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Sampling Oregon's wine trail

Here's a guide to the wealth of wines from the cool, lush landscape.

October 05, 2008|Patrick Comiskey | Special to The Times

Most wine regions are beautiful, but Oregon's Willamette Valley is exceptional. Dramatically situated between two mountain ranges, the Coast Range to the west and the Cascades to the east, the valley is a lush rural area, gently curvaceous landscape shaped by volcanic events, then polished by abundant Pacific moisture.

The result is a sensuous terrain of smooth-shouldered, voluptuous hills and languorous green valleys lined with fragrant forests of spruce, fir and pine.

The Willamette Valley is home to more than a dozen cool-climate grape varieties, including impressive Chardonnays and ethereal renderings of the region's signature white, Pinot Gris. But the valley is arguably the finest place in the country to grow Pinot Noir, and in climate and latitude the region most closely resembles Pinot's ancestral home, Burgundy, France.

Pinot thrives in Oregon's climate, which is generally cooler than California's. Pour a California Pinot and an Oregon Pinot side by side, and the California wine will taste riper, fleshier, more like cherry jam than cherries. The Oregon wine may smell more like blossoms than fruit and will feel lighter and more delicate in the mouth.

In this way, too, the wines resemble Burgundy. Depending on where it's grown, Oregon Pinot will typically have an earthy note that adds another level of nuance and complexity: dusty red earth, a loamy, forest-floor scent, autumnal leaves, fresh tobacco.

As wine communities go, Oregon still carries the congenial, bootstrap ethos the original winemakers brought with them. Most wineries are small, with productions usually less than 50,000 cases. The region also is a hotbed of so-called "natural" wine-growing techniques. More than 40% of the vine acreage in the Willamette Valley adheres to sustainable, organic or biodynamic practices.

With 200 wineries, you shouldn't expect to hit them all. But certain wine routes in the north, central and southern sections of the valley will give you a memorable visit.

Heading south from Portland on Highway 99W, Newberg is the first major wine town. You'll know you're in wine country when you see Rex Hill winery on your right and Chehalem winery on your left. Rex Hill is best known for its single vineyard Pinots; Chehalem excels in its production Alsatian white varieties, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling -- as well as a racy unoaked Chardonnay called Inox.

Head west along North Valley Road and a great many wineries await, including Adelsheim, one of the region's pioneers, and Brick House, which makes some of the valley's most ethereal Chardonnays.

A bit farther west lies the town of Carlton, where a visit to the Carlton Winemakers Studio is a must, but don't leave out Ken Wright Cellars, in the old train depot, or Raptor Ridge's new tasting room, where you can line up half a dozen of their Pinots drawing from all corners of the valley.

Just outside of Carlton is WillaKenzie Estate, whose spectacular hilltop property is outdone only by the winery's single vineyard Pinots.

Back on 99W just south of Newberg, the traffic routinely bottlenecks in Dundee. (Let's just assume that's because of the number of wine lovers attracted to the great wineries in the Dundee Hills west of town.) Get your bearings with a bit of vintage bubbly at Argyle Winery on the main road, before heading up Archery Summit Road where many great wineries await, including Sokol-Blosser, Domaine Serene, Archery Summit, and Domaine Drouhin Oregon -- owned by the world-renowned Burgundy wine family, whose land purchase here famously put Oregon on the world wine map.

On your way south out of town you'll pass the southern flank of the Dundee Hills where the majestic Stoller Vineyard is; you can taste their lush Pinots and Chardonnays in a spectacular new winery and tasting facility at the base of the hill.

McMinnville is the next major town, a good pushing-off point for the wineries of the Eola Hills, source of darkly elegant wines from Bethel Heights, Cristom, Witness Tree, and Evesham Wood.

Southwest of town, seek out Maysara Winery, whose earth-inflected Pinots are drawn from the state's largest biodynamic vineyard.

If you're still looking for more, Pinot Gris aficionados especially should make a pilgrimage to King Estate and its picturesque, 1,000-plus-acre organic property south of Eugene. The winery is by far the state's largest producer of that variety, and it's certainly making some of the finest.

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Patrick Comiskey is senior correspondent for Wine & Spirits Magazine and a regular contributor to The Times Food section.

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