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While the history of winemaking in Oregon dates back to the 1840s and the establishment of the original Oregon Territory, the modern commercial winemaking industry in Oregon only began in the mid-to-late 1960s. At that time, a group of adventurous winemakers from California set out to prove that it was possible to create world-class wines in Oregon. By 1970, there were still only 5 commercial wineries in the state, but that all changed in 1975, with the first international award for an Oregon-grown Pinot Noir. After that, the number of wineries within the state began to grow exponentially, and by 2016, there were 18 recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within the state (including some that are nested inside of each other), 720 wineries and 72 different varieties of grapes grown.
In 2016, Oregon winemakers sold 3.4 million cases of wine, making the state the fourth largest in the nation, trailing only California, Washington State and New York State in terms of overall wine production volume. By far, the most popular grape variety within the state is Pinot Noir, followed by Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. Oregon is now considered to be one of the premier wine regions in the world for Pinot Noir, and the location of many of the state’s best wineries in the Willamette Valley. In addition, Oregon’s winemakers have won awards and plaudits for their Pinot Gris and Chardonnay wines, while the state’s beautiful topography (green rolling hills, deep valleys, gorges, and forests) has made the region a must-visit for true oenophiles.
When people talk about Oregon wine regions, they are really talking about the three primary Oregon AVAs – Willamette Valley, Southern Oregon, and Columbia Gorge. In addition, the Snake River Valley AVA straddles the Snake River on the border between Oregon and Idaho, and the Columbia Valley AVA straddles Oregon and Washington State. The Willamette Valley AVA is then further comprised of 5 nested AVAs – Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, and Yamhill-Carlton District. Similarly, the Southern Oregon AVA is further comprised of two nested AVAs – Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley.
The Willamette Valley is the wine region most people have in mind when they talk about the world-class Pinot Noirs being produced in Oregon. The region has been extensively profiled in food, wine, and travel magazines for its combination of world-class winemaking (in the form of personal, handcrafted wines and the region’s links to Burgundy in France) and beautiful natural scenery. The AVA officially extends from the Columbia River in the north to the just south of Eugene in the south, and form the Oregon Coast Range in the west to the Cascade Mountains in the east. Given the large geographical reach of the Willamette Valley AVA, some people refer to the “northern” and “southern” Willamette Valley, with the city of Salem being the unofficial dividing line. Everything from Salem to Portland in the north is considered to be the northern valley, and everything from Salem to Eugene in the south is considered to be the southern valley.
As of 2016, there were 545 wineries in the Willamette Valley, easily making it Oregon’s most important wine region. The primary grape varieties in this region include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Semillon, and Zinfandel. In addition, there are plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer and Muller-Thurgau.
Part of the reason why the Willamette Valley is able to support so many different grape varieties is the relatively mild weather on a year-round basis: winters are cool and wet, while summers are warm and dry. The region manages to avoid any extreme temperature variations, and there is little snowfall in winter, resulting in near-perfect growing conditions.
Notable wineries in the Willamette Valley include Eyrie Vineyards (which helped to launch the modern wine era in Oregon back in 1965), Ken Wright Cellars, King Estate (now one of the largest producers in the state), Willamette Valley Vineyards (also one of the largest producers in the state), and Domaine Drouhin. Other wineries to check out include Adelsheim Vineyard, Archery Summit, Argyle Winery, Carlton Winemakers Studio, Chehalem, Domaine Serene, Elk Cove Vineyards, and Sokol Blosser.
The Southern Oregon AVA was established in 2004 as the union of two distinct wine regions, Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley. In turn, two different sub-AVAs are nestled within the Umpqua Valley AVA: Red Hill Douglas County Oregon (which consists of just a single vineyard) and Elkton Oregon. A small strip of territory that is primarily mountainous and therefore not used for wine-growing purposes separates these two wine valleys. The AVA merger was primarily done for joint marketing purposes since the two regions actually feature very different grape varieties and growing conditions. The Southern Oregon AVA is renowned for its picturesque scenery, including mountains, rivers and green forests. It is generally considered to be the warmest and driest of all the Oregon wine regions.
