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Northwest Wine: Eola-Amity Hills continues its rise with pinot noir

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A recent tasting of pinot noir we conducted for Wine Press Northwest magazine once again showcased the brilliance found in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills.

Visitors from Portland don’t often make it to the southern end of the north Willamette Valley. Those whose touring takes them a few minutes northwest of Salem will be rewarded as a growing number of elite producers elsewhere in the Willamette Valley are investing in vineyards, buying grapes and producing stellar wines from the Eola-Amity Hills.

The federal government established the Eola-Amity Hills American Viticultural Area in 2006, which was part of an effort by some of Oregon’s most famous producers to help further define the growing regions of the North Willamette Valley. It was a five-year process that resulted in six new AVAs. In a display of unity, all six petitions were sent to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau together. Russell Raney of Evesham Wood Vineyard and Ted Casteel of Bethel Heights Vineyard teamed up to spearhead the Eola-Amity Hills petition.

At the time, there were 12 wineries within the boundaries. There now are 25 on the Eola-Amity Hills Winegrowers website, a list that also includes buzzworthy producers such as Björnson, Brooks, Lingua Franca and Walter Scott. Chemeketa Cellars, the winemaking program at Chemeketa Community College, also has an 8-acre vineyard in the AVA.

In some ways, the consistent elegance of wines from the Eola-Amity Hills is reminiscent of Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills, another region that can get overlooked by critics beyond the Pacific Northwest. In both areas, land is not quite as expensive as in more famous grape-growing areas.

Perhaps the key feature to Eola-Amity Hills are the cool winds that come through the Van Duzer Corridor, a gap in the Coast Range that provides a direct shot to the Pacific Ocean about 30 miles to the west.

Soil types help define the AVAs of the north Willamette Valley, and the Eola-Amity Hills features volcanic soil known as Nekia, which is shallower than the red Jory soils of the famous Dundee Hills. Nekia typically produces grapes with darker fruit flavors.

Below are a few of the top examples that received a rating of “Outstanding!” — the equivalent of a gold medal — from the Wine Press Northwest panel. Each were produced using grapes from the Eola-Amity Hills. For the complete list of winners, visit WinePressNW.com or pick up a copy of the Summer 2020 issue. And look for these bottles via your favorite wine merchant or contact the winery directly.

For more information on this region, visit the alliance’s website at EolaAmityHills.com.

Argyle Winery 2017 Master Series Nuthouse Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills, $55: Minnesota product Nate Klostermann focuses on Lone Star Vineyard, a tip of the hat to founding winemaker and Texas native Rollin Soles, for this pinot noir project that’s named for the winery’s previous life as a hazelnut warehouse. Baking spice is viewed as a hallmark of the Eola-Amity Hills by Argyle, and allspice and clove lead the discussion of this wine that brings a red juicy nose. Ripe flavors of marionberry and Bing cherry make for a pleasant drink that’s framed in the finish by juicy flavors of Craisin and cherry pie.

Cherry Hill Winery 2017 Estate Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills, $40: Aircraft mechanic-turned-winemaker Ken Cook is well into his second decade with owners Mike and Jan Sweeney. The Purdue University products purchased 90 acres of a former cherry orchard in 1998 across Highway 99 from Left Coast Estate. This is a pinot noir fan’s pinot noir. The blend of Pommard and Dijon clones flashes classic aromas of dusty strawberry, Montmorency cherry and garrigue that are realized as flavors. Layers of blueberry and pomegranate on the midpalate are joined by anise and tarragon prior to a squirt of red currant, which stretches out the finish.

Dobbes Family Estate 2017 Eola-Amity Cuvée AVA Collection Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, $37: This vintage marks the promotion of Andy McVay, a product of Oregon State University, to succeed founder Joe Dobbes as head winemaker. It’s a fruit-forward snapshot of this American Viticultural Area moderated by the afternoon coastal breezes through the Van Duzer Corridor. Strawberry, Craisin and cocoa powder aromas hint at the entry of dark and juicy red fruit as black cherry and currant bleed into a long finish of pomegranate that one judge described as “caressing.”

Panther Creek Cellars 2016 Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills, $65: Ken Wright began to bring fame to Jack and Kathleen Carter’s vineyard in the late 1980s, and by the 1990 vintage, Wright allowed no one else to buy Carter Vineyard fruit. Twenty five years later, Wright owned Carter Vineyard. However, he’s granted longtime friend Tony Rynders access to this vineyard. After all, Wright was the founding winemaker for Panther Creek. Dusty and dark cherry, pink peppercorns and light toast aromas transition into tasty flavors of red currant and pomegranate with black currant skins and a hint of herbaceousness.

Megan Anne Cellars 2018 Justice Vineyard Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills, $45: Fans of famed Bethel Heights know this vineyard as the younger, sweeping plantings in 1999 by the Casteel and Dudley families. They are grafted rootstock established in marine soils — a contrast to the original own-rooted, phylloxera-defiant vines in the volcanic material that surround the tasting room. The combination of Justice fruit in the hands of winemaker Isabelle Meunier makes for a rather voluptuous pinot noir with enticing aromas of blackberry, black cherry candy and cinnamon bark. It’s a dark and decadent drink that picks up plum and Chukar Cherry and keeps up a subtle beat of age-worthy acidity. Look for these wines in Woodinville and Walla Walla at the Mark Ryan tasting rooms operated by Mark Ryan McNeilly and his wife, Megan Anne. These wines are produced in a collaboration with Carlton, Ore., winemaker Isabelle Meunier.

• Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. His column runs in Thursday’s SCENE.

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