At the start of this year, I began reviewing Oregon wines for Wine Enthusiast magazine. (I had been covering Washington as a contributing editor since 2013.) I subsequently ended my tenure at the magazine in July.
While I have lived in the Northwest since 2000 and have been tasting Oregon wines both formally and informally during that time, tasting the state’s wines in a much more focused way the first half of the year left me with certain impressions. I will share them here.
I want to note that these impressions are drawn from a sample of about 600 recent releases. They might – or might not – have more general applicability beyond that. I always try to be cautious when speaking in generalities about wine because the devil – and beauty – often lies in the details.
With that caveat, I share here eight things I was struck by reviewing this group of wines from the state.
1. 2019 is an exceptionally high quality vintage for Willamette Valley specifically and Oregon more broadly.
The 2019 vintage, the current red releases for some Willamette Valley wineries and also the wines on the shelves at many retail shops, is a spectacular vintage for the appellation specifically and the state more generally. (Some wineries have moved on to their 2020s or 2021s.)
I wrote an article for Wine Enthusiast regarding Washington’s 2019 vintage, about how the warm summer and cool fall created wines that were very pretty but with no shortage of intensity. A similar climatic scenario played out in Oregon but played more strongly to the state’s offerings.
For Willamette Valley, 2019 is a classic vintage, one of the best of the last decade if not longer. While winemakers were proud of their 2018s, the 2019s are more akin to the wines that many winemakers want to make. They possess that magical quality that has made Willamette Valley wines famous: elegance, finesse, freshness, intensity, and detail. Appellations in Southern Oregon also reaped the bounties of the 2019 vintage.
Speaking generally, Willamette Valley has seen a number strong vintages of late, from the warm, riper-style 2012 and 2018 vintages to cool years like 2011. In part this is growers dialing in what they are doing in the vineyard to match the growing season. It is also no doubt in part global warming, which has edged the valley away from its ‘marginal climate’ status. One still sees stylistic swings in the appellation based on vintage. However, qualitative swings are considerably smaller than they were decades ago.
Bottom line, for lovers of Oregon wine, go deep on the 2019s. For those looking to explore why Willamette Valley has become so famous for its Pinot Noir, look no further than the 2019 vintage.
2. Willamette Valley Chardonnay is the most exciting thing happening right now in American wine.
Willamette Valley Chardonnay is having a moment. In fact, for much of the past series of years, I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that Willamette Valley Chardonnay is the most exciting thing happening right now in American wine.
Back in 2014, I attended what was then called the Oregon Chardonnay Symposium. (It has since been rebranded the Oregon Chardonnay Celebration.) I was astounded not just by the quality of the wines that I tasted but by how the wines truly had a voice.
At its best, Willamette Valley Chardonnay has tension, intensity, freshness, and an almost ethereal elegance. Styles can vary based on what the vintner is looking to achieve, but the unifying quality of these wines is a spine of acidity that gives them energy and verve.
My experiences tasting Willamette Valley Chardonnay for Wine Enthusiast only further solidified that impression. Valley vintners have worked for decades to get to where they are today with Chardonnay. These wines have absolutely arrived, and they are poised to make a big splash on the American wine scene as production and distribution expands.
Particularly those of you who might have been turned cold by Chardonnay from other places in America, I encourage you to seek these wines out. They are a reminder of why Chardonnay is the world class variety that it is.
3. Don’t sleep on Willamette Valley sparkling wines.
Traditional method sparkling wine in America can at times be problematic. Unless a winery is working at scale and using various mechanical methods, the wines are, by their very nature, quite costly to produce. As a result, many offerings from smaller producers can cost $50 and up.
This leads to a serious question for consumers. If you’re paying $50+ for a bottle of sparkling wine, why not just buy Champagne? Yes, regional pride is certainly one answer. Many locals will buy these wines because they love the winery. But that does not truly create a category. Rather, it creates a niche.
However, if the answer is the wines are extremely high quality and have a voice all their own, that is far more compelling. That is where Willamette Valley is going with its sparkling wines. The wines can have electric acidity, intensity of flavor, balance, and an overall profile that seems specific to the region.
There have been times this year when I reached for a sparkling wine from Willamette Valley rather than the bottle of Champagne next to it in the wine rack. This is not to say, of course, that Willamette Valley sparkling wines are necessarily better than Champagne – and it is certainly no affront to Champagne’s long and proud history making these wines at extremely high quality. It is, however, to say that, at their best, these wines can be as compelling.
Willamette Valley has been making sparkling wine for a very long time. Now an increasing number of producers are making these wines at a very high level of quality. Expect more and more people to notice. We should all raise a glass to that.
4. Plenty of other white wines from Willamette Valley offer excitement too.
Let’s face it. In many places around the planet, Pinot Gris can be an entirely forgettable variety. “Why is Pinot Gris so popular?” I once asked a winemaker who made Pinot Gris. “A lot of people want to drink wine that tastes like nothing,” he replied. If this seems like an indictment of the state of Pinot Gris, it is.
Willamette Valley Pinot Gris, however, has long been different in this regard. It’s made in a variety of styles, and the wines can bring seriousness and intensity. They can also be quite compelling. That remains unchanged.
But there are now an increasing number of other white varieties that I believe are starting to fully realize their promise. One of them is Riesling.
A small group of winemakers have long been crowing about the possibilities for the grape in Willamette Valley. I am here to tell you that the potential is starting to be fully realized.
I was struck by the number of the truly captivating Rieslings I tried from Willamette Valley. Other white varieties are showing increasing promise as well.
Underlying them all, from Chardonnay to Riesling to sparkling wines and beyond, is the acidic spine that stands whites from Willamette Valley straight up. This appellation has long been known for the excellence of its Pinot Noir, and it always will. But don’t sleep on Willamette Valley whites.
