The Willamette Valley: It’s All in the Dirt

When you talk west coast wines, many wine drinkers immediately start thinking of California and its various world-famous regions. Don’t get us wrong, there are certainly many world-class wines coming out of the Golden State, but if you’re a fan of Pinot Noir, the region you should really explore is California’s neighbor to the north: Oregon.

Through the miracle of modern technology, we were recently able to video chat with Jesse Lange, wine maker and general manager of one of Oregon’s premiere wineries, Lange Estate. With a wine glass in hand, his golden retriever and fellow wine-lover, Magnum at his feet, and the sun rising over the vines in the background, Jesse shared with us the story of how Oregon’s Willamette Valley became one of the world’s finest Pinot Noir regions.

The region’s terroir is mostly a recent development. Well, recent as far as geological development is concerned. Roughly 13,000 years ago at the very end of the last ice age, ice dams ruptured causing the waters of the Glacial Lake Missoula (a 3,000 square-mile lake covering much of modern-day Montana) to come rushing down the Columbia River towards the ocean flooding large parts of Washington state and what is now the Willamette Valley. Eventually, the ice dams would form again, and the lake would fill back up, only to have the dams break, again causing the same cataclysmic flood. Scientists believe this process occurred at least 25 times over a 2,000 year period, forever changing the region.

Prior to these floods, the Willamette Valley was made up of a fairly uniform, volcanic “Jory” soil as a result of massive tectonic shifts that occurred some 15 million years ago. After the floods, however, the region suddenly had two distinct soil types: the original volcanic Jory soil that was still the dominant type 300 feet above sea level and the new, sedimentary-based soil brought in from the various floods on the valley floor. This soil variety leads to the complexity and palate diversity that are the staples of the Willamette Valley wines. Uniquely, the valley floor is too fertile for grape growing. Grape growing begins at 200 feet about the floor as a result.

As far as wine regions goes, the Willamette Valley is fairly new to the game. When Don and Wendy Lange founded their winery in the Dundee Hills in 1987 there were only 36 wineries in the entire state of Oregon. Today there are 463 and over 20,000 acres under vine across the state but Lange Estate remains one of the very best wineries in the state.

Well-known for their consistent and complex wines, Lange Estates uses grapes from its own 60 acres of vineyards as well as additional fruit from 14 of the best vineyards in the surrounding area to give their wines a diverse palate.

Like most Willamette Valley wineries, Lange is probably best known for their Pinot Noirs made mostly from grapes grown in the volcanic Jory soil in the higher elevations of the region. They had a very good year in 2010 with their flagship Pinot Noir “Willamette Valley” being given a score of 91 by Wine Spectator and deemed a “Smart Buy” while their Pinot Noir “Reserve” was awarded a 90.

While the 2011 growing season might have gotten off to a slow start, it finished strong as the weather remained dry into early November. This allowed Lange to pick the last of their fruit on November 3 (picking grapes past October in the region is almost unheard of) causing the industry press to call it “the miracle vintage.” The 2011s are available now so be on the lookout so you can see what exactly a “miracle vintage” tastes like. 

For more information on Lange Estates:
Check out their website: langewinery.com 
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