A Tasting Tour of Oregon Wine Country

Oregon graciously brought parts of its Wine Country to San Francisco on a recent day 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 very 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.

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Characteristics of Oregon Primary AVAs

Among Oregon’s  primary wine regions are:

  • Columbia River Gorge, which spans the northern slice of Oregon and 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.) .

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  • Wala Wala Valley, which encompasses parts of Eastern Oregon and south east 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, which 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, which 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.

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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 are 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 nutrient). 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 results in structured, dark, minerally wines with nice acidity.

Some of Our Favorite Oregon Wines

Then it was on to the general wine 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:

Rogue Valley

Applegate Valley

  • 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)

Columbia Gorge

Willamette Valley

Silas winesApollini Wine

Chehalem Mountains

Dundee Hills

Van Duzer Corridor

McMinnville

  • Brittan Vineyards 2016 chard, 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

Brittan

Eola-Amity Hills

Yamhill-Carlton

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’s trip to the area (assuming we will all be travelling 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!

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