Wine of the Week: The wines of the Willamette Valley

WILLAMETTE VALLEY, Oregon — This state’s leading wine-producing region, the Willamette Valley, features more than 200 wineries spread out over six distinct appellations: Eola-Amity Hills, Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill Carlton.

This long, broad valley runs for more than 100 miles, from the Columbia River in the north and stopping just short of the town of Eugene in the south.

The coastal range west of the valley provides a natural barrier to the Pacific Ocean, while the Cascade range to the east locks in cool, moist air, providing a long, cool growing region where the wet winter and spring months are followed by warm summer days.

The cooling effect of the maritime influence drops nighttime temperatures during the summer, allowing the grapes to develop beautiful acidity. Many of the farmers in the valley liken the finicky climate to the famous pinot noir and chardonnay grape-growing region of Burgundy, France, where each harvest is unique.

But in the end, the wines are as distinctive as the vineyards they come from and the winemakers who produce them.

Evidently, Donna Morris and Bill Sweat knew that the same climate and soil composition that favors pinot noir also loves chardonnay. Their Winderlea Vineyards and Winery, nestled in the Dundee Hills area, takes full advantage of its location to produce the beautifully crafted 2014 Winderlea Estate Chardonnay. The judicious use of new French oak barrels (about 20 percent) produces a wine with scents of ripe apple and wet stone. Flavors of apple, pear and nectarine hit the front of the palate and are complemented on the bright, clean finish by citrusy notes of Meyer lemon and Key lime. $38

The motto at Domaine Drouhin Oregon is “French Soul, Oregon Soil,” and it’s very accurate. Famed Burgundy wine negotiant Robert Drouhin knew that there was something special going on in the Willamette Valley of Oregon long before many of his fellow French countrymen would understand.

In 1986, Robert’s daughter Véronique came to Oregon and worked the harvest with three families. That first impression was profound, and helped to form the bond between the Drouhins and some of the founding families of Oregon wine.

In 1987, Drouhin purchased land in the Dundee Hills and put Véronique in charge of winemaking while her brother, Philippe, took responsibility of the viticulture. Thirty years later, their Domain Drouhin Oregon (DDO) is making some of the finest Burgundian-styled wines in Oregon. The 2015 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Roserock Vineyard Chardonnay has a concentrated bouquet of buttered toast and toasty oak scents on the nose and lovely flavors of baked apple, ripe pear and white flowers on the expansive palate. Notes of vanilla add to the depth on the elegant and rich finish. $35

Location, location, location is important in Oregon, and the Zena Crown Vineyard in the Eola-Amity appellation has it in spades. Lynn Penner-Ash has been lucky enough to take some of the best grapes from this vineyard — blessed with both a consistently cool climate and well-drained volcanic soil — for her 2015 Penner-Ash Zena Crown Pinot Noir. The pretty bouquet sports scents of red cherry and bright red berry. Flavors of cherry, baking spices and clove feel silky smooth in the mouth. A hint of cocoa on the back of the palate really adds a delightful note to the beautiful, lush finish. $65

There are about 20 different winemakers who produce a wine using the pinot noir grapes that come from Dick and Deidra Shea’s 140-acre property in the Yamhill Carlton district. And while many of the wines are delicious, the wines produced by the Sheas themselves stand alone. The grapes used in the 2014 Shea Block 7 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir come from a coveted gently-sloping south-facing vineyard, and produce a wine that displays beautiful aromas of violets and cranberry. Earthy flavors of strawberry, orange peel and black cherry coat the palate. Spicy notes of pepper and wild cherry add complexity to the lush finish. $75

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