THE AVAs of the Yamhill Valley

This article originally appeared in the Oregon Wine Press.


The Yamhill Valley encompasses 6 specific winegrowing regions called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Oregon wine country. Each is unique in its geographic location, climate, soil and topography. When an AVA is designated on the wine bottle’s label, 85 percent of the grapes used to make the wine must be sourced from that AVA.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and the U.S. Department of the Treasury defines AVAs at the request of wineries and other petitioners. As of January 2010, a total of 198 AVAs have been granted official status.

Since many consumers across the U.S. are still familiarizing themselves with Oregon wine, the Oregon Wine Press thought it would be helpful to examine its grape-growing groups in the Yamhill Valley. It’s time to get back to the basics and learn your AVAs.

The Yamhill Yalley and its Yamhill River are contained within the larger Willamette Valley.

WILLAMETTE VALLEY {Established 1984}

Modern winemaking in the Willamette Valley dates back 40 years with the genius of three UC Davis students who believed Oregon was an ideal place to grow cool-climate varieties.

Between 1965 and 1968, David Lett, Charles Coury and Dick Erath separately forged their way here despite negative rumblings from their college cohorts who told them growing winegrapes in Oregon was impossible.

The pioneers proved their peers wrong, as the Willamette Valley AVA is now recognized as one of world’s finest wine regions, growing world-class Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, as well as other varietals.

The Willamette Valley contains six sub-appellations, all of which are withiin the Yamhill Valley: Yamhill-Carlton, Dundee Hills, McMinnville, Eola-Amity Hills, Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge.

Location • The biggest Oregon AVA at 5,200 square miles, the Willamette Valley encompasses the drainage basin of the Willamette River. It runs from the Columbia River in Portland, south through Salem, to the Calapooya Mountains near Eugene. The Coast Range marks its west boundary and the Cascade Mountains mark the east. 

Although this distinction is not officially recognized, many further separate the Willamette Valley into northern and southern regions, with the dividing line just south of Salem.

Climate • Overall, the climate is mild. Winters are typically cool and wet; summers are dry and warm. Heat above 90°F only occurs five to 15 days per year, and the temperature drops below 0°F once every 25 years. Most rainfall occurs in the late autumn winter, and early spring, when temperatures are the coldest. The valley gets relatively little snow, five to 10 inches per year.

This temperate climate, combined with coastal marine influences, make growing conditions ideal for cool-climate grapes, including Pinot Noir. The Willamette Valley’s warm days and cool nights during the growing season allow the fruit to develop flavor and complexity while retaining its natural acidity.

Soils • The Willamette Valley is an old volcanic and sedimentary seabed overlaid with gravel, silt, rock and boulders brought by the Missoula Floods from Montana and Washington between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago. The most common of the volcanic type is red Jory soil, which is found above 300 feet (as it had escaped the Missoula Floods deposits) and is between four and six feet deep; it provides excellent drainage for wine grapes. Anything below 300 feet is primarily sedimentary-based soil.

Topography • The Willamette Valley is protected by the Coast Range to the west, the Cascades to the east and a series of hills to the north. The largest concentration of vineyards is located to the west of the Willamette River, on the leeward slopes of the Coast Range, or among the valleys created by the river’s tributaries. Most of the region’s vineyards are a few hundred feet above sea level, with some exceptions.

Varieties Grown • Auxerrois, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Dolcetto, Gamay Noir, Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Marechal Foch, Melon, Müller-Thurgau, Muscat, Muscat Ottonel, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Tempranillo.


YAMHILL-CARLTON {Established 2004} 

Historically nourished by forestry and farming, the area now known as Yamhill-Carlton has a relatively recent wine history. In 1974, pioneers Pat and Joe Campbell started Elk Cove Vineyards, which produced the first commercial wine in the Yamhill-Carlton area. The area is primarily known for its Pinot Noir.

Location • Yamhill-Carlton is located 8 miles north of McMinnville, 35 miles southwest of Portland and 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean; it includes the towns of Yamhill and Carlton.

Climate • The Coast Range to the west soars to nearly 3,500 feet, establishing a rain shadow over the AVA. Additional protection is provided by Chehalem Mountain to the north and the Dundee Hills to the east. The moderate conditions are perfectly suited for cool-climate grapes.

Soils • Yamhill-Carlton is comprised of coarse-grained, ancient marine sedimentary soils, over sandstone and siltstone that drain quickly, making them ideal for viticulture. Grapes grown in such soil often result in wines lower in acid than those made from grapes grown in basaltic or wind-blown soils.

