If you love wine and haven't yet been to the Tualatin Valley in northernwestern Oregon, you owe it to yourself to go. The fertile swath of orchards and vineyards that make up Washington County is bounded by the Tualatin mountains, isolating it from the hustle and bustle of Portland. The lush Tualatin Valley (too-AHH-la-tin) is a valley-within-a-valley - the northernmost part of the Willamette Valley, the name people think of when it comes to Oregon wine.
Willamette Valley wineries produce a variety of wines including Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and others, but it's their Pinot Noir that's the shining star here.
The Willamette Valley runs between Oregon’s Cascade Mountains and the Coast Range, more than 100 miles long and spanning 60 miles at its widest point. Over 550 wineries produce wine from nearly 22,000 vineyard acres planted. Compare that with the 46,000 acres of California's Napa Valley to get a better perspective. Wine in Oregon is a very big deal, with room to get much bigger.
So what makes the Tualatin Valley so distinct among an already stellar wine-producing region? The soil, of course. It's always about the soil - the terroir - and it's no different here. Yet it is different. That’s because the northern end of the enormous Willamette Valley - the Tualatin Valley - received the lion's share of the mineral-rich loess soil that was deposited during the Ice Age Missoula Flood (check out this interesting animation to channel your inner geo-geek for a minute.)
If you're planning a visit to Oregon wine country, let us narrow the field a bit for you. Start with visiting the wineries of the Tualatin Valley.
Must-Visit Willamette Valley Wineries in the Tualatin Valley
Planted in 1982, this 200-acre vineyard and winery is the largest producer in the United States of certified estate wines made from biodynamically farmed grapes. The sustainable growing practices used by Winemaker Stephen Webber led to their Stellar Organic Certification and the Demeter Biodynamic Certification in 2008, a practice which has made a difference in their vines, grapes, and ultimately produced their excellent wines. The climate and soil here allow for the cultivation of Alsacian white varieties, northern Italian reds, and of course, Oregon Pinot Noir.
We tasted wines in their beautiful tasting room with surrounding views of the vineyards, and had a chance to try something new that local wineries are trying - orange wine, a style of wine that's spent time in brief contact with the skins, giving it a beautiful pale orange color. Their skin-contact wine made from Pinot Gris, Montinore L’Orange 2016. had been aged in clay from Italy. I loved the refreshing and earthy flavor. We also liked the White & Grey, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris with its lovely aroma and distinct taste. Their Reserve Riesling 2015 and Pinot Rosé 2017 were two standouts for us as we enjoy both of these varietals.
From the first wine we tasted - their Vivace, a sparkling white that reminded us of a good Italian prosecco - to the last - the lush Cataclysm Pinot Noir - the tasting showcased a wide array of their wines and we enjoyed all that we tried.
Montinore hosts many special events including winemaker dinners, the annual Crush Party, and a traditional Italian celebration, the Maialata or Festival of the Pig served with their Reserve Pinot Noir. That just might be our reason to visit the Tualatin Valley again next Spring.
One of the most unique Willamette Valley wine tours doesn't ferment grapes at all. Rice is used at SakéOne, where they've been brewing high quality saké in Forest Grove, Oregon for over twenty years. Their three brands of Oregon craft saké, Momokawa, Moonstone, and g Saké, have won more awards than any other saké company in America. It is the water quality of the Tualatin Valley that brought the producers here. When the mineral-rich water (we see a pattern here) is combined with polished Calrose rice (derived from a Japanese saké rice and grown in the Sacramento Valley, California) the result is high-end quality saké. We knew very little about saké or how it’s brewed before visiting SakéOne. Menus at sushi bars rarely show much beyond that heated overpriced stuff they call saké, but after tasting these - never again!
Handcrafted using ancient Japanese techniques and strains of yeast from Japan, their g Saké was a flavorful saké with a lot of nuances from start to finish. Moonstone is their line of infused saké, but make no mistake - it starts out using their high-end Ginjo saké with subtle flavors added. Of the four flavors we tried, the new Cucumber Mint was the clear favorite - such an appropriate flavor for saké crafted with a steady hand. In other words, the flavor wasn't overdone. We tried them chilled and straight-up, but no doubt they could be used to create some really fun cocktails.
Without question, the Momokawa line was our favorite. Adhering to strict Japanese methods this is a super premium saké, Junmai Ginjo. There are seven sakés in this line - Pearl and the Organic Nigori were our favorites.
Trust us, like any wine, all sakés are different, and they were all excellent here. The brewmaster likes to say “each batch of Momokawa begins with a smile”. And ends with one too. If you're new to saké, please give it a try. Pick up a good bottle at your local wine store, and pair it with some Thai food, sushi, or fried chicken. You just might find yourself on the next plane to Oregon.
This LIVE Certified vineyard produces sustainably-farmed red and white Italian-style wines, a nod to the Italian heritage of owner Alfredo Apolloni. Together with his wife Laurine, Apolloni is one of the few Oregon wineries to produce Pinot Grigio. Purchased in 1999, the unique site of their vineyards provides an ideal climate for their wines, particularly their elegant and subtle Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.
We toured the vineyards with Winemaker Kevin Green who showed us the 400+ barrel climate-controlled wine cave which allows the wines to gently age for an average of 14-16 months. Some wineries have enormous rooms where barrels of wine are aging, and then there's the type of “wine cave” seen at Apolloni, that we've also seen at Pacina Winery in Chianti. Here the cave is dim, feels cool and a bit damp, and has that aroma of things to come given off by full barrels - the Angel's Share. The smell reminded me of the dirt floor basement where my old aunt stored all the goodies she had canned.
