One of the most enjoyable wine regions in the Northwest to visit is the northern Willamette Valley.
While enjoying Pinot Noir will help in the heart of Oregon wine country, it isn't required. Plenty of wineries not only make such white wines as Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but some also bring in warm-climate grapes from Southern Oregon, including Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
The northern Willamette Valley is less than an hour's drive from downtown Portland, and it combines tranquil vineyards and tree-lined countryside with enjoyable small towns. It is a fantastic touring experience, thanks to more than 100 wineries and at least 15 B&Bs.
Use the towns of Carlton, Dundee, McMinnville or Newberg as the base for your visit. Carlton in particular has emerged as the wine capital of Oregon. The small town is home to more than two dozen wineries and tasting rooms, including venerable Ken Wright Cellars. The influx of wineries has drawn a number of restaurants and other tourism-related businesses.
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The northern Willamette Valley can be broken into six distinct regions, all of which have been approved American Viticultural Areas for a half-decade. They include the Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, Chehalem Mountains, Yamhill-Carlton, McMinnville and Ribbon Ridge. The latter, at 3,350 acres, is the smallest appellation in the Northwest. All the AVAs are within a few miles of each other, but you can easily spend a day in each.
While planning your visit to the northern Willamette Valley, here are a few examples of great wines from the region.
Amity Vineyards 2009 Crannell Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $35: Here is a fruit-forward Pinot Noir that opens with whiffs of dark strawberry, boysenberry, black cherry and smoky milk chocolate. A sip makes for a smooth drink of black cherry that evolves into cherry pie flavors with lingering lip-smacking blueberry acidity and a late showing of blueberry skin tannin. Enjoy with a pork loin prepared with LaBarge Gourmet Spice's Rib Rub.
Carlton Hill Wine Co. 2009 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton District, $50: This wine opens with aromas of black currant candy, elderberries, blueberries and vanilla. On the palate, it reveals flavors of currants, black cherries, blackberries and chocolate orange sticks.
Luminous Hills 2010 Estate Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton District, $28: This remarkable Pinot Noir opens with aromas of saddle leather, a whisper of smoke, mint, mocha, tobacco leaves and dried blackberries, followed by flavors of black olives, dark chocolate, black raspberries, elderberries and a nice cigar. It's a mouth-filling wine backed with bright acidity and moderate tannins.
Raptor Ridge Winery 2011 Pinot Gris, Oregon, $18: This remarkable wine hints at Squirt soda and Granny Smith apple with just a whiff of toasted wheat bread. On the palate, it's loaded with apricot, apple, mouthwatering lemon and gooseberry. Enjoy with a plate of oysters.
Redman Wines 2010 Redman Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir, Ribbon Ridge, $35: Inviting aromas of strawberry/rhubarb jam, raspberry, cherry and milk chocolate are realized inside. Supporting flavors of fresh fig and cranberry tie the structure together in a pleasing fashion.
Seven of Hearts 2010 Coupe's Cuvée Pinot Noir Dessert Wine, Willamette Valley, $21: This fortified dessert wine leads with aromas of raspberry fruit leather, woodruff, fresh mint and cigar leaf. Flavors turn slightly toward strawberry fruit leather, backed by Red Hots candy. It offers pleasing sweetness at 6 percent residual sugar, which is balanced by good acidity.
Stoller Vineyards 2009 SV Estate Chardonnay, Dundee Hills, $28: This speaks of Chardonnay right off the bat with aromas of butterscotch and brioche intertwined with Asian pear, lemon and honeycomb. On the palate, it plays both ends of the spectrum nicely with flavors of pineapple and Granny Smith apple, leading into zingy lemony acidity and grapefruit peel on the midpalate. Hints of hominy, butterscotch and lime hang in the finish.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.