Oregon graciously brought parts of its Wine Country to San Francisco in March 2020. The event showcased wines from some of the state’s primary wine regions. Over 50 wineries participated in pouring their wines to an appreciative audience. Samples of Oregon cheeses and charcuterie complemented the large, walk-around wine tasting.
We have visited Oregon and its wine regions multiple times (past blogs). One good reason to visit is that we love Pinot Noir and Oregon has some outstanding ones. Also, we have attended one of the premier Pinot Noir events, IPNC. But you can never stop learning. We were happy to have access to a seminar on five Oregon wine regions put on by the Oregon Wine Board at the event.
History of Oregon Wine
Grapes have been grown and wine made in the state since the mid-19th century (1847 to be precise). But the commercial industry didn’t begin to grow until 1965. That was when David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards planted the first Pinot Noir vines. Two years later, HillCrest Vineyard bottled the first bottle of Pinot Noir for which the state would later become famous. The state now has over 700 mostly small wineries and 18 different AVAs. Each AVA has its own, unique terroir and microclimate and each produces its own combination of varietals. Most AVAs (with the exception of the warmest of the AVAs) focus primarily on Pinot Noir. The varietal accounts for 57 percent of the state’s total production.
Although the state only produces 1.9 percent of domestic wines (compared with California’s 89.9 percent share), its Pinot Noir, and increasingly its Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and even Cabernet, account for a disproportionate share of premium wines. Oregon accounts for 18 percent of all of Wine Spectator’s 90+-point domestic wines. The wines command an average of $16.29 per bottle, $7.37 above the national average. Not all its regions, however, are equally endowed.
Characteristics of Oregon Primary AVAs
Among Oregon’s primary wine regions are:
- Columbia River Gorge spans the northern slice of Oregon and the southern slice of Washington. It has volcanic soil and Pacific air that rushes far inland through the gorge. Soils, temperatures, and rainfall vary greatly among locations and altitudes across the 40 mile-long region. The region’s approximately 30 wineries produce a wide range of red wines (Pinot Noir, Barbera, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.) and white wines (Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, etc.).
- Wala Wala Valley encompasses parts of Eastern Oregon and southeast Washington. Its soils are a mix of volcanic and sedimentary soils. It is the warmest of the state’s growing regions, combining hot days and chilly nights. It primarily grows warm-weather grapes, especially Bordeaux and Rhone Valley varietals, with Cabernet and Merlot alone accounting for more than half of the region’s total production.
- Southern Oregon consists of five AVAs that are huddled among three mountain ranges and five rivers. It has a wide range of volcanic and marine and alluvial, soils, elevations, and micro-climates. Accordingly, it supports a range of grapes ranging from cool (whether Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris), to Mediterranean varietals (like Tempranillo) and warm weather (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and many others).
- Snake River Valley surrounds the river border between Oregon and Idaho. It is a smaller region with about 30 wineries. It is located at a relatively high elevation (typically 2,00-3,000 feet) that results in wide temperature swings between hot days and cold nights. Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for about three-quarters of its grape production, followed by Chardonnay, Viognier, and Riesling.
- Willamette Valley is the largest and best known of the state’s wine regions and is also our favorite Oregon AVA. It spans seven primary sub-AVAs (Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton, McMinnville, Eola-Amity Hills, and Van Duzer Corridor). All, however, focus primarily on Pinot Noir, which accounts for 68 percent of the valley’s production, followed by Pinot Gris (17 percent) and Chardonnay (eight percent). It has a mixture of soil types too.
Unique Growing Conditions
The seminar described the unique growing conditions of each of these regions and several of the sub-AVAs. It highlighted the primary characterizations of their wines with a tasting and discussion of one wine characteristic of each. Participants tasted an Oregon Pinot Noir which contained grapes from different regions across the state. Then we tasted and compared a Pinot Noir each from the Rogue Valley (Southern Oregon), Columbia Gorge, and Willamette Valley AVAs. We then tasted one Pinot Noir from each of Willamette Valley’s seven sub-AVAs. Next was a comparison of four Chardonnays (one each from Oregon, Willamette, Eola-Amity, and Yamhill-Carlton AVAs). While the wines differed greatly within AVAs, among wineries and from vintage to vintage, they had similar characteristics, based on their particular growing conditions. For example:
- Rogue Valley, with its river-based sedimentary soils and warm temperatures and long growing seasons, tends to produce fruity, complex, structured, minerally Pinot Noirs.
- Chehalem Mountains has a combination of volcanic and marine sedimentary soils, high elevations, and cooler temperatures. The resultant wine is structured, generally lightly extracted wines with red fruit (especially, strawberry and red cherry) tastes. Warmer years tend sometimes to produce darker fruit flavors.
- Dundee Hills is characterized by well-draining Jory (volcanic) soil and the warmest Willamette Valley temperatures. It tends to produce bright red fruit with an under layer of complex, earthy, forest tastes and smooth textures.
