With its snow-capped peaks towering above deep valleys of lichen-hung White Oaks, northern Oregon really is the Wild West and our merry band of winemakers are true pioneers: clearing forests or converting open pastureland to create the vineyards in which their vines now thrive. Cool, damp winters – never too harsh – allow the vines their hiemal respite, whilst the summers are predictably kind, allowing the fruit to ripen slowly and perfectly. The Willamette Valley is an absolute heaven for our beloved Burgundian varieties, without the typical disease-pressure so often seen in their more traditional valley-home, the Saône. We are certainly not turning our back on Burgundy – it remains and will remain our single most important region.
It’s our love for Burgundy and its growers which led us westwards to the Willamette Valley
Like any great wine region, Oregon is absolutely fascinating from a geological perspective. The Willamette Valley was once the bottom of the Pacific. The canvas of marine sediment is overlaid with various volcanic deposits from the Cascade Range, which sits on the eastern flank of the valley. The most famous of these are the Jory soils in Dundee’s famous Red Hills where David Lett, the father of winemaking in Oregon planted the first vines in 1965. It is now home to some of Oregon’s most famous producers including our very own Arterberry Maresh, Domaine Roy and Winderlea. Elsewhere, on sedimentary soils there are region-defining vineyards in Ribbon Ridge (Brick House, Sequitur, Patricia Green, Trisaetum) and Yamhill Carlton (Shea). In Eola-Amity (Bethel Heights) and Chehalem Mountain (J.K. Carriere) the geology gets complicated with some sectors possessing volcanic soils and others pure marine-sediments…some parts are a mixture of the two.
The bedrock complexity, coupled with infinite possibilities of aspect, altitude and microclimate means that the Willamette can ‘do terroir’ with the best of them
A&B now has 20 years of buying experience in Burgundy and while our enthusiasm for the Côte d’Or is undimmed, today it’s harder and harder to acquire exciting new producers. With the wines scarce, new markets being actively encouraged by growers, the Burgundy squeeze is most certainty on; the best will always be the best and arguably worthy of their price tag, but a lot of Burgundy domaines are simply ‘riding the wave’ and it concerns us.
What the Willamette offers, is Burgundy quality from a genuine cool-climate district
We are certainly not unique in spotting the potential; within the three years that we have been visiting, there has been an explosion of new producers in the Willamette. Of course, there is the well-advertised Burgundian interest and investment – Lafon, Meo, Drouhin, Jadot, Liger-Belair etc – but to us, the way more exciting angle is how trusted young assistants and ambitious cellar-hands – some from our existing producers, are being encouraged to form their own projects. Such a collegiate atmosphere is so refreshing and bodes very well for the future.
If you’ve not yet joined on our western adventure, the ripe, fresh, focussed 2016s and gorgeous deep-fruited 2015s are a wonderful place to start
WILLAMETTE VALLEY – DRINKING DATES 2017 – fresh, complex wines, great complexity but without weight or high alcohol. 2016 – beautifully ripe wines but finer-boned than 2015 and with huge appeal. Entry-level wines from 2019, top cuvees from 2020 and way beyond, both colours. 2015 – wonderful year very similar to 2014 but wines with more structure and freshness, ideally hold until 2020. 2014 – great vintage, very large crop of ripe, generous wines which in some cases have started to tighten up. Drink this year or hold until 2020. 2013 – a warm year hit by late summer rain. The best wines are pure, light and show beautiful vineyard character, drink now for 5 years. 2012 – warm, ripe and even vintage. Wines of richness and charm drinking well now and for the next 5 years minimum. 2011 – a very cool, late vintage. Beautiful, pure wines, just beginning to drink now.