Celebrated, renowned, exquisite. Oregon’s Willamette Valley is synonymous with glorious Pinot noir—not surprising given the optimal conditions in this storied stretch of land for growing the fickle grape. But those conditions weren’t immediately apparent to everyone. It took the knowledge, vision, courage and experimentation of pioneers like David Lett and Charles Coury to put the Willamette Valley on the winegrowing map. And that facile equation—Willamette equals Pinot—can obscure an important point: no grape variety is as reflective of climatic and site differences as Pinot noir, and small distances in the valley can yield wines of distinctively different character, each captivating in its own way. Add to that the fact that roughly 30% of the Valley’s grapes are now other white and red varieties that also thrive in the region, and you just begin to understand how remarkable—and remarkably prolific—this region is.
Total Area: 3,428,800 acres (1,387,600 ha)
Planted Area: 25,450 acres (10,300 ha)*
Predominant Soils: Marine sedimentary, volcanic, loess
Predominant Varieties: Pinot noir, Pinot gris, Chardonnay, Riesling
*Updated Feb. 2021
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The Willamette Valley runs from the Columbia River in Portland south through Salem to the Calapooya Mountains outside Eugene. It is 150 miles (240 km) long and up to 60 miles (97 km) wide making it Oregon’s largest AVA. The Willamette Valley has the largest concentration of wineries and vineyards in Oregon and includes six appellations within its borders: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton.
The Willamette Valley is protected by the Coast Range to the west, the Cascades to the east. Its namesake, the Willamette River, runs through its heart. The largest concentration of vineyards are located to the west of this river, on the leeward slopes of the Coast Range, or among the valleys created by the river’s tributaries.
The Willamette Valley floor is a former seabed that has been overlaid with nutrient-rich gravel, silt, rock and boulders brought by the formidable Missoula Floods from Montana and Washington during the Ice Age between 15,000 and 18,000 years ago. Missoula Flood soils are great for growing crops such as grass seed, hazelnuts and berries but are not ideal for grapegrowing. Therefore, most vineyards are planted above 200 feet (60 m) elevation on volcanic, marine sedimentary or wind-blown loess soil, which all contribute to good grapegrowing conditions.
Climate in this region is relatively mild throughout the year, with cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers. It is one of the coolest winegrowing regions in North America while enjoying extended daylight hours during the growing season. During this longer growing season, the Willamette Valley has warm days and cool nights, a diurnal temperature swing that allows the wine grapes to develop flavor and complexity while retaining their natural acidity. This temperate climate, combined with coastal marine influences, make the gentle growing conditions within the Valley ideal for cool climate grapes, including the Pinot noir for which the region is famous.
Vineyards planted in complex soils, influenced by a cool climate result in wines with pure expressions of terroir. Wines have fully developed fruit flavors that are balanced by bright acidity and freshness.
Modern winemaking in the Willamette Valley dates back more than 50 years with the genius of three UC Davis refugees who believed that Oregon was an ideal place to grow cool-climate varieties. Between 1965 and 1968, David Lett, Charles Coury and Dick Erath separately forged their way to the north Willamette Valley despite negative rumblings from their UC Davis cohorts who told them it was impossible to grow wine grapes in Oregon. Lett’s 1965 plantings were the first Pinot noir vines to be rooted in the Willamette Valley. They also planted small amounts of related varieties, including Pinot gris, Chardonnay and Riesling. These intrepid pioneers wholeheartedly believed that Oregon would one day become an important winegrowing region, and other believers were not far behind. Within the next decade, David and Ginny Adelsheim, Ron and Marjorie Vuylsteke, Dick and Nancy Ponzi, Joe and Pat Campbell, Bill and Susan Sokol Blosser and Myron Redford all planted vineyards in the Willamette Valley.
The Willamette Valley’s early pioneers worked in a collaborative spirit, sharing advice, humor and encouragement, as they began writing history by producing superior wines in Oregon. It wasn’t until David Lett entered his 1975 Reserve Pinot noir in the 1979 Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiad and placed in the top 10 in a blind tasting among the finest Burgundies that the world started to take notice of Oregon as a serious winemaking region. The Willamette Valley became an official AVA in 1983, and today it is recognized as one of the premier wine producing regions in the world.