Growing grapes in Oregon is fraught with challenges. Rain and frosts can be threats during the spring and fall which are the two times the grapes are most vulnerable.
Willamette Valley gets an estimated 40 inches of rain a year. Weather patterns can be erratic and can often leave vintners stressed. Vines, like all plants, crave stability and constancy. However, those who know Oregon are aware that you may be caught in a downpour one minute and need sunglasses and a hat the next!
The nerve-racking reality of Oregon’s viticulture is offset by the satisfaction brought on by its success as a wine region. The sensitive climate, along with the state’s unique geologic past, is exactly what makes Oregon wines come together with beauty and complexity.
Each year is a toss-up, but when nature aligns with the skill of a winemaker, the result is a positively favorable one. Since grapes in Oregon cannot necessarily explode into ripeness, they have to make their way slowly toward maturity. It is this methodic struggle that creates the complexity of Oregon’s wine.
Oregon Emerges on the Wine Scene
In the first decade of the 21st century, Oregon saw significant wine success. Oregon winemakers gave up on California and France as viticultural winemaking role models. As Oregon winemakers began to set a new way of working with the demands of their unique land, the result was one of consistency. Before, some wines would be wonderful while others were severely awful.
Oregon’s Pinot Noir
The quality of Oregon wine, especially the state’s signature pinot noir, was and is phenomenal. The wine is rich without being heavy and if you want the best pinot noir, Oregon is the best place to find it!
The Father of Oregon Pinot Noir
David Lett is considered the father of Oregon pinot noir. The state struggled along before prohibition. Even though a small number of wineries survived, the modern Oregon wine industry believes 1961 to be its birth year.
Richard Sommer, an acronomy graduate from the University of California at Davis, planted riesling and other grapes in the Umpqua Valley. Four years later David Lett, another UC Davis graduate, planted the state’s first pinot noir. He planted it in Eyrie vineyards – in the long valley area south of Portland known as the Willamette.
Thankfully, both men did not listen to advice from their university professors. They were told that vinifera-species grapes would not grow well in Oregon!
Pinot Noir and Other Grape Varieties
Pinot Noir is a great but fragile red grape of Burgundy, France. Oregon is one of a few regions in the entire New World to focus (mainly) on a single grape variety.
Other grape varieties are grown but in much smaller amounts. There are more than 20,000 acres of grapes and 300+ wineries in the state. Most of these grapes are white.
- Pinot Gris
Among the whites, chardonnay has the reputation for being best suited to the state’s growing conditions. Pinot Gris is considered a local favorite and riesling, being a cool climate grape, is also a favorite dry white wine in the state. Small-production wineries making riesling can be found all along Oregon’s wine country.
Four major regions make up Oregon’s wine country, but the Willamette Valley, running north-south 100 miles, is the most important. South of Portland and in the north-west corner of the state, a passageway of soft, green hills abound. Some call this area the Vermont of the West.
More than two-thirds of the state’s wines and also most of the best are made here. Willamette Valley has put Oregon on the International wine map. Willamette Valley and Oregon are often referred to as one in the same when talking about Oregon wine.
Other regions include:
- Rogue Valley
- Applegate Valley
- Eastern Oregon in the Wall Walla region (which Oregon shares with Washington State)
Many of Oregon’s winemakers have a story. Most are independently minded farmers. Some have left larger cities or stressful jobs behind and some are even winemakers from other areas like California.
Many also have enology degrees, but what they all in common is the demanding and great lessons they learn from this beautiful and natural area.
When you visit Oregon’s wine country, most wineries are welcoming and down to earth. You’ll meet the winemaker, the tour guide and the groundskeeper and they very well may all be the same person!
Oregon’s Women Winemakers
Despite having a tiny percentage of the grape acreage of California, Oregon has more women winemakers than California does. Women account for 10% of all winemakers there.
Lynn Penner-Ash is credited with being the first female wine-maker in Oregon. In the mid to late 1980’s wineries were made up of hard-working families just beginning to understand the business of making and selling wine.
Winemakers were eager to establish Oregon as a place for world-class pinot noir. Some say the female sensibility lends itself to perfect guardianship over the delicate and tempermental grape.
The Land of Oregon
Oregon’s geologic history is pretty amazing like California’s.
15 million years ago, the volcano’s that formed Idaho’s Blue Range Mountains erupted into immense activity. The force behind the lava was such that it quickly spread across the entire state of Oregon. Fiery volcanic sludge, once cooled, became a type of rock called basalt.
At the end of the last ice age (20,000 years ago), massive ice dams in Montana were breached, sending walls of water to the Pacific Ocean at speeds of 60 miles per hour.