5. Southern Oregon has made great strides in the last decade.
When I first joined Wine Enthusiast in 2013, part of my beat the first two years was covering wines from Southern Oregon. In some respects, when tasting these wines, I was reminded of Washington wine in its earlier days.
Southern Oregon is radically different than appellations to the north. It is considerably warmer, and thus can grow a much wider assortment of varieties.
As a result, one’s first impression is the scattershot of varieties that are planted and farmed. This of course leads to difficulty determining what exactly Southern Oregon is and what it does best, because this is still being fully determined, not unlike in Washington. This is part of the fun but also part of the challenge for an emerging wine region.
While tasting wines for review nearly 10 years ago, there were always standout wineries from Southern Oregon that were making truly high-caliber wines. Some of the other wines I tasted at that time were of mixed quality. This is no knock on the area. Rather, this is what one sees from any young wine region as it establishes itself.
That made tasting current wines from Southern Oregon this year all the more delightful. The number of producers working at a high level has expanded. Many long-time producers have also upped their game.
Yes, there is still much work to be done, but this is a trend that will surely continue. The take home message: Southern Oregon is very much a region on the rise.
6. Many producers seem to be struggling how best to market sub-appellations while still leveraging Willamette Valley.
Willamette Valley has made a name for itself based on Pinot Noir, not just around the country but around the world. However, the supremacy of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir leads to an interesting dilemma.
On the one hand, the appellation carries a lot of cachet and awareness with consumers. On the other, area growers have rightfully spent time and energy carving up the parent appellation into more meaningful child appellations. How does one leverage consumer appetite for Willamette Valley Pinot Noir while still bringing awareness to emerging sub-appellations?
This seems to be a question that many vintners are struggling with at present. During my tastings, I was struck by the number of times I saw Willamette Valley on the front label and the sub-appellation on the back, or alternately on the front in tiny font.
This might appear sensible in one regard. People are seeking out Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, while most of the sub-appellations are still working to increase name recognition. However, putting the sub-appellation only on the back label also dooms the likelihood of creating greater consumer awareness.
How best to thread this needle? The answer, in my opinion, is a simple one.
It is to list both appellations on the front prominently, such as ‘Eola-Amity Hills Willamette Valley.’ This will allow wineries to leverage the brand name of one appellation while establishing the identity of another. This can be done, but takes a bit of a leap of faith that consumers will still see Willamette Valley and reach for the bottle.
Time will tell how producers finesse this problem. It is a good one to have and speaks to the success of Willamette Valley.
2020 was a challenging vintage for many U.S. wineries. First there was the pandemic, questions about how consumer behavior might be affected, and widespread supply chain problems. Then of course came the smoke along the west coast in the fall.
Wildfires inundated many growing regions with smoke for an extended period. More perilously, there were fires near some areas of Willamette Valley itself.
As a result, many winemakers decided not to pick their fruit in 2020 out of concerns about smoke impact. (Difficulties testing the fruit for smoke compounds due to overwhelmed laboratories only made decisions more difficult.) Others picked fruit and subsequently declassified some or all of the wine. Others still proceeded forward, at times trying techniques to reduce smoke impact with varying degrees of success.
Unfortunately, many of the 2020 red wines I tasted from Oregon during my time reviewing the wines for Wine Enthusiast showed some level of smoke impact. I also saw some impact on late ripening whites and some rosés.
Saying that, I must emphasize two things. First, individual sensitivity to smoke impact varies greatly. As many as 20% of people are unable to smell or taste these compounds at any level. The rest are on scale where there can be 200-fold differences in sensitivity. (Read more about smoke impact.)
Second, smoke impact is not binary. It is a continuum. Wines can show anything from very light impact that only the most sensitive people will notice up to wines a majority of people will find objectionable.
So it’s possible some will taste impacted wines and find them lovely. Others will not.
To be clear, there were no easy choices in 2020. Not making wine comes at an extraordinary financial cost, one that in some cases could be a death blow to the winery. Making wine that has smoke impact to varying degrees is also risky.
However, Willamette Valley plays in the big leagues now, with well-deserved, world-wide recognition for its wines. This hard won awareness also means that major missteps are done in a spotlight. This is the price of great success.
It remains to be seen whether the issues presented by some of the 2020 wines that were released cause long-term brand damage to individual wineries or to the industry more broadly. A worst case scenario for any wine region is that, if consumers see smoke in the air – even if it’s smoke that might not necessarily impact the wines – they turn away from the vintage because of bad previous experiences. If that happens, it will be very, very hard to un-ring that bell.
8. Reduction can be an issue at times with Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir is a notoriously sensitive grape in the vineyard and in the winery. As a result of the latter, wines are often made in a reductive style, where oxygen exposure is assiduously avoided.
One of the aspects that I was struck by in my tastings was the number of Pinot Noirs from various vintages that showed distracting reductive aromas when first opened. In some cases, these blew off quickly and were not much of an issue. In others, they persisted over hours or even days.
This provides an interesting challenge for the critic. Is this just a young wine, made in a reductive style and after a few years of bottle aging – which consumers should truly give it – will be fine? In fact, the reduction can potentially help the ageability of the wine. Or is it something that will linger and remain problematic? As a critic, I’ve seen this go both ways.
Yes, there are various things one can do to lessen reduction, such as aerating a wine or using the penny trick. However, both are not always 100% reliable at assessing whether the reduction might be a real issue with the wine. Moreover, many consumers are unaware of them.
While consumer (and winemaker) sensitivity to reduction varies greatly, it is always a risk to release wines that smell slightly or significantly untoward when someone immediately pops a bottle. How to make wine in reductive conditions without the wine itself smelling overly reduced initially is a question some of the state’s winemakers appear to need to address.