Background and history of Oregon wine
Oregon has been pretty successful in recent years in producing cult wines, grown by winemakers obsessed with nurturing the vines as nature intended. These "hippy" wine makers have succeeded in making Oregon one of the top Pinot Noir producing areas, held in the same esteem as Burgundy and Central Otago in New Zealand. People like Maggie Harrison at Antica Terra in the Willamette Valley have worked hard to produce wines which express Oregon's unique terroir in the face of challenging climatic conditions. But the history of wine making is Oregon is relatively recent when compared with Western Europe.
Wine has been produced in Oregon since the area was first settled in the 1840's, with the first plantings of vines in around 1847. Valley View was the first recorded winery in Oregon and it was established by Peter Britt in the late 1850s in Jacksonville. However things really took off in terms of volume production in the 1960's following decades of inactivity once Prohibition had come to an end in the United States in 1933.
By 1970, there were five commercial wineries, with 14 hectares of vineyards, including Pinot Noir plantings in the Willamette Valley, a region thought to be too cold to be suitable for the production of grapes for wine. In the 1970's, more winemakers migrated to the state and started to organise themselves in a more serious way. In the 1979 Gault-Millau (a French Food and Wine Magazine) French Wine Olympiades, the 1975 Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve Pinot Noir came third out of over 300 top wines including Premier Cru Burgundy Pinot Noir.
During the 1980's several AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) were established in the state and in the early 1990's, when the Oregon wine industry was threatened by Phylloxera winemakers quickly turned to the use of resistant rootstocks to prevent any serious damage. By 2005, there were 314 wineries and 519 vineyards in operation in Oregon and by 2009, the number of wineries in the state had increased to 453 and today it remains the third largest wine producer in the United States after California and Washington State.
Wine production in Oregon
Oregon law requires that wines produced in the state must be identified by the grape variety from which it was made, and for most varietals it must contain at least 90% of that variety. The exceptions to the 90% law are the following varietals: Red and White Bordeaux varietals, Red and White Rhône varietals, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Zinfandel and Tannat. For these wines, they follow the Federal guidelines of 75%.
Oregon is most famous for its Pinot noir based wines particularly from the Willamette Valley area and these are gaining a worldwide reputation for their quality. In addition, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Pinot blanc, Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, and Syrah are grown.
The state features many small wineries which produce less than 5,000 cases per year and the majority grow their own grapes and make their own wines, making Oregon truly boutique in its wine production. Apart from King Estate, Montinore Vineyards and Burgundy's Domaine Drouhin in the Willamette Valley wineries are small and family run.
Compared to California, Oregon has a distinct climate that can be cool and cloudy, especially in the area where most of the state's wineries are in operation, the Willamette Valley south of Portland. Northerly vineyards near the coast have maritime influences particularly from the fogs that roll in from the Pacific Ocean, producing delicate, finessed wines. But in the Willamette Valley, low rainfall can be an issue even though the state is generally wet and heat stress can be an issue when the summer is particularly hot.
Alhough like Bordeaux, Oregon is on the 45th parallel like Bordeaux, the majority of production does not follow the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from that region of France but rather the Pinot Noir of Burgundy.However, the southern part of the state, the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys are warm enough to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon and are producing some good wines with this grape as well as many other European varieties.
For Oregon's wine makers sufficient ripening is the constant challenge as well as battling rot from the moist conditions. Harvesting can take place anytime between September and November in Oregon depending on how good the summer was. It is a real labour of love to produce wine in this state as it is never a case of just planting and producing great wines, the winemaker needs to carefully work with nature and it is great to see so many organic and biodynamic producers despite the challenges.
For many years Oregon growers depended on American and Swiss clones of Pinot Noir which tended to produce wines that were either too rich or lean. The big leap forward was taken in the late 1990's when more recently planted Burgundian clones (known here as Dijon clones) began to grow, resulting in more depth of flavour, some savoury notes and better structured wines able to be cellared.
Oregon wine producing areas
There are now eighteen AVA's in Oregon in total but many are sub regions of more major AVA's.
- Applegate Valley : is a sub-appellation of the larger Rogue Valley AVA in Southern Oregon. It stretches 50 miles north from the California border to the Rogue River just west of Grants Pass.
- Chehalem Mountains: is a sub-appellation of the existing Willamette Valley region. This viticultural area is 19 miles southwest of Portland and 45 miles east of the Pacific Ocean.
- Columbia Gorge: lies in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge , a dramatic river corridor that straddles the Columbia River for 15 miles into both Oregon and Washington.
- Columbia Valley: is a very large producing region with 11 million acres of land in total.
- Dundee Hills: is a sub-appellation within the Willamette Valley located 28 miles southwest of Portland and 40 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.
- Elkton Oregon: is located in Douglas County, Oregon. It is situated 33 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the west.
