The region has come a long way in its relatively short half-century of winemaking pursuits.
The late winemaker David Lett is credited with first putting Oregon wine on the viticultural map, when he planted pinot noir in the Willamette Valley back in ’65 (establishing the still up-and-running Eyrie Vineyards). Today, the Willamette—stretching from Portland to Eugene—is home to over 550 wineries and harvests nearly 16,000 acres of pinot noir, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of the region’s total production.
But while pinot noir has led the charge for Oregon wines, the Willamette’s story doesn’t stop there: Recent years have drawn attention to the quality white wines being grown within its boundaries, too, especially chardonnay, riesling, and pinot gris. From pioneering producers to thrilling new projects, here are six wineries that help illuminate the Willamette Valley’s delicious spectrum of wines.
Elk Cove Vineyards
With just a trailer and a dream, wine pioneers Pat and Joe Campbell planted their first vines in the Willamette Valley back in 1974, when viticultural efforts in the region were sparse and less than a decade old. Their son, Adam, has since taken the reins on running the family estate in Gaston, which today unfolds in the midst of a thriving wine community, in no small part due to his parents’ early efforts. Elk Cove vinifies several different grape varieties, including pinot blanc, pinot gris, riesling, and chardonnay, but pinot noirs remain its benchmark production. Guests at the winery can enjoy a flight at the tasting bar, as well as a picnic overlooking the sprawling grounds.
What to Drink: Pick up a bottle of the Mount Richmond pinot noir, a wine that charms with its brambly blackberry flavors and dried floral aromas.
Bethel Heights Vineyard
Founded primarily by a group of academics in 1977, with 14 acres of vineyards, Bethel Heights was another early developer of the Willamette Valley that remains at the top of its game. It has increased its operations fivefold since those early days, rooted mainly to pinot noir and chardonnay. Visitors to its vineyard in Salem can explore the grounds via guided walking tours and stick around for tastings, too.
What to Drink: Make sure to taste the Casteel pinot noir and Casteel chardonnay, both barrel selections of top lots from each vintage. The pinot features generous breadth and Christmas spices, while the chardonnay offers a mid-weight expression with palate-coating brioche and lemon cream flavors.
The Burgundy region of France is pinot noir’s ancestral home, where the grape variety has been meticulously cultivated for millennia by monks, dukes, and some of the most iconic domaines in the wine world. In recent decades, Burgundy producers have looked to invest in overseas projects, with several settling on the Willamette Valley. Nicolas-Jay is a more recent addition to that story, with its first vintage debuting in 2014. The Dundee-based winery is a collaboration between Burgundy luminary Jean-Nicolas Méo, winemaker and proprietor at Domaine Méo-Camuzet, and U.S. music executive Jay Boberg, who both lend their name to the label. Their efforts have overtaken the former Bishop Creek Vineyard, where winery visits for intimate, guided tasting sessions are available by appointment only.
What to Drink: Sip reputable wines like Momtazi pinot noir, a structured, cellarable wine with broodingly dark, earthen berry flavors adhering to Méo’s style in France.
Lingua Franca is another newcomer to the Willamette wine scene, founded in 2012 in Salem by master sommelier Larry Stone and attorney David Honig. After acquiring their home base at LSV Vineyard—a 66-acre stretch of land in the Eola-Amity Hills—they hired Thomas Savre to make the wines and Burgundy legend Dominique Lafon to consult. The fruits of their labor are already paying off, with Lingua Franca proving to be one of the Willamette’s most exciting new players in its early sets of wines. Guests can reserve an appointment in its swanky tent outpost (think winetasting meets glamping) for daily communal tastings held at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m.
What to Drink: Try the Estate pinot noir, a lithe, yet structured wine with a stony, medicinal character. And pay attention to its chardonnays (Lafon is a master of this grape), too, especially the Bunker Hill bottling, with a tactile, chalky orchard fruit concentration and briny lift that’s reminiscent of white burgundy.
At Brooks, the specialty is riesling, where it turns out 23 types of this classic German grape, running the gamut from bone dry to dessert sweet. As with pinot noir, riesling enjoys a cooler climate, and the varieties similarly claim the ability to communicate the slight nuances of the vineyards in which they are born.
Winemaker Jimi Brooks, who implemented biodynamic farming on his 1998-founded Eola-Amity Hills estate, tragically passed away before the 2004 harvest, leaving the winery to his son Pascal, who was only eight at the time and suddenly America’s youngest vintner. Pascal and his aunt, Janie Brooks Heuck, continue Jimi’s legacy today, propelling riesling to become one of the most successful white grapes in Oregon. Visitors to the Amity-based winery are presented with several tasting options, such as a small bites and library wine pairing, as well as complimentary guided tours of the cellar.
What to Drink: Look out for the Orchard Fold Vineyard riesling, a vibrant, off-dry expression of the grape with white rose aromas and laser-sharp precision in its peach and green apple skin flavors.
Tony Soter began his winemaking career in the Napa Valley, consulting at such renowned cabernet estates as Araujo, Dalla Valle, and Spottswoode. He cut his teeth with the burgundian grapes in the early ’80s, when he founded Etude in Carneros, a subregion set at the southern end of both Napa and Sonoma that’s celebrated for its pinot noirs and chardonnays. After selling Etude in 2001, he moved north to grow wines in Oregon, where the Soter family today farms 32 acres of vineyard off their sprawling 240-acre Mineral Springs Ranch in Yamhill-Carlton.
Staunch proponents of sustainable viticulture, Soter Vineyards employs biodynamic farming practices across the estate. Winery visitors can sample a flight of the latest releases or to partake in the winery’s signature food-and-wine pairing experience, featuring fresh produce and meats that are also cultivated right on the grounds.
What to Drink: Its Mineral Springs Ranch pinot noir serves as the flagship bottling, a juicy, boisterous wine that drips with kirsch and cola tones. Also seek out the excellent sparkling wines, some of the best in Oregon, like the charmingly floral Brut rosé.