Willamette Valley AVAs
Oregon started wine production in the 1840s, but the modern wine industry didn’t really begin to take off until the 1960s. Currently, Oregon is the 4th largest producer of wine in the USA and possesses 19 officially recognized wine-growing regions called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Each AVA region in Oregon features a unique geographical location, climate, soil, and/or topography. The largest and most famous AVA in Oregon is the Willamette Valley AVA. In 2002, a large portion of Willamette Valley AVA’s northern part was divided into six specific sub-AVAs. Subsequently, five more AVAs were introduced and approved in more recent years.
Here is a guide to the AVAs of the Willamette Valley:
The Willamette Valley AVA, 1984
The Willamette Valley AVA is located on the drainage basin of the Willamette River, laying its course through the Columbia River to Salem to the Calapooya Mountains near Eugene. Its climate is temperate at best, offering warm summers and wet winters. The soil is a gift from the Missoula floods, full of rich debris and matters from thousands of years ago. The Willamette topography is nearly perfect with the Cascade Mountains protecting the region in the east, the Coast Range to the west, and the hills to the north.
About 50 years ago, three UC Davis students, David Lett, Charles Coury, and Dick Erath, believed that the Willamette Valley was the best place to cultivate cool-climate grape varieties.
They followed their hunch and went against the advice of their college peers, who told them that it was next to impossible to cultivate wine grapes in Oregon. Unhindered, the trio separately found their way to the North Willamette Valley between 1965 and 1968 and planted vineyards.
Did You Know: Willamette Valley possesses eleven unique AVAs or wine regions within its own borders.
Today the region grows some of the world’s finest grapes varieties, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris. Although some Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Blanc, Melon, Muscat, Gamay, Reisling, Sauvignon Blanc, and a host of other grape varieties are also grown here.
Dundee Hills AVA, 2005
The first grapes of Willamette Valley were planted in the Dundee Hills region. The area was declared an AVA in 2005 and spans over 12,605 acres. The Coastal Range shields the AVA from debilitating climatic variations.
Specifically, the Dundee Hills AVA is rich in red volcanic soils called Jory soils, which stem from volcanic basalt. Due to its wine-producing climate, rich soils, and quality topography, the AVA grows some exquisite wine varieties, including Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay.
McMinnville AVA, 2005
The McMinnville AVA, established in 2005, is comprised of 39,045 acres of grape-producing land. The entire region is perfect for grape production due to its regular rainfall, high elevation, and ancient, rich soils. The soils in McMinnville consist of sedimentary loam, silt, and clay loam, underlined by basalt.
The distinct foothills shield the AVA from prevalent cold winds during spring and fall. Globally renowned varietals grown in the area include Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Gris.
Yamhill-Carlton AVA, 2005
Yamhill-Carlton AVA established in 2005, spans over 59,000 acres, and is located 35 miles south of Portland and 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. It is protected by the Chehalem Mountains and the Dundee Hills. The AVA has a mild to moderate climate that makes it the ideal choice for wine grape cultivation.
The soil on Yamhill-Carlton is a coarse blend of old marine sedimentary soils, sandstone, and siltstone. The AVA is home to many different wine varieties, the most popular being Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris.
Ribbon Ridge AVA, 2005
The Ribbon Ridge AVA is located 22 miles south of Portland and is comprised of 3,496 acres. It was added to the AVA list in 2005. Geographical elements flank and protect the area from the north, south, and west. Due to its soil similarity, it can be considered a geographical extension of the Chehalem Mountains.
The soils on Ribbon Ridge are finer, younger, and more proportioned than those from other regions. Grape cultivation at the ridge between Newberg and Gaston began in Ribbon Ridge in 1980. Harry Peterson-Nerd was the first to plant grapes on his Ridgecrest Vineyards. Currently, wine varieties grown in Robbin Ridge AVA include Chardonnay, Gamay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir.
Chehalem Mountains AVA, 2006
Chehalem Mountains AVA possesses 62,187 acres suitable for grapes cultivation. The area is located on an uplifted landmass southwest of Portland that stretches 32 km in length and 11 km in width.
In 1968, Dick Erath was the first to plant wine grapes in the Chehalem Mountains area. The most popular grape varieties include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and Gamay.
Eola-Amity Hills AVA, 2006
The Eola-Amity Hills AVA, created in 2006, covers an area of 39,045 acres. The stone-shaped AVA is 25 km long and around 10 km with extreme weather conditions, i.e., cold winters and warm summers. The soil consists of volcanic basalt derived from ancient lava streams and marine sedimentary rocks.
The Eola Hills and Northern Amity Hills belong to a series of hills that stemmed from severe volcanic eruptions and the breakdown of the Pacific and North-American plates. The most popular grape varieties include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gamay.
Van Duzer Corridor AVA, 2019
The Van Duzer Corridor is located west of the Eola-Amity Hills and consists of around 60,000 acres. Situated on the Coastal Range, the topography allows ocean winds into the valley. In contrast to the other Willamette Valley AVAs, the Van Duzer Corridor is unusually cool in the afternoons.
The breeze dehydrates the Vine canopy and minimizes fungus pressure, making the land ideal for grape cultivation and suitable for organic practices (as there’s no need for fungus sprays). Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Chardonnay are the predominant wines in this area.
Tualatin Hills AVA, 2020
Recently established in 2020, Tualatin Hills, is spread over 144,000 acres and nestled in the northwestern-most corner of the Willamette Valley. It is considered to be the home first commercial vineyard in Oregon. The Tualatin hills have distinct soil and climate.
It harbors the largest quantity of Laurelwood soil, a mix of volcanic soil and basalt deposited by the Missoula Floods. With an elevation range between 200 and 1000 feet, the AVA enjoys protection from the Coast Range’s rain shadow. The area has a remarkable collection of wine mostly made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay.
Laurelwood District AVA, 2020
The Laurelwood AVA, established in 2020, is around 33,600 acres. The AVA was officially approved in June 2020. It is tucked within the Chehalem Mountains with over 70 vineyards and 25 wineries. Soil analysis of the land shows that it is comprised of Laurelwood soil.
Standing at 1,633 feet, the AVA has the highest elevation in Willamette Valley. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Gris are the predominant wines in the Laurelwood District AVA.
Lower Long Tom AVA, 2021
As the name implies, this AVA, consisting of 25,000 acres, is located on the west side of the Lower Long Tom Watershed. This Willamette Valley AVA has a distinct soil type called Bellpine, or clay loams formed from ancient up-lifted marine sediments. The area is shielded by the high elevations of the Coast Range and rain shadow peaks to the west.
Pinot Noir is the predominant grape grown in the region. Other varieties include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Riesling. The area is the latest AVA in the Willamette region, established in November 2021.
Mount Pisgah AVA, Polk County, 2022
The newest Willamette Valley AVA consists of 5,530 acres located near Oregon’s capital, Salem. This region sits next to the Willamette River, which creates a unique, slightly warmer microclimate. The most popular grape varieties include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Tempranillo.
There are the Willamette Valley wine regions (or nested AVAs) to explore on your next excursion into Oregon wine country!
Want to read more about wine? Try reading these books!
Winemakers of the Willamette Valley: Pioneering Vintners from Oregon’s Wine Country (American Palate) Paperback – September 24, 2013
Willamette Valley, Oregon Hardcover – May 28, 2021, Barbara Tricarico
A Tour of Willamette Valley: A Journey of Wine Paperback, Winery Essentials– April 16, 2019
Explorer’s Guide Oregon Wine Country: A Great Destination (Explorer’s Great Destinations), Sherry L. Moor and Jeff Welsch, Paperback – July 1, 2013