While Washington has a lot to offer, Oregon produces only a small amount of wine but quite a lot of noise. Located just south of its friendly neighbor, Oregon’s climate offers a more promising future. This state started its wine adventure at the same time, earning its first AVA (Willamette) in 1983 as well even though popular winemakers had been planting vines and making wines in that area since the early 1960s. Knudsen Erath, the son and grandson of winemakers from Germany, planted his first wines in Willamette in 1969 and quickly set the benchmark for what Oregon Pinot Noir could be.
The most popular varietals in Oregon are Pinot Noir (60% of production) and Chardonnay, with a little bit of Pinot Gris and Riesling being produced as well. Oregon’s location is located at 45° North latitude, the same as Burgundy, France. This parallel, as well as its maritime weather, have produced a growing climate extremely similar to Burgundy. The geography, much like Washington, borders the Cascade Mountains but down here the mountain range is located on the east side of the wineries and the Coast Range Mountains are to the west, with a series of ranges to the north. This provides a distinctly cool and cloudy climate, especially in the Willamette Valley. The long summers are warm and dry, with cool evenings which help to preserve acidity in the grapes. These conditions help to produce the elegant and distinctly ripe character Oregon wines are known for. The hillsides in the valley are composed of volcanic, loess and sedimentary soils, all of which lend their own characters to the grapes grown in their soils. Despite the long, dry summers, there is always a risk of rain during harvest, so timing is vital.
There are numerous different microclimates, giving each of the Oregon vineyards its own unique style. Wine producers like to follow the Burgundian model of growing their own grapes. The identification of subregional AVAs within the Willamette Valley, with their distinct styles based on topography and geology, mirrors the setup in the Côte d’Or. With the obvious quality of Oregon Pinot – world-class in an increasing number of instances –other Burgundians have followed in the steps of the Drouhin family of Beaune who invested in the Willamette Valley as long ago as 1988. The California-based Jackson Family Wines international group of wine estates has been taking a particular interest in Oregon, as have some other Californians with less sustainable objectives. Oregon Pinot offers a “value” entry point into the world of premium Pinot that the likes of Burgundy and California increasingly struggle to provide.
This next decade for both Washington and Oregon will be vital in establishing their credentials as serious contenders, and it will be very interesting to watch both of these regions’ progress.