The Umpqua Valley is located along the drainage basin of the Umpqua River. This AVA tends to be warmer than the Willamette Valley AVA but cooler than the Rogue Valley AVA, which is located further to the south. Umpqua Valley is generally recognized to be Oregon’s oldest post-Prohibition wine region. While Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are two important grapes here, wine growers also have had success with Tempranillo, Baco Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gruner Veltliner.
The Rogue Valley is located along the drainage basin of the Rogue River and its three primary tributaries: Illinois River, Applegate River, and Bear Creek. There are 32 wineries located within the Rogue Valley, and most of them are located along these smaller tributaries. In terms of climate, Bear Creek is warm and dry while the Illinois River is cool and wet. The Rogue Valley also includes one sub-AVA that is nested inside of it, Applegate Valley.
Notable wineries located within the Umpqua Valley include Abacela Winery, Umpqua Valley Wineries, Hillcrest Winery and Distillery, Girardet Wine Cellar, Henry Estate Winery and Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards. Notable wineries located within the Rogue Valley include Ledger David Cellars, Kriselle Cellars, Agate Ridge Vineyard, Del Rio Vineyards, Eden Vale Winery, and 2 Hawk Vineyards & Winery.
Columbia Gorge straddles the Columbia River and includes the fertile soils of both Oregon and Washington State. Thus, while Columbia Gorge is considered to be one of the three primary Oregon AVAs, not all of the AVA is contained within the state. On the Oregon side of the AVA, the two primary sub-regions include Hood River and Wasco. In terms of climate, Columbia Gorge is drier than the Willamette Valley. It also has an elevation that can vary widely, giving it what wine experts refer to as “gorge geography.” The Columbia Gorge is also known for its strong winds.
There are 40 different wineries located within the Columbia Gorge, and the most popular grape varieties of the region include Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Sangiovese. The Columbia Gorge is sometimes referred to as “America’s most unique wine region,” and includes majestic views of Mt. Hood. It is also located less than 1 hour from Portland, making it very accessible to urban wine drinkers nearby.
Notable wineries located within Columbia Gorge include Cathedral Ridge Winery, Marchesi Vineyards and Winery, Stave & Stone Winery, Springhouse Cellar Winery, Hood Crest Winery, Cerulean, and Garnier Vineyards.
The Snake River Valley is one of Oregon’s newest AVAs, having been established only in 2007. It is located along the Snake River and straddles both Oregon and Idaho. While Snake River Valley is sometimes referred to as an Idaho wine region, it does include two large Oregon counties (Baker, Malheur). The climate of the Snake River Valley AVA is generally cool, with lower rainfall than in other nearby wine regions. The combination of cooler temperatures and low rainfall both contribute to a relatively shorter growing season. The most popular grape varieties are those that thrive in cooler temperatures, such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Chardonnay. In addition, the Snake River Valley is known for its ice wine. In warmer microclimates found along the Snake River, growers have had success with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Columbia Valley AVA is primarily located within Washington State but does include 5 wineries in Oregon. The Columbia Valley AVA includes one sub-AVA, Walla Walla Valley, which includes part of northeastern Oregon. The most popular grape varieties in the Columbia Valley include Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese.
Ever since the mid-1970s, Oregon has been one of America’s most important wine regions. While it is quite successful commercially, it has managed to retain the tradition of making personal, handcrafted wines. For example, the top producer in Oregon only ships 400,000 cases per year, and most produce less than 35,000 cases per year. The state’s 720 wineries have become essential parts of the state’s culture, and have even led to the creation of a thriving wine tourism industry valued at over $200 million annually. To see the future of wine in America and to enjoy some of the world’s best Pinot Noir wines, it is important to experience Oregon’s wine regions.