Oregon’s wine regions share a cool climate, primarily because no high mountains separate the vineyards from the Pacific Ocean. The ocean influence brings cool temperatures and rain to Oregon. Grapegrowing and winemaking are completely different in Oregon and California.
Winemaking is a fairly new industry in Oregon, but it’s growing rapidly. Most of Oregon’s wineries are small, family-owned operations. Red wine encompasses 60 percent of Oregon’s wine production today.
Oregon’s Pinot Noir
Oregon first gained respect in wine circles for its Pinot Noir, a grape that needs cool climates to perform at its best. The Eyrie Vineyards released Oregon’s first Pinot Noir in 1970, but national recognition for the state’s Pinots came only after the excellent 1983 and 1985 vintages.
Pinot Noir is still Oregon’s flagship wine, and a vast majority of the state’s wineries make this wine. Oregon’s Pinot Noirs, with their characteristic black-fruit aromas and flavors, depth and complexity, have won accolades as among the very best Pinots in the United States.
Oregon’s Pinot Gris
In the year 2000, Pinot Gris overtook Chardonnay as Oregon’s number-one white variety planted, and it now also outsells Oregon Chardonnay. A natural mutation of its ancestor, Pinot Noir, the Pinot Gris variety has grapes that are normally pale pink–yellowish in color when ripe.
Two styles of Oregon Pinot Gris exist:
A lighter, fruity style (for which the grapes are picked early) is always unoaked and can be consumed as soon as six to eight months after the autumn harvest.
A medium-bodied, golden-colored wine from grapes left longer on the vine sometimes has a little oak aging and can age for five or six years or longer.
In general, Oregon Pinot Gris is light- to medium-bodied, with aromas reminiscent of pears, apples, and sometimes of melon, and surprising depth for an inexpensive wine. It’s an excellent food wine, even when it’s slightly sweet; it works well especially with seafood and salmon, just the kind of food that it’s paired with in Oregon.
Who’s who in Willamette Valley
The main home of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in Oregon is the Willamette Valley, directly south of the city of Portland in northwest Oregon. The cool Willamette Valley has established itself in the last 30 years as the most important wine region in Oregon.
Willamette Valley is a convenient wine destination to visit because the vibrant city of Portland, with all its fine restaurants, hotels, and shops, is 30 minutes north of this wine region.
Willamette Valley is huge and encompasses several counties. Yamhill County, directly southwest of Portland, has the greatest concentration of wineries, all of which produce Pinot Noir. But quite a few wineries are located in Washington County, west of Portland, and in Polk County, south of Yamhill.
Two other Oregon wine regions
Two other wine regions of note in Oregon are both in the southwest part of the state: the Umpqua Valley (around the town of Roseburg) and farther south, next to California’s northern border, the Rogue River Valley:
The Umpqua Valley, considerably warmer than Willamette Valley, is the site of Oregon’s first winery — Hillcrest Vineyard, founded in 1962. The main grape varieties in Umpqua are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Major wineries are Henry Estate and Girardet Wine Cellars, known for their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The Rogue River Valley is warmer still; therefore, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot often perform better than Pinot Noir there. Chardonnay is the leading white wine, but Pinot Gris is becoming popular. Bridgeview Vineyards, the region’s largest winery, is doing an admirable job with Pinot Gris as well as Pinot Noir.