The Essentials: Oregon Wines
California may get the most recognition in the wine world but its southern neighbor isn’t far behind in the ranks. Oregon has moved up as the fourth state in the United States in wine production, with over 28,000 acres of vineyards and 725 different wineries.
Oregon only has two wine-producing regions, or American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that are actually wholly within the state of Oregon: the Willamette Valley AVA and the Southern Oregon AVA. The other large region, the Columbia Gorge AVA, happens to be in both Washington and Oregon, but it’s considered an Oregon AVA.
The Willamette Valley is one of the most condensed wine regions in the country, housing over two-thirds of Oregon’s wineries in more than 3 million acres. Its location in the Northwest corner on the U.S. combined with its very close proximity to the Pacific Ocean (50 miles) equals a cool and balmy climate that has rendered the Willamette Valley “Home of New World Pinot Noir.”
The Pinot Noir of Oregon highly resembles that of Burgundy, France with its nuanced flavors, earthy quality, and high acidity, which stands out from the reds of neighboring California. There are six subregions of the Willamette Valley and each has a slightly differing climate, which leads to a slightly differing Pinot Noir.
After Pinot Noir, Oregon is well-recognized for the Pinot Gris, whose first American home was actually in Oregon in 1965 by David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards. It grows best in cooler climates which explains why it’s so successful in Oregon, where they come out medium-bodied with aromas of apple, pear, and melon.
It’s the climate of Oregon that makes it so successful in winemaking, as it’s very consistent and reliable through all seasons. Temperatures are stable, and there’s generally a steady pattern of rain in the winter months which provides the necessary humidity for most grapes to be successful, especially Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, without risking rot or harm to the vines.
The soil, or terroir, of Oregon is a common topic amongst New World winemakers as it has a rich history. It started with the Missoula floods, the catastrophic floods that occurred at the end of the last ice age. That, combined with the volcanic past of the Willamette Valley, is what has contributed to the complex soils that produce such delicious wines.
There are actually three kinds of soil found throughout the Oregon AVAs: Jory, Willakenzie & Loess soils. The Jory soils are the basalt-based volcanic soils from long ago that are high in iron and clay content, and produce a Pinot Noir that is full of red fruit flavors and high acidity.
The Willakenzie soils are the oldest in the Willamette Valley and are traced back to the time that the region was actually a seabed. Vines planted in these soils have to work pretty hard to get their water which leads to a unique, spicy nature of their Pinots.
Finally, there’s the Loess soils which are the youngest in Oregon and are windblown and silty, which layer up in the hillsides of the Valley. Wines produced from these soils are unique and slightly peppery, as well as earthy in nature.
If you’re looking for a special Pinot Noir, look no further than Oregon. It’s truly an underrated state in the map of America’s best wines.