About 15 miles west of Salem, a distinctive pocket of rolling vineyard land is shaping its fruit unlike any other stretch within the Willamette Valley, the state’s most famous wine-growing region. Above ground in the soon-to-be Mount Pisgah, Polk County AVA (American Viticultural Area), marine gusts and lower-set sites help with ripening. Beneath ground, soil types like Bellpine, Wellsdale and Jory — Oregon’s official dirt— create complexity.
In 2006 Illahe Vineyards’winemaker, Brad Ford, launched the charge to have Mount Pisgah recognized as its own sub-appellation within the larger Willamette Valley AVA. Ford was inspired after witnessing a similar push by Firesteed Cellars’ Bryan Croft to spotlight another special zone in the valley, the Van Duzer Corridor, named after the famous break in the coastal range. These are two of several wine-grape-growing areas within the valley presently engaging in the process of receiving official designation.
Casual wine drinkers can see the Willamette Valley label on wine bottles and expect certain shared characteristics. That’s because several general features define the terroir of this fruitful 150-mile stretch of land, namely its alluvial soils, cool climate, hilly elevations, and the Cascade and Coast mountain ranges sheltering it to the east and west.
But now that the valley has a half-century and several generations of winemaking experience under its belt, vintners have had ample time to see the distinct flavors these differing pockets of land can offer. In 2002 a concerted effort from winemakers in a northern stretch of the valley resulted in the recognition of six more-specific AVAs. Updating the map with other new sub-appellations will reflect the varied terroir throughout the region.
For oenophiles seeking a more intimate touring experience, understanding the natural qualities and community collaboration needed to seek formal recognition as an AVA can open up a whole new way of looking at the Willamette Valley — revealing the subtle diversity and nuances of the world of Oregon wine.
What Is an AVA, Anyway?
As it stands, there are 18 American Viticultural Areas in Oregon. What’s an AVA? Simply, a specific region with a one-of-a-kind mix of soils, elevation, sun exposure, climate and more. These conditions combine like a recipe to create specific wine styles and flavors. Think of it as the wine version of looking for “100% Kona” on a coffee bag or “Flanders” on a Belgian beer label.
Creating an AVA involves a formal petition from vineyard managers and winemakers and waiting to hear back from the feds (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or the TTB) — a typically slow process that can take up to a couple years. “We’re 11th in line to be published in the federal register,” Ford says of the process. He adds that the TTB pays no attention to the wines coming out of these distinctive microclimates when deciding if they’re worthy of confirmation. Instead, they focus on objective traits like soil type, weather, geology and more.
When approved, producers can market their new regions on their labels, spreading the gospel of Willamette Valley terroir.
And Ford, a second-generation winemaker who oversees the sprawling Dallas estate planted in the early 1980s, feels the Mount Pisgah effect in everything he does. He senses the relatively warmer temperatures as he tends vineyard rows. He witnesses the insulated climate as neighboring pockets get windier, more dramatic storms. He walks atop the shallow marine sedimentary soils. And he observes the effects of relatively low elevation on his estate fruit.
The result is a different kind of grape cluster — one different from what you’d find in the Dundee Hills or the Chehalem Mountains. These thick-skinned, smaller berries lead to richly flavored and deeply structured wines, Ford contends. Others agree, from Freedom Hill Vineyard just beyond Illahe’s fence to Amalie Robert Estate and Erratic Oaks Vineyard on the other side of Ash Creek.
A Taste of Time Travel
Positioned about 15 miles west of Salem, the Mount Pisgah AVA will include two wineries and 10 vineyards spread across 5,850 acres. It would be the second-smallest AVA in the state, behind Ribbon Ridge in Yamhill County. “All of us in this area have similar grapes because of this mountain,” Ford says excitedly. The boundaries of Mount Pisgah are drawn largely according to local geology, around certain soils that arose from the Siletz River lava flows long ago.
Speaking to me as he presses grapes in the middle of harvest, Ford cites other tangible differences. The tempranillo juice he’s working with comes from three different spots, albeit in close proximity to one another — the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, the Van Duzer Corridor and Mount Pisgah. “[The grapes from each of these areas] have different sugars, acids, berry sizes and tannins,” Ford says. “These differences might have been hidden from the consumer before, but now they will add to the presentation of Oregon wine.”
In that sense, half the fun of sampling wines like Illahe’s pinot gris, viognier and many pinot noirs is the ancient time travel element. Volcanoes, floods and ice ages — the very things that sculpted this incredible valley — can be detected in the glass. Sipping in the tasting room as a winemaker speaks about this magic of soil and topography is one of the most fun ways to absorb the region’s many personalities.
If You Go
You can talk about terroir at home with a bottle of Oregon wine, but touring an AVA is obviously the ideal way to witness its distinct qualities. For starters, plan a tour of the Willamette Valley’s established AVAs, a handful of the 18 Oregon wine-grape-growing regions on the books.
To get a taste of a soon-to-be AVA, plan a visit to Mount Pisgah. Stop by for a flight at Illahe Vineyards and the nearby winery Amalie Robert Estate. The two stops, which require advance appointments, are nestled in the foothills between Dallas and Independence. Remember to bring along a designated driver, and review your route on TripCheck.com if heading out during the cooler months.
For a bite to eat while touring the Mount Pisgah area, check out these spots: In Dallas try Latitude One for steaks or seasonal small plates and Miramar for satisfying family Mexican. In Independence pop into IndePit for slow-cooked barbecue or the Pink House Cafe for a hearty breakfast in a roughly 140-year-old home turned eatery.
Search here for boutique lodging, bed-and-breakfasts, and farm and vineyard stays throughout the Willamette Valley.