Posted by: David Stewart | December 4, 2014

Get out of your rut!

Anyone who lives in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area should consider themselves to be blessed to live within close driving distance of a truly world-class winegrowing region: The Willamette Valley. And unlike the Napa / Sonoma region to the south, nearly all of those winegrowers are small-time artisans who take pleasure to show you their products personally.

Some of the best-quality Willamette wines are grown on the red-soil hills around the little town of Dundee. There, you find early Oregon wine pioneers (Sokol Blosser), high-volume producers (Erath). Burgundians (Domaine Drouhin), rare cult wines (J Thomas) and ultra-premium wines (Domaine Serene). 

As a result of its high quality and its close proximity to Portland (about 45 minutes drive time), Dundee ends up being the default go-to for wine tasters from Portland. I’d like to challenge you to drive an extra half hour and branch out. The result is often lower prices while still having terrific quality.

One way to hunt down a new region is by its AVA. The American Viticultural Area is an official government designation of a geographic region which shares similar geography, soils and climate. Wines marked with “Willamette Valley” must have at least 85% of its grapes grown from within that imaginary AVA line.

The best known Oregon AVA is Willamette Valley, about 150 miles long. But within this AVA are a group of designated sub-AVAs. The Dundee Hills AVA is the one around the village of Dundee. 

A really great branch-out trip would be to visit the McMinnville AVA wineries. This is a reasonably contained area with some amazing places to taste wine. And best of all, most of the places are arranged along Highway 18 between the college town of McMinnville and Sheridan. Here are a few places to check out:

  • Maysara  – The story of the Momtazi family’s departure from Iran and eventual arrival in Oregon to start up a world class vineyard and winery is the stuff of legends. Maysara sells their grapes from their biodynamically farmed Momtazi vineyard to a number of other winemakers. They also make their own wine in a wonderful new winery building made from mostly repurposed materials from their property. If you visit for wine tasting, you will likely be served by a member of the family or a close friend. Their Maysara Jamsheed Pinot Noir is an excellent value.
  • J Wrigley – They are a little harder to find than the other winegrowers in this list but they are well worth the hunt. Stashed in the back of a massive Christmas tree farm at a top of a hill with killer views is this simple, family run operation. I love their J Wrigley Pinot Noir MAC Cuvee for quality and value. Check out the J. Wrigley jams as well.
  • Yamhill Valley Vineyards  – Closer to highway 18 is Denis Burger’s pioneering operation. The name of the vineyard is a bit odd, given they are not located in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. But since their first vintage was in 1983, I suspect that their name dates back to a time before the AVA’s were established in Oregon. The Estate and Reserve Pinot Noirs are terrific wines at a killer price.
  • Coeur de Terre – Hidden away in a hollow off the main road is Scott’s marvelous tasting room and winery operation. My tasting notes of the 2010 Estate Pinot Noir includes the words “Wow!” and “Forest floor and cedar nose” with great structure for aging.
  • Youngberg Hill – Since fine wine grapes grow best on hillsides, savvy winemakers will put their tasting rooms at the top of a hill to take advantage of whatever view they have. At Youngberg Hill, they have taken the next logical step and built a gorgeous bed and breakfast at the winery. If you like a little more intensity and structure to your red wines than is typical with Pinot Noir, they make a nice Syrah here. Wayne Bailey is the grower and winemaker.
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