With 80 percent of the planting to Pinot Noir, it is easy to think of the Willamette Valley as one large Pinot Noir producing region. This large Willamette Valley AVA was defined in 1983 yet there is not one particular style that represents this entire area.
Within the Willamette Valley, there are currently seven AVAs: Eola-Amity Hills, Yamhill-Carlton, McMinnville, Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge and Van Duzer. After spending a week in the Willamette Valley, I began to understand the nuances between one AVA and another, as well as some fun ways to remember the AVAs of the Willamette Valley.
—Dundee Hills AVA – An Upside-Down Fist
Dundee Hills became an official AVA in 2005 but was first planted in 1966 by David Lett. David arrived in 1965 to find a low-lying area of raw land to use as a vine nursery. He took cuttings, including many Alsatian varieties, from California. The Dundee Hills AVA encompasses 6,490 acres and is shaped like an upside-down fist.
Pinot Noir Style – The Pinot Noirs are typically very red fruit oriented, with bright acidity, spice and sandy tannins. The wines have a leaner frame and are modest in size and can be seen as long-distance runners that can go the distance in aging.
— McMinnville AVA – An Upside-Down Elephant
Also established in 2005, the McMinnville AVA is located west of the town of McMinnville. The 39,000 acres of the McMinnville AVA lie along the rolling Coast Range foothills where the soils are uplifted marine sedimentary loams and silts with alluvial overlays. The region is cool with wind and fog, due to its proximity to the Van Duzer Corridor. The McMinnville AVA is sort of shaped like an upside-down elephant.
Pinot Noir Style – The Pinot Noirs are spicy with more intensity. They are more musclier but also rounder. The tannins are compact and roll through the middle of the mouth
— Yamhill-Carlton AVA – An Upside-Down Horseshoe
Established in 2005, the Yamhill-Carlton AVA is north of McMinnville in the foothills of the Coast Range. The Coast Range establishes a rain shadow over the 60,000-acre region, which gets fog and nice breezes but is not directly hit by wind. The marine sedimentary soils of decomposed sandstone and siltstone are drier and there is generally more shallow topsoil. The Yamhill-Carlton AVA looks like an upside-down horseshoe.
Pinot Noir Style – In general, the Pinot Noirs have black fruit and mocha chocolate aromas. The have more apparent tannins that linger on the mid-palate. The wines are more masculine with lower acidity.
— Ribbon Ridge AVA – The Rear End of the Dinosaur
First planted in 1982, no one thought grapes could grow here. Very cold and windy with super sandy, porous marine sedimentary soils, it is a difficult growing area. The smallest AVA in the Willamette Valley at three miles wide, it was established in 2005, and today there are 500 acres planted. The Ribbon Ridge AVA is the rear end of the upside-down dinosaur, which is the Chehalem Mountains AVA.
Pinot Noir Style – Ribbon Ridge AVA does not have a particular style as the small region is so diverse with different soils, ecosystems, climates and elevations.
— Chehalem Mountains AVA – An Upside-Down Dinosaur
Established in 2006, the Chehalem Mountains AVA extends 20 miles in length and five miles in width and looks like an upside-down dinosaur who fell on his head and cannot get up because of his little arms. The tallest peak in the Willamette Valley is the Chehalem Mountains’ Bald Peak, sitting at more than 1,600 feet. Basaltic, ocean sedimentary and loess soils carried by the air can all be found in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, which encompasses 70,000 acres, 2,685 of which are planted.
Pinot Noir Style – The wines of the Chehalem Mountains AVA are richer, rounder, bigger and darker.
— Eola-Amity Hills AVA – An Upside-Down Seahorse
Adjacent to the Willamette River, the Eola-Amity Hills AVA was established in 2006 and looks like an upside-down seahorse. The shallow soils are primarily volcanic basalt combined with alluvial deposits. Sitting in the path of the Van Duzer Corridor, the wind flows through the AVA, resulting in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA being 10 degrees cooler at night than anywhere else in the valley.
Pinot Noir Style – The wines of the Eola-Amity Hills AVA have more elevated aromatics, floral notes and higher acidity.
— Van Duzer Corridor AVA – The Grilled Cheese Sandwich
The newest AVA in the Willamette Valley, the Van Duzer Corridor was established in 2019. The area, which looks like a grilled cheese sandwich with one corner cut off, covers 60,000 acres but only 1,000 acres are planted. This is the coolest area in the Willamette Valley as the ocean winds funnel through the corridor into the valley. This wind dries out the vines, reducing disease pressure and resulting in thicker grape skins.
Pinot Noir Style – With cooler winds that are more direct and more persistent, the Pinot Noirs embody a range of red fruit aromas as well as eucalyptus. The wines are more intense in color and have more tactile tannins.
While Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley is distinguishable from Pinot Noir from California, the more you drink, the more you will see the nuance each AVA offers. And hopefully the shapes will help to remember the AVA’s just a little bit easier.
Allison Levine is owner of Please The Palate, a marketing and event-planning agency. A freelance writer, she contributes to numerous publications while eating and drinking her way around the world. Allison is also the host of the wine podcast Wine Soundtrack USA. Contact her at email@example.com.