Topography • Low ridges surround the towns of Yamhill and Carlton in a horseshoe shape. The free-flowing North Yamhill River courses through the center of it all. Vineyards thrive on sites with elevations between 200 and 1,000 feet, avoiding low valley frost and high elevation temperatures unsuitable for effective ripening.

Varieties Grown • Chardonnay, Dolcetto, Gamay Noir, Gewürztraminer, Melon, Muscat, Muscat Ottonel, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, Riesling.


DUNDEE HILLS {Established 2005} 

Dundee Hills is home to some of Oregon’s most beloved wine pioneers — “Papa Pinot” David Lett, Dick Erath and Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol Blosser. With the firm belief that cool-climate grapes would thrive, these winemakers and others cleared south-facing slopes to plant many of Oregon’s early vineyards in the region — the first was Lett in 1965.

Location • Dundee Hills can be found about 15 miles northeast of McMinnville, 28 miles southwest of Portland and 40 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. It is situated within an irregular circle of about 6,490 acres.

Climate • The Dundee Hills AVA is protected from severe climatic variations by surrounding geographic features. The Coast Range to the west helps weaken effects of the Pacific’s heavy rainfall and windstorms, and casts a rain shadow over the area, resulting in only 30 to 45 inches of annual precipitation, most of which falls outside of the growing season in the winter. Slope and elevation benefit vineyards with warmer nights and less frost and fog than nearby valley floors.

Soils • Dundee Hills is known for its rich, red volcanic Jory soils, which were formed from ancient volcanic basalt and consist of silt, clay and loam. They typically reach a depth of 4 to 6 feet and provide excellent drainage for superior quality wine grapes.

Topography • The Dundee Hills consist of a single, continuous landmass that rises above the surrounding Willamette Valley floors and is defined by the 200-foot contour line to the AVA’s highest peak of 1,067 feet. The area comprises a north-south spine with ridges with small valleys on its east, south and west sides. Dundee Hills is part of a hill chain that developed as a result of volcanic activity and the collision of the Pacific and North American plates.

Varieties Grown • Chardonnay, Melon de Bourgogne, Müller-Thurgau, Muscat Ottonel, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, Riesling.


McMINNVILLE {Established 2005} 

McMinnville has a long farming history that dates to the mid-1800s, when berry fields, fruit orchards and livestock, especially turkeys, were the norm. All that began to change in 1970, when one of Oregon’s winemaking pioneers, David Lett, bought an old turkey processing plant in McMinnville to house his winery. Soon after, winegrowers began planting vineyards and establishing wineries in the area.

Location • McMinnville AVA sits just west of the city of McMinnville, approximately 40 miles southwest of Portland and extends 20 miles south-southwest.

Climate • McMinnville sits in a protective rain shadow cast by the Coast Range. As a result, the primarily east- and south-facing vineyards receive less rainfall (just 33 inches annually, as compared to 40 inches in Eola-Amity Hills) than sites only 12 miles to the east. The foothills also provide protection from cold winds in the spring and fall. Winegrowers also have the option of planting vineyards on more southerly facing sites to take advantage of the drying winds from the Van Duzer Corridor, which helps combat mold and mildew during Oregon’s humid summer days.

Soils • The soils in the McMinnville AVA are the oldest and most complex of any Oregon AVA, primarily consisting of uplifted marine sedimentary loam and silt with alluvial overlays. Beneath is a base of uplifting basalt. Clay and silt loam averages 20 to 40 inches in depth — the range in which the AVA’s terroir is best achieved — before reaching harder rock and compressed sediments shot with basalt pebbles and stone.

Topography • McMinnville’s elevation levels range from 200 to 1,000 feet, and the area encompasses the east and southeast slopes of the Coast Range foothills. Geologically, the most distinctive feature in this area is the Nestucca Formation, a 2,000-foot-thick bedrock deposit of silt and sandstone that extends west of the city of McMinnville to the slopes of the Coast Range.

Varieties Grown • Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Syrah.


EOLA-AMITY HILLS {Established 2006} 

Salem’s Honeywood Winery, just south of the AVA boundary, is the oldest continuously operating winery in the state, bonded in 1933. Long known for their fruit and berry wines, owners Paul and Marlene Gallick now also have an 18-acre Vitis vinifera vineyard in the AVA.

