The Terroir of Oregon Pinot Noir

It’s no secret that Oregon, and specifically the Willamette Valley, is great terroir for growing Pinot Noir, but the reason behind that may come as a surprise.

Willamette Valley has been home to arguably the best domestically produced Pinot Noirs since growers started planting vines there in the late 1960s– most notably David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards. Stretching from Portland south to Eugene, the region covers roughly 150 miles and encompasses several recognized sub-AVAs (American Viticultural Area), from the renowned red-soiled Dundee Hills to McMinville.

A bit inland from the coast, the valley is bordered on the west by the Coastal mountain range and to the east by the Cascade mountain range, creating a continental climate not entirely unlike that of Burgundy– Pinot Noir’s home. Add to this a southern flowing ocean breeze created by the Van Duzer Corridor, bringing with it cool water temperatures from the Alaskan coast, and you begin to get the picture of why the region is so perfect for Pinot.

This paints a picture of the region as it is today– at least on the surface. Underneath is a mixture of volcanic soil and ocean sediment rich in siltstone and sandstone. If the idea of the valley being covered in volcanic lava comes as a surprise, this goes back hundreds of millions of years. About 200 million years ago, if you split Oregon on a diagonal from the southwest to the northeast, the half of the state falling in the northwest portion of that divide didn’t exist; nor did Washington. At where Oregon and Washington currently meet Idaho, there was a ring of incredibly active volcanoes, which resulted in lava flowing across the ocean floor, hardening, and eventually coming to the surface and forming a layer of basalt as that part of the continent was created thanks to the San Andreas fault.

As a rule, it’s common to find pockets of land that are either mostly volcanic soil or mostly maritime soil, and as, such, those can typically be categorized in the following ways: a site with volcanic soil, such as the Eola-Amity Hills, is more likely to be fruit forward and fresh, while a site with maritime soil, like the Dundee Hills, is more likely to be floral and spicy.

We have some shining examples of each, such as the Cristom, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir “Mt. Jefferson Cuvee”, 2013 (volcanic) and the Eyrie Vineyard, Pinot Noir “Original Vines” Dundee Hills, 2013.

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