- Eola-Amity Hills: is a sub-appellation of the Willamette Valley AVA located just west-northwest of Salem, Oregon’s state capitol.
- McMinnville: is a sub-appellation of the Willamette Valley AVA that sits just west of the city of McMinnville, approximately 40 miles southwest of Portland.
- Red Hill Douglas County: is a sub-appellation of the Umpqua Valley AVA near the small town of Yoncalla, which lies about 30 miles north of Roseburg and parallels Interstate 5.
- Ribbon Ridge: is a sub-appellation of the Willamette Valley AVA that is contained within the larger Chehalem Mountains AVA.
- The Rocks District: The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is situated in the Walla Walla Valley in northeastern Oregon 25 miles northeast of Pendleton and 5 miles south of Walla Walla, WA. Oregon's newest AVA, being established in 2015.
- Rogue Valley: is the southernmost wine growing region in Oregon.
- Snake River Valley: is an AVA that spans from Southeastern Oregon into Southwestern Idaho. The total area is approximately 8,000 square miles.
- Southern Oregon: it exists in the southwest portion of the state and encompasses Umpqua Valley, Rogue Valley, Red Hill Douglas County, and Applegate Valley appellations.
- Umpqua Valley: it sits between the Coast Range to the west and the Cascade Range to the east, with the Willamette Valley AVA to the north and the Rogue Valley AVA to the south.
- Walla Walla Valley: is hemmed in by the Blue Mountains to the southeast, the Palouse to the north, and the Columbia River westward.
- Willamette Valley: is 150 miles long and up to 60 miles wide making it Oregon’s largest AVA.
But to simplify matters there are three major wine producing regions in Oregon. The number of regions and sub-regions is somewhat confusing!
- Willamette Valley AVA - Oregon's largest AVA
- Southern Oregon AVA (created by the merging of the Rogue Valley and the Umpqua Valley AVA's).
- Columbia Gorge AVA (covers both Oregon and Washington State)
Oregon AVA's in depth
The Willamette Valley AVA
Grape growing began in this area of Oregon in 1966 and in 1983 the Willamette Valley AVA was officially established.
The Willamette Valley AVA covers an area from the Columbia River in the north to just south of Eugene in the south, where the Willamette Valley ends; and from the Oregon Coast Range in the West to the Cascade Mountains in the East. At 5,200 square miles (13,500 km2), 150 miles long and up to 60 miles wide it is the largest AVA in the state. It is named after the river that flows through it.
To acknowledge the uniqueness of certain smaller growing hillsides inside the valley, AVA designation was requested for six areas in the northern valley, which contain sixty per-cent of the currently planted acreage of the Willamette Valley. All these new AVAs have minimum elevations around 200 feet; some also have a maximum of 1000 feet.
David Lett and Eyrie Vineyards - Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve Pinot Noir 1975
Modern wine making in the Willamette Valley started in the 1960's when David Lett, Charles Coury and Dick Erath planted Pinot Noir and small amounts of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling in the area.
Things really started to change for Oregon wine's reputation when David Lett entered his 1975 Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve Pinot Noir in the 1979 Gault-Millau (a French Food and Wine Magazine) French Wine Olympiades. Lett originally intended to become a dentist, but fortunately decided to study viticulture instead at University of California, Davis, one of the world's top colleges in the field. After studying he worked in Switzerland, Burgundy and Alsace and finally set up in Oregon and fellow wine makers said he was mad even trying to go Pinot Noir because of the difficulties in ripening the grapes and the climatic challenges.
But Lett persevered despite the "can't be done" naysayers and amazingly the Gault-Millau was and won third prize out of a total of 330 wines and against France’s best producers. Lett made sure that the world started to take notice of Oregon as a serious wine region of the world.
Flabbergasted by the result, the French re-ran the competition in 1980 in a Robert Drouhin-sponsored French blind tasting and included some of Burgundy's best Pinot Noir's and this time the Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve Pinot Noir came second, just behind a Drouhin Premier Cru Chambolle-Musigny 1959. The result reconfirmed the high rating of Lett's Oregon Pinot Noir.
In 1987 Burgundy's famous negotiant family, the Drouhins, acquired 100 acres of land for vineyards and a winery in the Dundee Hills. Robert Drouhin had made several visits to Oregon and Véronique Drouhin, who worked harvest in Oregon in 1986 with three wineries, was appointed winemaker for the new venture. They made their first wine in 1988 from purchased grapes in a leased facility.
This was followed in 2013 by a second Burgundy producer/negotiant, Maison Louis Jadot, which purchased the Resonance Vineyard in the Willamette Valley, marking only the second time a French negociant has purchased land in Oregon (Maison Joseph Drouhin was first, in 1987).
