The Ultimate Guide To Oregon Pinot Noir: A Guide For Wine Lovers
Do you have a passion for cooler climate varietals? Are you looking to combine the enjoyment of tasting luscious pinot noir with beautiful green countryside? Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine region is sure to accommodate your travel desires.
The Willamette Valley Wine Trail
“Many folks are already familiar with the famous wineries in the pinot noir producing triangle in Northern California and the Sonoma/Napa area,” says Michael Smith, who writes the blog and website for wine travel guide outfitter, Pinot Voyage. “However, many forget about the other wine producing regions of Northern California and Oregon.” “Since Willamette Valley, Oregon produces a large amount of pinot noir in its cool climate, it has become a well-known area to wine drinkers worldwide.” In fact, according to Wine Enthusiast magazine, “More people than ever are familiar with pinot noir” and that “in 2015, it was the fifth most popular wine grape grown in the US,” and “it was the most widely planted wine grape by area” growing in Oregon.
Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Regions
In my pursuit for the ultimate pinot noir travel itinerary, I visited several regions that had been created and earned recognition for their love and affection for pinot noir – not surprisingly, from the Willamette Valley itself! The Willamette Valley is a 150 mile long valley in Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, stretching from Portland in the north, to Eugene in the south. The Willamette River flows the entire length of the valley. The valley itself is synonymous with Oregon Wine Country and it currently has more than 19,000 acres of vineyards and over 500 wineries located throughout. Known for the number of tasting rooms and importer-approved options for craft pinot noir, the Willamette Valley is consistently considered one of the premier regions in the country for pinot noir. The region is divided into ten distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), each with their distinctively different microclimates producing interesting and distinct wine characteristics.
Oregon Pinot Noir Styles
Oregon pinot noir is well-known for a few things. The pinot noir grapes produce some of the best pinot noir wines in the world. They are grown primarily in the Willamette Valley and the Southern Oregon Coastal Range. When you look at the soil in these two regions, they are quite similar to Burgundy with a slight difference in elevation. In the Willamette Valley, the soil is a mix of clay and gravel and on the Southern Oregon Coast Range, it is dominated by granite. These varietals thrive in these valleys, and, like the soil, many have a varied terrain, which is not found elsewhere. These varietals include riesling, gewurztraminer, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and many more.
Willamette Valley Wineries
Make your first stop at Domaine Divio which has a beautiful tasting room with a wonderful fireplace and fabulous views overlooking the estate. The PDX Airport Oregon Welcome Center can often provide a card for a free wine tasting for two, otherwise wine tasting is $20 per flight. This fee is credited back towards the purchase of any two bottles, or waived with a wine club membership purchase.
Penner Ash took full advantage of the views when they built their winery. Their wines are nearly always in the 90+ point range with Wine Spectator. The tasting room location up in the hills is second only to the wine in the glass. Because of its popularity, the tasting bar is always very busy. It might be best to reserve ahead with many of their tasting experiences available to book online. You can take your glass and walk around the property to take in the stunning views. They are open every day from 11am-5pm. The tasting fee is $40 and includes 6 wines.
Newberg now has at least ten wineries (this number is constantly growing) within walking distance in the downtown area. If you’d rather not drive at all, this can be a good way to taste a lot without going anywhere. Just stop by these downtown tasting rooms.
A winery that you’ll find on all of the ‘best of’ lists for Oregon pinot noir has always been family-owned. The Bergstromtasting room is open every day from 10am-4pm. The fee is $50 to try 5 of their wines (credited towards the purchase of any four bottles), including pinot noir and Chardonnay made from the grapes of the estates vineyards that surround the tasting room. Definitely make sure you try the Bergstrom Vineyard Pinot Noir (Dundee Hills), the 2017 vintage rated a 93 by Wine Enthusiast.
Another not to miss winery to visit in the hills, complete with stunning view, is Erath Winery. In my opinion, if you could only go to one winery in Dundee, it should absolutely be here. Erath was one of the pioneers of Oregon’s wine industry. They have a stellar track record, too, as all of their single vineyard pinot noirs have consistently received 90+ ratings. The winery has a lovely tasting room that’s open from 11am-5pm every day. They also have a couple of outdoor tables overlooking the stunning hills where you can have a picnic lunch.
As we’ve already mentioned, there are dozens of wineries in Dundee that you can stop at and have a taste. You could easily spend a week in Dundee doing nothing but wine tasting. The best part is that there are a lot of tasting rooms in town, so you can actually park your car and just wander around on foot, which is always a good idea when there’s wine tasting involved.
If you want to try one of the best pinot noirs in the area, make sure you stop at Evening Land Vineyards, whose 2012 La Source Pinot Noir came in with a 98 rating in Wine Spectator’s 2015 list of the world’s top 100 wines. Their downtown Dundee tasting room is open daily from 10am to 5pm. With an advanced appointment, you can also take a guided tour of their historic Seven Springs estate, located 25 minutes from the tasting room in the Eola Amity Hills.
You’ll find a really nice, relaxing environment at The Four Graces, whose tasting room is located in a small white house just off the main road in Dundee. There is covered seating or picnic tables out by the trees. The wine selection is huge and they maintain a very high quality in their pinots, including the Doe Ridge Estate Pinot Noir, that you must taste. The 2015 vintage rates an 87 from Wine Enthusiast. The tasting fee is $25 for 5 wines.