- Ribbon Ridge is actually within the larger Chehalem Mountains AVA. It consists largely of Willakenzie marine sedimentary soil (which retains water but has low nutrients). It has a lower elevation and warmer temperatures and less rainfall than surrounding Willamette AVAs. Its Pinot Noirs tend to have darker, elegant fruit flavors with more earth and spice than those from its neighbors.
- Van Duzer Corridor, thanks to its strong Pacific winds, is the coolest of the Willamette AVAs. Its thicker skin pinot grapes have more tannin and acid than most of the others and its pinots are typically highly extracted with deep colors, dark fruit and savory earthy tastes.
- Yamhill-Carlton, with well-draining marine bedrock and warm temperatures, produces ripe, floral, spicy wines with dark fruit tastes.
- McMinnville lies on porous marine sedimentary bedrock and is cooled by the marine winds that funnel through the Van Duzer Corridor. Its Pinot Noirs typically have strong (at least for pinots), fine-grained tannins with dark fruit, spice, mineral and earthy notes. Whites, meanwhile, are often bright and fruity.
- Eola-Amity Hills, with rocky volcanic soil, is also heavily affected by the windy corridor. Its long, cool growing seasons result in structured, dark, minerally wines with nice acidity.
Some of Our Favorite Oregon Wines
Then it was on to the general tasting event. Although several producers offer wines from grapes sourced in different AVAs, we enjoyed a number of wines—white and especially red—from each of the regions we tasted. Among our favorites, by region, are:
- Irvine & Roberts 2017 Estate, Convergence and Elevation Block pinots (Rogue Valley)
- Upper Five Vineyard 2016 Tempranillo and GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre blend)
- Troon Vineyard 2018 a Grenache and Estate Vermentino and two Rhone Blends: Cotes du Kubli Blanc (Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne), and Cotes du Kubli Rouge (Syrah and Grenache)
- Phelps Creek Vineyard 2015 Cuvee Alexandrine Pinot Noir
- 00 Wines 2017 EGW Chardonnay
- Apolloni Vineyard 2018 Estate Pinot Blanc and 2018 Ruby Vineyard Pinot Noir
- Argyle Winery 2017 Reserve Chardonnay
- Brooks Wine 2017 Ara Riesling
- Citation/Centerstone’s 2015 Citation Wine Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and 2017 Centerstone Unoaked Chardonnay
- Domaine Roy et Fils 2017 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
- Elk Cove Vineyards 2015 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and 2018 Pinot Gris
- King Estate 2017 Kennel Vineyard Chardonnay
- Patton Valley Vineyard 2016 Estate Pinot Noir
- Silas Wines 2015 PDX and 2014 The Pearl Pinot Noir
- Sokol Blosser Winery 2018 Willamette Valley Estate Pinot Gris
- Territorial Vineyards 2018 Pinot Gris
- Torii Mor Winery 2018 Pinot Gris
- Van Duzer Vineyards 2017 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and 2018 Estate Pinot Gris
- Willamette Valley Vineyards 2018 Whole Cluster and 2017 Estate Pinot Noirs
- Adelsheim Vineyard 2016 Chehalem Mountains Breaking Ground Pinot Noir
- Chehalem Winery 2018 Chehalem Mountains Pinot Noir
- Elk Cove Vineyards 2017 Mount Richmond Pinot Noir
- Le Cadeau Vineyard 2016 Trajet Reserve Pinot Noir
- Project M 2017 Chehalem Mountains Vineyard Pinot Noir
- Domaine Roy et Fils 2017 Dundee Hills Incline Pinot Noir
- Torii Mor Winery 2016 Olson Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir
- Winderlea Vineyard 2016 pinot and 2016 Imprint Pinot Noir
Van Duzer Corridor
- Left Coast Estate 2018 The Orchard’s Pinot Gris
- Brittan Vineyards 2016 Chardonnay, 2016 Basalt Block and Cygnus Block Pinot Noir and 2015 Gestalt Block Pinot Noir
- Coeur de Terre Vineyards 2017 Heritage Reserve Estate Pinot Noir, 2016 Renelle’s Block Reserve Pinot Noir and 2018 Pinot Gris
- Argyle Winery 2017 Nuthouse Pinot Noir
- Dobbes Family Estate 2017 Symonette Vineyard” Pinot Noir
- Silas Wines 2016 Enna Hay Pinot Blanc
- Martin Woods Winery Yamhill Valley Vineyard Chardonnay
- Penner-Ash Cellars 2017 Yamhill-Carlton Estate Pinot Noir
- Elk Cove Vineyards 2017 Five Mountain Pinot Noir
- Sineann 2016 and 2018 Yates Conwill Pinot Noir
- Willakenzie Estate 2017 Yamhill-Carlton Estate Chardonnay
The event provided a partial, but excellent overview of a number of current wines from Oregon—and especially Willamette Valley.. And it was a good preparation for our July trip to the area (assuming we will all be traveling by then) for the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) pinot education/tasting/food blowout. And naturally, while we are there, we plan to stop at many of the wineries with some of the new favorites we discovered at the event. Life is good!