Ask the average drinker in the United States about where the best American wine is made, and they might cite the states of California, Washington or New York. Oenophiles, of course, have long known that Oregon—and its Willamette Valley AVA, in particular—is a world-class destination for quality vino. But although Oregon vineyards can produce everything from excellent Chardonnay to stellar Pinot Gris and Riesling, Pinot Noir reigns supreme in Willamette Valley.
“Over the past several decades, Willamette Valley has become known as one of the very best places to grow and make Pinot Noir in the U.S.,” says Jim Gordon, senior tasting editor at Wine Enthusiast. “It’s often compared to Burgundy more than to California.”
It’s also a fantastic place to visit. Wine Enthusiast’s resident Oregon wine reviewer Michael Alberty recently shared some of the best Willamette Valley wineries to pop into when he’s in the area.
As for those sticking closer to home, a great bottle of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is a fantastic way to take your palate on a trip without ever setting foot in an airport. Whether you’re new to drinking from the region or have several bottles stashed in your cellar, here are some great picks—plus important intel about the area.
Where Is Willamette Valley?
Oregon’s largest AVA stretches over 100 miles, from the Columbia River in the north to the city of Eugene in the South. It was established in December 1983 and encompasses six smaller appellations, including Chehalem Mountains AVA, Dundee Hills AVA, McMinnville AVA, Ribbon Ridge AVA, Yamhill-Carlton District AVA and Eola-Amity Hills AVA. Today, there are more than 700 wineries in Willamette Valley.
Why Is Willamette Valley So Good for Pinot Noir?
The main reason that Willamette Valley produces such excellent Pinot Noir is the climate. The region is exposed to the Pacific Ocean and has a high latitude, helping it maintain a cooler, moderate climate compared to California’s warmer weather. The region is often compared to Burgundy, which is also well known for its Pinot Noir.
“Pinot Noir loves a cool climate,” says Gordon. Willamette Valley “doesn’t have as many hot and dry days as many parts of California. It has a colder winter. It has rainfall more like a continental climate in Burgundy, where you have some rain throughout the summer, so they don’t need irrigation as much as California usually.”
Michael Alberty, Wine Enthusiast writer at large and reviewer for Washington, Oregon and Canada, adds that the “diversity of soil types” in the large region also contributes to great wine. He agrees that climate, however, is a major influence.
“The climate is such that in many vintages, the grapes are in a race to ripen in time and that existence on the margins is what originally attracted pioneers like David Lett of the Eyrie Vineyards,” Alberty says.
“French wineries from Burgundy, including Domaine Drouhin and Louis Jadot, have invested in wineries in Willamette Valley beginning in the 80s,” adds Gordon. “So, there’s a lot of French influence now there, too.”
What Does Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Taste Like?
This can be difficult to generalize. Climates vary between appellations, plus every individual winemaker makes different choices, all of which can impact a wine’s final flavor. That said, with Willamette Valley Pinot Noir drinkers can typically expect “ripe fruit while still achieving elevated acidity,” Alberty says.
Many of these wines deliver complex flavors of fresh red fruits, oak and even earthy notes. “The Pinot Noirs of Willamette Valley are considered generally more delicate, more silky and not so much blatant fruit flavors, but more savory and earthy, with other interesting characteristics,” Gordon adds.
Best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Bottles
Patricia Green Cellars 2021 Mysterious Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley)
Who doesn’t love a good mystery? This is an aromatic delight, with notes of raspberry, star anise and earthy petrichor. The wine’s thick mouthfeel matches flavors similar to a pot of blackberry jam with chunks of ginger. The rich, viscous mouthfeel and sturdy tannins match up with electric acidity. 94 Points —Michael Alberty$ Varies Wine-Searcher
Patricia Green Cellars 2021 Notorious Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley)
This year’s model of Notorious features tart raspberry tea and grilled pork belly aromas that meld with the rose hip and jasmine scents given off by fresh periwinkles. Red cherry and lemon peel flavors cruise a raging river of acidity. There’s pronounced oak and sturdy tannins, as well. Enjoy 2024-2036. 94 Points —M.A.$ Varies Instacart
Elk Cove 2019 Reserve Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley)
The 2019 vintage for Elk Cove’s reserve is astounding. Black-cherry and blackcap raspberry aromas dance an intense tango with notes of basil and caramel. Berry flavors—both black and blue—glide across the smooth palate. With such brisk acidity and sturdy tannins, enjoy this pinot noir until 2034. 94 Points —M.A.$ Varies Wine-Searcher
Montinore 2018 Graham’s Block 7 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley)
This wine is made with fruit from self-rooted, 38-year-old vines that are the oldest in the estate vineyard. It was aged for 10 months in French oak, 36% new. The wine’s aromas of Douglas fir bark and lemon balm join forces with violets, blackberry Popsicle and a touch of bittersweet dark chocolate. Black plum, black cherry and black tea flavors are backed by velvety tannins and modest acidity. 94 Points — M.A.$ Varies Wine Searcher
WildAire 2019 Timothy Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley)
Named in honor of the winemaker’s father, this four-barrel selection from Fairsing Yates Conwill and Open Claim Vineyards is a worthy tribute. It is packed with aromas and flavors of blackcap raspberries, violets, Scottish breakfast tea, thyme and earth. One highlight for me is its saline note that took me right back to strolls on the Oregon coast. A beautifully balanced wine with solid tannins and elevated acidity. Enjoy now–2032. 94 Points — M.A.$32 Total Wine & More
Domaine Serene 2019 Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley)
A “Goldilocks wine” where everything, down to the restrained alcohol, is just right. Blackcap raspberries, dried rose petals, beeswax and a touch of Madagascar vanilla draw the nose deeper into the glass. Bright red cherry and tangerine flavors create a juicy and pleasurable sweet-tart flavor combination. 94 Points — M.A.$98 Total Wine & More
Fullerton 2019 Five FACES Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley)
You may have as many faces as you like if you are this good. Brilliant acidity lights the path for a brisk mouthfeel and flavors such as blackberries, saline, white tea and a lemon granita. Super fragrant, with burst of blackberry pie, violets and basil. 94 Points — M.A.$33 Vivino
Dobbes Family Estate 2021 Grand Assemblage Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley)
This is one complex set of aromas, with red currants and dark chocolate morphing into rose hips, balsa wood and espresso shots. The flavors of strawberries, black pepper, thyme and lemon zest are fresh and vibrant. The acidity is lip-smacking, while the tannins are subtle. 93 Points — M.A.$ Varies Wine-Searcher
Where Can You Buy Willamette Valley Pinot Noir?
The West Coast of the U.S. has the best selection when it comes to finding boutique bottles, but most of the U.S. and even other countries now stock up on Oregon wines. You can also buy them online from a winery’s website or other online wine retailers.
What Is the Difference Between California and Oregon Pinot Noir?
There are a lot of factors involved that determine differences between the two, but Willamette Valley tends to produce higher acid Pinot Noir with moderate alcohol, which can be difficult to create in the warmer climate of California, Alberty says.
What States Makes the Best Pinot Noir?
In addition to Oregon, California is well-known for its Pinot Noir. Notable Pinot Noir-producing areas include the Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Rita Hills.
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All products featured here are independently selected by our team, which is comprised of experienced writers and wine tasters and overseen by editorial professionals at Wine Enthusiast headquarters. All ratings and reviews are performed blind in a controlled setting and reflect the parameters of our 100-point scale. Wine Enthusiast does not accept payment to conduct any product review, though we may earn a commission on purchases made through links on this site. Prices were accurate at the time of publication.
Last Updated: August 14, 2023