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Oregon Beckons Pinot Noir Lovers

Imagine floating down the Saône River in eastern France on a hotel barge. You would experience the sights, sounds and smells of the Burgundy wine region, home to some of the world's greatest wines made from the Pinot Noir grape.

If that vision seems out of reach, too expensive or too far from home, consider driving a convertible through the Willamette River Valley in Oregon, also home to some of the world's finest Pinot Noir wines.

Willamette Valley, which is where most of the state's Pinot Noir wines are made, extends roughly 150 miles south of Portland to south of Eugene and is the heart of Oregon's agriculture country.

The first thing to know -- or the locals will continually correct you -- is that it's pronounced "Will-LAM-it," with the accent on the second syllable, not "WILL-a-met."

Climate and Culture

Within the Willamette Valley lie about 200 wineries and 10,000 acres of wine grape vineyards. Production is primarily Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, Oregon's second claim-to-fame wine.

Growing conditions in the valley are near perfect for the fickle Pinot grapes, which are extremely sensitive to climate, soil and temperature. Indeed, the grape and the wine are challenging and often severely test the competence of vineyard managers as well as winemakers.

Rick Ross, wine educator for Silvan Ridge-Hinman Vineyards near Eugene, Oregon, explains: "The Willamette Valley has proven to be a premier growing region for Pinot Noir because it's far enough north that, at the peak of the growing season (depending upon exposure), vines can get as much as 14 hours of sunlight in a day. Since very little rain falls in the summer, this allows the maximum number of sunlight hours."

Northern Oregon has an average of nine months of rain annually, which makes dry farming very practical most years. And the climate, as Ross notes, "is very moderate. Temperatures can reach triple digits during summer days (promoting ripeness) yet be in the 50s or even 40s the same nights, which helps retain acids -- the key to great wine."

Don't Miss These Stops

From Portland, cruise down Interstate 5 and take Highway 99W toward Newberg, where you’ll find many of Oregon's most famous wineries:

  • Argyle
  • Chehalem
  • Sokol Blosser
  • Erath

The southern half of the Willamette Valley lies south of Salem, a bit beyond Eugene. Here you'll find other well-known names such as:

  • Adelsheim
  • Benton-Lane
  • Silvan Ridge-Hinman

Wine and Dine

Nothing goes better with good wine than good food. While tasting your way through Willamette Valley's best wineries, take a moment to savor some wine-country cuisine at some of the restaurants owned by local chefs. Some notable spots include The Painted Lady in Newberg, Cuvée in Carlton and The Joel Palmer House in Dayton.

Of course you'll want to have some Pinot Noir with your meal. Lindsay Kampff, the red winemaker at King Estate Winery, naturally thinks Pinot Noir is an ideal pairing with many kinds of food. "With its great acid and intense flavors, Oregon Pinot Noir is the perfect wine for a wide variety of foods, from salmon and seafood to duck and lamb dishes," she says.

Whether you spend your time sipping and buying wine, exploring the hearty and natural local cuisine or taking in other attractions, you'll find a host of things to see and do in Oregon's most prolific wine valley. One thing is almost certain: As you sample the various wines, you'll quickly understand why the Willamette Valley and Pinot Noir are such beautiful companions.

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