The Columbia River basin flooded. For two thousand years the floods occurred again and again, each time breaking down the basalt in places and depositing hundreds of feet of rich sediment on the floor of what is today the Willamette Valley.
Today all of the top vineyards of Willamette Valley exist above this fertile valley floor. The vineyards exist on the fertile basalt, windblown sand and salt, and uplifted marine seabed. The vineyards in the Willamette Valley roll up this rich valley floor.
Many of the roads here are still dirt roads. More than 95% of hazelnuts are grown here, so hazelnut orchards are a common site. The winding roads are also home to Christmas tree farms and forests full of oak and maple trees.
Land here can costs upwards of 30+ thousand dollars an acre. The state has land-use laws that stipulate that wineries must be true working wineries. Each winery must earn a minimum of 75% of its revenue from the sale of wine (instead of trinkets, touristy items like t-shirts, etc).
There’s also a legal land-to-gallons production ratio. Anyone producing a certain number of gallons of wine must have a corresponding parcel of a certain number of acres.
Oregon’s Self-Imposed Wine Laws
The state has decided to make some of its wine laws stricter than that of the United States’ general wine laws. The United States law mandates that a wine must contain a minimum of 75% of whatever grape variety is on the label.
State regulations in Oregon mandate that the leading wine types (pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris) must contain at least 90% of the grape on the label.
It’s interesting to note that several grapes are exempted from this rule because these grapes are thought to benefit from greater blending. These grapes need only be 75%of the grape named. These are cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah and sauvignon blanc.
The Climate of Oregon
Oregon’s relatively cool, marginal climate is a major factor in the style and grace that characterizes its top wines.
The vineyards of Willamette Valley are protected from the wet, cold onslaught of the Pacific Ocean by the Coast Range. The Coast Range is a small chain of mountains and a great line of defense for these wineries.
Rain on the coast can be in excess of 80 inches a year, but less than half of that in Willamette Valley. The region is still cooler and wetter than its neighbors in wine, California and Washington State.
Some of the rain actually falls in winter when vines are dormant. The best growing seasons in Oregon are obviously sunny. Daylight can last until 10pm in summer in the northern latitude, but it’s still relatively cool. A cool growing season allows grapes to ripen slowly. Slow ripening is what makes Oregon’s elegant style of world-famous pinot noirs.
Oregon’s Climate and White Wines
Oregon’s earthy pinot noirs have a hint of acidity and a touch of ripened fruitiness without the super sweet flavor that comes from constant bright sunlight.
As for chardonnay, pinot gris and riesling, the cool climate gives these white wines balance and quality. In Oregon you don’t get a lot of needless extractions and expensive new oak barrels with winemaking. Whether the decision is one of philosophy or expense, the white wines are extremely receptive!
Willamette Valley Appellations
In the early 2000’s six small areas within Willamette Valley were given their own status as AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas). Each of the appellations begins about 200 feet above the valley floor and rises to 1000 feet. Above that it’s too cold for grapes.
The Six Willamette Valley AVAs
- Ribbon Ridge: Ribbon Ridge is the smallest of the AVAs. Contained within the Chelhalem Mountains AVA, it is in Yamhill County. It stretches between the towns of Newberg and Gaston. The ridge is defined by local geographic boundaries and an uplift of ocean sediment. Being well protected geographically on all sides, the climate is a moderate one.
- Dundee Hills: A small group of hills, Dundee is where the first pinot noir was planted by David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards as mentioned above. The area has unique red soils from ancient volcanic basalt.
- Chelhalem Mountains: This is a single, 20 mile long, landmass made up of several hilltops and ridges lifted from the Willamette floor. The south and southeastern slope of the hills are mostly basalt and marine sediment. The northern facing slopes tend to be covered in loess. At more than 68,000 acres this is the largest AVA in the Willamette Valley.
- Yamhill-Carlton: Surrounding the hamlets of Yamhill-Carlton are grained ancient marine sedimentary soils.
- Mcminnville: Warm and dry, this AVA sits in a rain shadow of the Coast range. The soil is shallow, uplifted marine sediment.
- Eola-Amity Hills: West of the Van Duzer Corridor which is a gap in the Coast Range, it is cool because of the exposure to air flowing from the Pacific Ocean.
Oregon Wine and the Dijon Clones
Oregon wine vastly improved in the 2000’s due to the widespread implementation of Dijon clones. The University of Oregon brought in these clones of chardonnay and pinot noir.
Clones are genetic subtypes of a variety. The word Dijon is named after the city in Burgundy where France’s ONIVINS plant materials lab is located.
