Getting to Know Oregon Wine Country
Oregon Wine Country includes unique and distinct wine regions with 18 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). It’s a first-class wine destination, one of the world’s few places outside of Burgundy, known for producing globally renowned Pinot noir. Its diverse climate allows many other varietals to thrive, from Abouriou to Zinfandel. The most popular are Pinot noir, Pinot gris, Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
Oregon is also a state delivering incredible natural beauty along with acclaimed wines. The Willamette Valley and Columbia Gorge AVAs are mostly lush and green, with many waterfalls, while Southern Oregon, the Snake River, and Walla Walla Valley AVAs have a drier, sunnier climate with picturesque farmlands backed by majestic mountain ranges.
Willamette Valley AVA
The most famous Oregon AVA, Willamette Valley is renowned for its Pinor noir, widely regarded as some of the best in the world. It is 150 miles long, much of it right along the Willamette River, surrounded by the Cascade foothills, the Calapooya Mountains, Coast Range and Columbia River. This is where most of the state’s vineyards and wineries can be found, with nearly 700 wineries calling it home, producing not only Pinot noir but many other cool-climate varietals. Winemakers here take advantage of the many microclimates and frequently changing weather, although one can also taste their passion in every glass.
The founding wine families have been working together for decades to build a community and establish a reputation for high-quality. David Lett first planted Pinot noir and other cool-climate varieties here in 1965. Today wine lovers can sample everything from Pinot blanc and Pinot gris to Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, and Syrah. Producers have been on a continual quest ever since to take wine grapes like Pinot to a whole new level. It’s something that must be suffered with a frequent lack of sunlight and unexpected frosts, but the reward is well-worth the effort.
Southern Oregon AVA
The birthplace of the state’s wine industry was Southern Oregon, when the first grapes were planted in the mid-1850s by Peter Britt. The first commercial wine producer, he planted the Valley View vineyard, with his first wine produced in 1858. It’s still in operation today. In 1961, the first post-prohibition vineyard was established in the Umpqua Valley, Hillcrest Vineyards. The region’s outstanding diversity of growing conditions led to many cool- and warm-climate varieties being planted in the 1970s. About three decades later, Southern Oregon was officially an AVA.
Today, there are more than 120 wineries and tasting rooms that await visitors’ explorations. The drier, warmer climate results in everything from excellent Syrah and Zinfandel to Pinot noir and Sauvignon blanc. The scenic landscapes are also renowned, bringing lots to do in between tasting and touring, thanks to forested mountains and flowing rivers.
Columbia Gorge AVA
This AVA was established in 2004, a breath-takingly beautiful area that extends from an hour east of Portland near the town of Hood River along the Columbia River to just past The Dalles. The Gorge is the country’s largest National Scenic Area, with winemaking here dating to the 1880. The first vines were planted on the Washington side of the river by the Jewett family, founders of the town of White Salmon. Winemaking took off in the 1970s and thanks to skilled and passionate winemakers who planted in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the region became world-renowned for its grapes.
Visitors enjoy a variety of tasting and touring experiences, along with magnificent scenery from countless waterfalls and moss-covered trees in the west, while it seems to grow bigger, grander, and brighter rolling towards the sunny east. That difference results in a wide range of varietals. There are some 50 wineries and over 90 vineyards, with what may be an unmatched diversity of wine grapes for a relatively small area of land. You’ll find everything from Pinot noir to Zinfandel, Sauvignon blanc, and Pinot gris.
Snake River AVA
Covering a vast, more than 8,000-square-mile area that spans from northeast Oregon into southwestern Idaho, the Snake River AVA earned its status in 2007, thanks to its abundant white wine varietals, particularly Riesling. This region experiences weather extremes that include hot days and cool nights in the summer, helping to balance natural acids and sugars in the grapes. About a tenth of the AVA is on the Oregon side, known for its wild beauty, a remote area that includes the often snow-dusted peaks of the Wallowa range. Their crescent-shape nearly envelopes the small towns of Joseph and Enterprise. Dividing the states of Oregon and Washington, is the Snake River which flows through Hells Canyon.
While the long hot summers and frequent harsh winters may not be well-suited for Pinot noir, warmer climate grapes tend to thrive here at the higher elevations, including Riesling and Syrah. The volcanic soil is one of the most defining characteristics of this AVA, significantly impacting the terroir.
Walla Walla Valley AVA
The Walla Walla AVA is located at the foot of the Blue Mountains. It spans from the southeast corner of Washington across the Columbia River into northeast Oregon. Nearly half the acreage of wine grapes planted is in Oregon, with most wineries on the Washington side, many of which get grapes from their southern neighbour. Grape-growing began in 1859 here, but it wasn’t until 1977 when it really began to expand. Leonetti Cellar was the first commercial winery, founded by Gary Figgins in 1977. The new millennia saw it expand more, with a concerted effort made in Oregon that led to the development of the Milton-Freewater Rocks District, fertile land that enjoys a backdrop of the Blue Mountains. The wine is known for its rich and complex flavours, with the grapes absorbing minerals from basalt cobblestone that provide a savoury, earthy taste similar to grapes grown in France’s northern Rhone Valley.