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Pinning down a single wine style of the Willamette Valley is a preposterous task.

 If you picture a map of Oregon in your mind, Willamette spans the length of about half the state from north to south, covering almost 3.5 million acres. Within that giant swath is a patchwork of expressive soils and a whole lot of wacky weather diversity. A Dundee Hills fan and a McMinnville nut may find they have very different thoughts on Pinot Noir. Even if you already have a favorite Willamette winemaker, you can still discover a lot of individuality between vintages or even vineyard plots.

The magic all lies in Willamette Valley geography and geology. Surrounding mountain features shelter the majority of vineyards from the sun-blitzed effect more characteristic of California Pinots, resulting in gradually ripened fruit with more evocative flavor intensity and less flabby booze. Then there’s the mélange of different top soils and bedrock that express a whole range of nuanced flavors, particularly in Pinot Noir. Characters can range from lean and aromatic, dark-fruited and herbal, savory and earthy, or some intoxicating tapestry therein.

And we haven’t even gotten to the white wines, which can be fantastically aromatic, luscious, or linear. There’s a lot to celebrate! Jump on the Willamette whirligig and see what tickles your fancy. Here are some of our favorites.

Fullerton and Three Otters

Enthusiasm for the whole gamut of Willamette wine potential is abundant in the offerings from winemaker Alex Fullerton. Using fruit from organic, sustainable, and biodynamic growers around the valley, Alex focuses less on a single style and more on finding opportunities to experiment and evolve. Fullerton wines manage to simultaneously pay homage to classic Old World sentiments; innovative Willamette winemaking from Alex’s early days at Bergström and Penner-Ash; and the occasional all-out frivolity of something totally new (ahem…Sauv Blanc Pet Nat!).

You can get in on this action with the Three Otters line. As playful as the namesake suggests, these wines are made with the same care as Fullerton’s more serious wines, with a bit more ease, approachability, and a “prettier price point.” With a breezy balance of red cherry and wild strawberry fruit backed up by earthy spice, the Three Otters Pinot Noir delivers the classics but doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Three Otters Chardonnay is a zippy, unoaked style with lots of orchard fruit on the nose and a round but racy citrus character in the glass. From some of the oldest Pinot Gris vines in the country, Three Otters Pinot Gris has an intriguing herbal note peeking through aromas of honeysuckle and green pear, with lovely fresh stone fruit flavors and a bit of minerality.

If you want the full picture of what Alex is doing with Willamette Valley fruit, check out a bottle of Fullerton Five Faces Pinot Noir. Showcasing the Valley in each particular vintage, this vineyard blend highlights a diversity of flavors and ripeness. Alex says the 2016 vintage is “perfectly out and open now” showing the darker fruit style of that slightly warm vintage, concentrated blackberry, spice, leather, and herbs.

Coeur de Terre

Originally a farm kid of the Cannon Falls variety, the urge to get his hands dirty eventually called winemaker Scott Neal to the dirt of McMinnville in the westernmost region of the Willamette Valley. Though he had no formal training when he and his wife, Lisa, bought what would become Coeur de Terre, Scott says, “the DNA of Oregon is working together.” With Lisa’s insistence on organic farming practices from the start, and a few tricks learned from the neighbors, they were ready to roll by the time their vines were set for the first harvest.

While those early days may seem a bit of a gamble, Scott has become a sort of modern-day Monk of McMinnville. Much like the monks of Burgundy, he carefully zeroes in on the terroir of Coeur de Terre to hone its truest soil expression. Planted in four blocks, his single-site Pinot Noirs convey volumes of distinction.

To get a glimpse of this poise and complexity, try the 2016 Coeur de Terre Héritage Reserve Estate Pinot Noir. This is Scott’s showcase of McMinnville each year, a blend of the four blocks as they express that vintage. He calls 2016 a “rich, ripe vintage,” with a ton of aging potential. The fruit has a deep, dark tone with an earthy depth, fragrant spice, leather, tar, and savory licorice. It’s simply excellent.

While the 2016 Héritage may still have 10-15 years before it’s prime, the 2016 Coeur de Terre Oregon Pinot Noir is a lovely McMinnville example that’s ready to drink now. With 60% estate fruit and all the same winemaking treatment as Héritage, this wine really challenges the concept of an “entry tier” wine. Bright red cherry, light cranberry, orange oil, cedar, earth, and a very McMinnville savory edge are all on display.

And if you’re interested in the pedigree of Pinot Gris as the primo Oregon white grape, check out Coeur de Terre 2018 Pinot Gris. A richness is coaxed from the fruit that isn’t seen often, with round mouthfeel, peachy purity, and perfect balancing acidity.

Written by Aimee Hutchinson | Wine Lead & Content Creator for Top Ten Liquors.

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