As you’re driving (or walking) through Dundee, you’ll come upon the Dobbes Family Estate. They make really great pinot noir, along with several other varietals, including Chardonnay, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Syrah and fortified wine. It’s a friendly, welcoming place, open from 11am-6pm every day. The tasting fees begin at $20 and have several options.
Argyle is another important stop while touring Dundee. The tasting room is large and airy, and they offer a seated, leisurely tasting experience, unlike many of the more rushed experiences in the area. They are open from 11am-5pm daily and offer different tasting experiences at $30-$50 each. You can try their sparkling wines, or their pinot noirs, or a combination of all.
At this point in the tour, it’s a good opportunity to stop for lunch before heading out again. And, just outside of town, are wineries with views like Sokol Blosser, Archery Summit Winery and De Ponte, which are all fantastic wineries to visit.
As you head west towards McMinnville, Stoller Family Estate is definitely worth a stop. Both for its tasting room, but also for its wine country rental vacation homes. Tasting is open seven days a week, with a $20 tasting fee waived with the purchase of two bottles. Deli sandwiches, cheese and charcuterie boards, and á la carte items are available to purchase.
McMinnville is the next town you’ll come upon while driving down Highway 99 and is the next best area for wine tasting in Willamette Valley. In the downtown area, the place to be is on NE 3rd Street, where there are dozens of tasting rooms, restaurants and wine bars all within walking distance.
How to Get to the Willamette Valley
If you’re flying in, the nearest International airport is in Portland. From there, you’ll need to rent a car and drive east toward Hillsboro or south toward Newberg to begin your wine journey. The vast majority of wineries are located in and around the towns of Dundee and Newberg. We began our Willamette Valley itinerary above in the town of Newberg.
If you’re driving, it’s about a 3.5 hour drive from Seattle and about a 9 hour drive from San Francisco. Many people enjoy the drive along the Pacific Coast Highway that passes through really stunning scenery along the coast. There are several great coastal towns to spend the night.
Most of the wineries in Willamette Valley have tasting room hours from 10 or 11am to 5 or 6pm on the weekends and you can usually just walk in whenever you want, so there’s no need to plan ahead much. However, with COVID and the changing tasting landscape, it might be best to call or reserve ahead.
The winery locations are well-marked along the road, so all you really have to do is point your car in the right direction and be prepared to pull over when you see a sign. We like to take Route 99W and stop all along the way.
Where to Stay in the Willamette Valley
The best place to stay will depend on which sub-region of the area you’ll be exploring. We like to take 99W through Newberg and Dundee, so Newberg or Dundee are great places to base ourselves from. Both offering many overnight options as well as lively restaurant scenes and many walkable tasting rooms right in town.
On the high end is the Allison Inn & Spa, which is the area’s top spa resort in Newberg. There’s also a typical Best Western in Newberg. The Black Walnut Inn in Dundee is a small, comfortable Inn surrounded by vineyards, in the moderate price range.
Another popular area for wineries is Hillsboro and Forest Grove off Route 8 heading East. In Forest Grove you’ll find McMenamin’s Grand Lodge.
In Hillsboro, The Orenco is a comfortable and convenient place to stay, and for the budget-conscious, there’s a Holiday Inn Express, too.
In McMinnville, you’ll feel right at home at the 3rd Street Flats. Each room is decorated exquisitely with a different theme and below the apartments you’ll find dozens of cute shops, wineries, restaurants and cafes to keep you busy.
Where to Eat in the Willamette Valley
In Newberg, you don’t want to miss a chance to eat at The Painted Lady, where you’ll find some of the finest French cuisine in Oregon. Try the multi-course tasting menu with wine pairings. Recipe is another great choice for wine-country cuisine and a great local wine list. They even have their own herb garden. On the casual side, visit Storrs Smokehouse for some delicious BBQ in a relaxed setting.
The restaurant at the Allison Inn & Spa, JORY, features an open kitchen, bar, and lounge where guests can enjoy wines by the glass and creative cocktails, plus they have an extensive wine list to go with your meal.
We love Red Hills Market in Dundee for a quick lunch stop while wine tasting. You will find cheeses, charcuterie, craft beers and wine to pair with your seasonal and creative sandwiches and salads. Plus, you can dine in with wood-fried pizza if you aren’t planning to take your lunch to go.
Thistle in McMinnville is an award-winning restaurant on NE 3rd Street that utilizes local ingredients to make their menu.
There’s a surprising number of International restaurants that have great food. Try Nick’s Italian Cafe, La Rambla for Spanish cuisine or Pura Vida Cocina for Cuban.
When to Visit the Willamette Valley
If you are a wine lover, there is no better time the Willamette Valley wine country than crush. Depending on the weather each year, harvest typically starts in late September and runs through early November. You will see the vineyards full of crews picking the ripe fruit and truck beds filled with bins of the deep purple pinot noir grapes.
Summertime is idyllic too. June to August, the consistently warm weather allows Oregon’s outdoorsy culture to thrive. Flowers are in full bloom. Grapes begin to show off their colors and the wine road is a bursting with oenophiles from around the world.
Oregon’s infamous rains begin in November and usually continue on and off until summer returns. However, tasting rooms abound with warm fireplaces and intimate camaraderie to warm the heart and provide a more intimate tasting experience.
As you can see, there is a world of wine to explore in this region with experiences as vast as a sprawling French chateau or as intimate as sipping wine in a barn, you will find a wonderful selection of wineries and fine wines to bring home. To take your Willamette Valley wine adventures to the next level, take a few hours to plan your itinerary before you leave the house. Hopefully, you can take a few days to fully explore this important wine region.