The Dijon clones are forerunners in their complexity. They are able to ripen fully in cool climates with complex flavors.
Willamette pinot noirs are also often made from the Pommard clone from Burgundy.
The Wines of Oregon
- Chardonnay: This white is considered the leading white grape in terms of potential, which means it is conducive to Oregon’s climate and topography.
- Pinot Gris: In terms of production, pinot gris is at the top. In Oregon, pinot gris is usually made into popular, easy to drink whites. Pinot gris is a white variant of pinot noir.
- Riesling: There are some fabulous sweet dessert rieslings made here, however, it’s mostly made into light, fresh, and dry whites.
- Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah: Grown in the southern and eastern parts of the state, these red grapes are considered minor grapes in Oregon.
- Pinot Noir: Every winery in Willamette grows pinot noir, the states elegant and most prestigious grape.
The International Pinot Noir Celebration
The International Pinot Noir Celebration is a three day event, famous around the world, as a mecca for lovers of pinot noir and northwest cuisine.
World-renowned chefs, winemakers, media, and of course lovers of pinot noir, gather in McMinnville, Oregon. The relaxing and festive atmosphere sets the event apart from all other wine events.
Guests find themselves strolling through picturesque Oregon wine country for one of the most enjoyable wine weekends possible.
Exploring unforgettable food and wine pairings and learning about pinot noir, it can be a casual, fun event or an educational class for winemakers. In other words, it works on every level.
On the final night of the IPNC, over 600 pounds of salmon are consumed with a countless number of bottles of pinot noir. This puts to rest the old “white wine with fish” adage. The rich fattiness and light char of the grilled salmon and the low tannin, earthy and high (for a red) acidity of the pinot noir, make these two a beautiful match.
Red wines that are high in tannins, such as cabernet sauvignon, can make fish taste dry. The pinot noir, by contrast, mirrors itself with the land of Oregon, giving off forest floor and wild mushroom characteristics, with a core of sweet and ripe berries.
It is important to note that most Oregon pinot noirs taste best about 20 or more minutes after opening. The flavors, texture, and palate-clinging character can only be experienced after it’s been poured.
To Sum up Oregon Wine
As mentioned above, David Lett set his mind on pinot noir, and planted it, along with other grapes that do well in cool climates.
Other winemakers eventually joined him and Oregon established itself as a wine region built on the reality of its terroir. Terroir is defined as the complete natural environment including factors such as soil, topography, climate and tradition and how all of this together affects wine.
Some regions are said to have more “terroir” than others. The state of Oregon definitely falls into this category!
The grapes here do not just ripen effortlessly and become quality wine. It takes finesse and complex knowledge that the best wines grapes can be grown here because of, not in spite of, its marginal climate.
Although David Lett earned a degree in viticulture from the University of California at Davis, and also spent a year walking around French vineyards, each year of growing grapes in Oregon was a gamble.
The result of that gamble was a great leap in quality wine and a pinot noir that became the state’s signature wine.
As we also mentioned, chardonnay is considered Oregon’s sister wine in terms of being a cool climate grape. The Dijon clones brought to Oregon from Burgundy and widely planted gives Oregon chardonnay the qualities of a rich, citrusy, mineral wine, similar in style to that of a Burgundy chardonnay.
Before the Dijon clone, Oregon’s chardonnays were known to be bland since they were made from a California warm-climate clone. This clone didn’t ripen well in Oregon’s cool climate and so it produced thin wine.
As noted, Oregon’s specialty wine is pinot noir and most of the state’s best wines are grown in the lush and serene Willamette Valley. A visit to this beautiful wine country is filled with history, tasting, tours, food and music.
In the state of Oregon there are three major regions that produce wine, there is the area along the Columbia river which separates Oregon from Washington state, the Wilamette Valley in the vicinity of the Portland metropolitan area stretching south along the I-5 corridor just south of Eugene, and then there is the Southern Oregon region mostly along the I-5 from Roseburg all the way to Medford, just North of the California boarder.
To learn more about the differences in each sub-region take a look at the following pages.
► The Wine Region of the Columbia Valley
► The Willamette Valley Wine Region
► The Wines of Southern Oregon
► The Snake River Valley of Eastern Oregon
To outsiders all wines of Oregon sound like they may have similar characteristics but locals know that Southern Oregon wines are grown in warmer, drier climates and the Columbia Valley’s micro-climate is very different than that of the Willamette Valley.
Locals also know that Eastern Oregon is almost like a completely different state, the elevation, temperature, soil types, and temperature make this a very unique area when compared to other Oregon wine regions.
Regional differences can be identified and enjoyed.