Doing a tasting here is a delight. The bright tasting room is set with stacked barrels behind the tasting counter - a relaxing setting that includes indoor tables and outdoor seating under the tree canopy. There are several white wine choices here from a light Chardonnay to an Italian-style Pinot Grigio. But for us it was their reds - their Pinot Noir Ruby Vineyard 2013 and Pinot Noir Estate 2014. They also produce some reds from the warm-climate grapes, Sangiovese Estate and Nebbiolo Estate, and we loved their Rosé of Pinot Noir 2017 as well. Their signature collection along with small production reserves offer a wide range of truly great wines. For us, the best were their delicious Oregon Pinot Noir vintages.
There's also a fun Bocce court outside for a lively game with friends. The perfect place to enjoy their amazing wines.
Founded in 1970, Ponzi Vineyards was one of the first to try their hand at cultivating Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, and the daring spirit of Dick and Nancy Ponzi paid off. Today, Ponzi is widely regarded as one of the best wineries in Oregon with 130 acres of family-owned vineyards that are LIVE Certified Sustainable. The same methods and philosophy started by the Ponzis are now being practiced by the family’s second generation winemaker, daughter Luisa. This is a modern state of the art facility with a comfortable tasting room with inside and outside seating separated by a floor-to-ceiling fireplace. The surrounding views from the meticulously manicured grounds lend to a Tuscan sort of feel despite the tasting room's organic, modern design. There are even bocce courts if you’re so inclined.
The winery uses the natural contours of the Chehalem Mountain landscape in the four-level gravity flow that moves wine, gathers ambient light, and controls temperature, water retention and recycling. The barrel room currently holds 800+ barrels of wine at different stages of the aging process. It's the largest barrel room we've ever seen.
We especially liked the progressive tasting here, sampling wines at different stages of production as we toured the facility - our first taste on the tasting room deck overlooking the vineyards, a little in the barrel room, more still back in the tasting room. Back in the tasting room we had the opportunity to sample their limited production Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay. All of these were excellent, but the Chardonnay made me like Chardonnay again (after too many years drinking California Chardonnay - I'm not a fan) so thanks, Ponzi. We weren’t able to try the limited production 2015 Ponzi Dolcetto, but there’s now a bottle in our wine rack waiting for us to open. ;-)
Established in 1978, this Demeter Certified Biodynamic/Organic winery was the first to employ such cultivating methods in the Willamette Valley, and is a leader in producing sulfite-free wines. In 1987, the owners converted an old horse barn on the property to start their own label and now farm four vineyards to produce their excellent wines.
They have a tasting room, but, if you can, it’s much nicer to sit outside at a table under the shade trees on a sunny day. This is another winery that has changed our minds about Chardonnay and the Pinot Gris which we’re really starting to enjoy. But this is the Tualatin Valley and the star of this show is still Pinot Noir which includes their sulfite-free Life Pinot Noir 2017.
We tasted the Pinot Gris Old Vine 2017, Chardonnay Old Vines 2014, and the Meadowlark 2014 Pinot Noir. The Tocai Fruilano 2017, a pale light slightly dry wine with a wonderful taste of pairs.
Ruby Vineyard & Winery
At just 7.25 acres, this small winery produces wonderful Pinot Noir from some of the oldest own-rooted vines in Oregon. This was once a dairy farm and walnut orchard but in 1973 the planting of vines began. Owner Steve Hendricks employs a sustainable approach and organic farming to maintain the integrity and high quality of the wines.
You can taste their wines in the new modern tasting room with indoor and outdoor seating. The views from the outside deck of the surrounding countryside are breathtaking with a direct view of Mt. Hood on a clear day.
We enjoyed a tour of the winery itself which showed us how efficiently production is accomplished in this small facility. Then it was on to the tasting room, where we sampled several wines like the Pinot Gris 2017, Rosé of Pinot Gris 2017, the 2015 Laurelwood Pinot Noir, and the 2015 Pinot Noir Estate Blend. We enjoyed the Hendricks Legacy Pinot Noir, whose label is a nod to the 1843 recorded stamp of Steve's great, great grandparents' property. But the 2015 Ruby Steve's Reserve Pinot Noir was one of the best Pinot Noir we tried in the Tualatin Valley. We're saving the bottle we brought home for a special occasion. The Pinot Noir we tasted at Ruby were unique from others we'd tasted due in large part to the old vines. These were arguably some of the best we had on our visit.
Why You Should Go
We weren't sure what to expect when we visited the Tualatin Valley wineries. Though we'd read up on the area ahead of our visit, nothing could have prepared us for the natural beauty of the area and the outstanding wines being crafted here.
It’s true that we all have different palates and preferences, likes and dislikes, when it comes to wine. We’ve been on many wine tours in several wine producing regions around the world in Italy, Argentina, and Chile, but the northern Willamette Valley wineries produce some of the best we've ever had. If you love good wine but can’t find these at your local wine shop or haven’t yet tried Oregon wines, do yourself a favor and order a bottle or two or three via the links we’ve provided.
Many thanks to the Washington County Visitors Association for hosting us on our recent stay in the Tualatin Valley. As always, all opinions are ours alone based on our firsthand experience.