Try pinot noir at these five vineyards and you'll agree that this grape and the Willamette Valley are a perfect pair.
In 1965 a college grad named David Lett came to Oregon's Willamette Valley, a 100-mile-long wedge of rolling farmland south of Portland, carrying grapevine cuttings and a belief that he could make wines as lovely as those of Burgundy, France. In 1979 a pinot noir made by Lett placed third at the Gault-Millau World Wine Olympics in Paris, a result so perplexing that in 1980 the French staged a rematch—in which Lett's wine came in second. His winery, Eyrie Vineyards (888-440-4970, eyrievineyards.com ), is now legendary, and pinot noir vines yield more than half the grapes grown in Oregon, mostly in the Willamette Valley.
"It'd be difficult to find a region in North America that makes better pinot noir," says Tom Danowski, executive director of the Oregon Wine Board. "Just as good, sure. But better? I don't think so." In the vinedraped areas near the towns of Newberg, Dundee, and McMinnville you can glide down country lanes to taste wines in gorgeous settings, with more than 300 wineries nestled amid 15,180 acres of vineyards. Here, arranged by subregion, are several more of the stars. For maps and hours, visit willamettewines.com .
High in an upland viticultural region just a half hour southwest of Portland, Ponzi Vineyards (503-628-1227, ponziwines.com ) maintains a spectacular, 4,500-square-foot tasting room with glass walls and bocce ball courts. Visitors idle in love seats next to a sleek, modern fireplace and search for hints of plum in glasses of deep-purple pinot as they gaze out toward the Coast Range to the west.
Although it lies within earshot of Route 99W, the 120-acre estate of Sokol Blosser Winery (503-864-2282, sokolblosser.com ) feels a world away. Its modern tasting room is an architectural splendor featuring walls of striated cedar, fir, and hickory; a wine library for tastings of past vintages; and a kitchen for sampling food-wine pairings. One standout offering with a distinct mineral flavor: Peach Tree, from a 2.6-acre block of vines right outside.
A 40-acre organic estate set among tidy farms, Brick House Vineyards (503-538-5136, brickhousewines.com ) makes pinots that taste more of flowers than fruit. Join an intimate tasting session in the 1931 barn that's now the winery, and you may detect the scent of lilacs in your glass.
Set within a U-shaped wine region spared flooding in the Ice Age, Anne Amie Vineyards (503-864-2991, anneamie.com ) grows grapes wildly different from those raised just 200 feet below. The tasting room faces west, making it a perfect spot to catch a sunset with a Prismé pinot noir blanc—a crisp, gold wine made by fermenting the grapes' pale juice apart from the ruddy skins.
For more wine-tasting adventures on the West Coast, read Zinfandel at 10 California Wineries .
Photography courtesy of Ponzi Vineyards/Polara Studios (vineyard)
This article was first published in November 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.