The AVA’s first planting of vinifera was in 1971 by Jerry and Anne Preston, who sold Amity Vineyards to Myron Redford in 1974. Two other vineyards were planted in 1973. Don and Carolyn Byard planted Eola Hills Vineyard, and Jim and Connie Feltz planted their first two acres of Feltz Vineyard.

Location • Eola-Amity Hills is about 20 miles south of McMinnville, a 50-minute drive south of Portland, and stretches from Amity in the north to Salem in the south. It’s comprised of 37,900 acres.

Climate • The region enjoys a temperate climate of warm summers and mild winters, and 40 inches of annual rain, most of which falls outside of the growing season. The climate in this region is greatly influenced by its position due east of the Van Duzer Corridor, which creates a break in the Coast Range that allows cool Pacific Ocean air to flow through. This drops temperatures in the region dramatically, especially during late summer afternoons, helping to keep grape acids firm.

Soils • The soils mainly contain volcanic basalt from ancient lava flows as well as marine sedimentary rocks and alluvial deposits at the lower elevations. This combination results in a relatively shallow, rocky set of well-drained soils that produce fruit with great concentration.

Topography • Eola Hills, and its northern extension, Amity Hills, is part of a North Willamette Valley hill chain that developed out of intense volcanic activity and the collision of the Pacific and North American plates. The main ridge of the Eola Hills runs north-south and has numerous lateral ridges on both sides that run east-west. The majority of the region’s vineyard sites exist at elevations between 250 to 700 feet.

Varieties Grown • Auxerrois, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Grüner Veltliner, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah Tempranillo, Viognier.


CHEHALEM MOUNTAINS {Established 2006} 

Chehalem Mountains’ winegrowing history dates back to 1968 when UC Davis refugee Dick Erath purchased 49 acres on Dopp Road in Yamhill County. He aptly called the property Chehalem Mountain Vineyards.

By the mid to late 1970s, there was a patchwork of vineyards in the area, including those planted by such modern wine pioneers as the Adelsheims, Ponzis and Paul Hart of Rex Hill Vineyard.

Location • Encompassing over 100 square miles, the AVA touches three counties (Yamhill, Washington and Clackamas) and yet is by the city of Newberg, only 19 miles from the heart of Portland and 45 miles east of the Pacific Ocean.

Climate • Chehalem Mountains’ elevation goes from 200 to 1,633 feet, resulting in varied annual precipitation (37 inches at the lowest point and 60 inches at the highest) as well as the greatest variation in temperature within the Yamhill Valley. These variations can result in three-week differences in the ripening of Pinot Noir.

Soils • The Chehalem Mountains reflect millions of years of soil accumulation, creating a rich geological experiment in one tightly packed geographical area. Within this one region there are ancient, uplifted sedimentary seabeds, weathered rich red soils from lava flows down the Columbia River and relatively new glacial sediment scoured from western states and blown onto north-facing hillsides from windstorms.

Topography • Chehalem Mountains is a single landmass made of hilltops, ridges and spurs uplifted from the valley floor. The appellation includes all land in the area above the 200-foot elevation. They are the highest mountains in the Yamhill Valley with their tallest point, Bald Peak, at 1,633 feet.

Varieties Grown • Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Gewürztraminer, Marechal Foch, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Syrah.


RIBBON RIDGE {Established 2005}

In 1980, Harry Peterson-Nedry was the first to plant wine grapes on Ribbon Ridge at his Ridgecrest Vineyards. Two years later, the first commercial vineyard was established with the planting of 54 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In 1985, Yamhill Valley Vineyards was the first to use these grapes. Other vineyards were soon planted on this small ridge.

Location • Ribbon Ridge sits 22 miles southwest of Portland, four miles northwest of Dundee and 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. Ribbon Ridge is contained within the larger Chehalem Mountains.

Climate • Protected by geographical features to the north, south and west, Ribbon Ridge’s grape-growing hillsides are slightly warmer and drier when compared to the adjacent valley floors. Its moderate climate is particularly suited for early grape growth in the spring, consistent and even ripening over the summer and a long, full maturing season in the fall.

Soils • Ribbon Ridge contains mostly sedimentary soils that are younger, finer and more uniform than the alluvial sedimentary and volcanic soils of nearby regions. These well-drained, silty clay-loam soils are part of the Willakenzie series, have low fertility and are ideal for growing grapes like Pinot Noir.

Topography • Geographically, Ribbon Ridge is a 3.5-mile long by 1.75-mile wide spine that extends from the Chehalem Mountains. It rises 683 feet from the Chehalem Valley floor, giving it an island-like appearance.

Varieties Grown • Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc.

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