Climate: The Willamette Valley is relatively mild throughout the year, with cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers. Whilst the area is relatively wet, most of the rainfall occurs in the winter, not during the main growing season. This temperate climate, combined with coastal maritime influences, make the gentle growing conditions within the Valley ideal for cool climate grapes, including Pinot Noir. The Valley enjoys more daylight hours during the growing season than in any other area of the state. During this longer growing season, the Willamette Valley enjoys warm days and cool nights, a diurnal temperature swing that allows the wine grapes to develop their flavour and complexity while retaining their natural acidity.
Not all parts of the Valley are suitable for viticulture, and most wineries and vineyards are found west of the Willamette River, with the largest concentration in Yamhill County.
Soils: The Willamette Valley is an old volcanic and sedimentary seabed that has been overlaid with gravel, silt, rock and boulders brought by the Missoula Floods from Montana and Washington between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago. The most common of the volcanic type is red Jory soil, which is found above 300 feet elevation (as it had escaped the Missoula Floods deposits) and is between four and six feet deep and provides excellent drainage for superior quality wine grapes. Anything below 300 feet elevation is primarily sedimentary-based soil.
Topography: The Willamette Valley is protected by the Coast Range to the west, the Cascades to the east and a series of hill chains to the north. Its namesake, the Willamette River, runs through its heart. The largest concentration of vineyards are located to the west of this river, on the leeward slopes of the Coast Range, or among the valleys created by the river’s tributaries. While most of the region’s vineyards reside a few hundred feet above sea level, parts of the Willamette Valley do reach much higher. The Chehalem Mountains are the highest mountains in the Valley with their tallest point, Bald Peak, rising 1,633 feet above sea level.
The Willamette Valley AVA is best known for its Pinot Noir, but it also produces large amounts of Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Chardonnay. Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Sémillon, and Zinfandel grapes are also grown, but in far smaller quantities.
The region is divided into six sub regional AVAs:
- Chehalem Mountains AVA
The Chehalem Mountains AVA was established in 2006 and is a single uplifted landmass southwest of Portland in the northern Willamette Valley, extending 20 miles in length and 5 miles in breadth, stretching from southeast to northwest. It is 19 miles southwest of Portland and 45 miles east of the Pacific Ocean.
It includes several discrete spurs, mountains and ridges, such as Ribbon Ridge and Parrott Mountain. The highest point within the Willamette Valley is the Chehalem Mountains’ Bald Peak (at 1,633 feet) which affects weather for the AVA and for adjoining grape growing hillsides.
Wine history: Chehalem Mountains’ winegrowing history dates back to 1968 when UC Davis refugee Dick Erath purchased 49 acres on Dopp Road in Yamhill County. He aptly called the property Chehalem Mountain Vineyard. By the mid to late 1970's, there was a patchwork of vineyards in the area, including those owned by such modern wine pioneers as the Adelsheims and the Ponzis.
Climate: Chehalem Mountains’ elevation goes from 200 to 1,633 feet, resulting in varied annual precipitation (37 inches at the lowest point and 60 inches at the highest) as well as the greatest variation in temperature within the Willamette Valley. These variations can result in three-week differences in the ripening of Pinot noir grapes.
Soils: Chehalem Mountains has a combination of Columbia River basalt, ocean sedimentation and wind-blown loess derivation soil types.
Topography: Chehalem Mountains is a single landmass made up of several hilltops, ridges and spurs that is uplifted from the Willamette Valley floor. The appellation includes all land in the area above the 200-foot elevation. They are the highest mountains in the Willamette Valley with their tallest point, Bald Peak, at 1,633 feet above sea level.
McMinnville is contained within the Willamette Valley AVA, sitting just west of the city of McMinnville, approximately 40 miles southwest of Portland and extending 20 miles south-southwest.
Wine history: McMinnville has a long farming history that dates back to the mid-1800s when berry fields, tree fruits and livestock dominated. All that began to change when, in 1970, one of Oregon’s winemaking pioneers, David Lett, bought an old turkey processing plant in McMinnville to house his winery. Soon after, winegrowers began planting vineyards and establishing wineries in the area and, in 1987, McMinnville held the very first International Pinot Noir Celebration. Held every July since, it’s a wildly popular three-day event where winemakers and enthusiasts from all over the world congregate for Pinot noir tastings, winery tours, and seminars. The McMinnville AVA was established in 2005. Today, the area continues to sprout more wineries and tasting rooms.
Climate: McMinnville sits in a protective weather shadow of the Coast Range. As a result, the primarily east- and south-facing vineyards receive less rainfall (just 33 inches annually, as compared to 40 inches in Eola-Amity Hills) than sites just 12 miles to the east. Those vineyards situated on the more southerly facing sites take advantage of the cooling winds from the Van Duzer Corridor, a break in the coast range that allows cool Pacific Ocean air to flow through, thus dropping evening temperatures in the region, which helps to keep grape acids firm. Compared to surrounding areas, McMinnville is, on average, warmer and drier, consisting of higher elevation vineyards (up to 1,000 feet) that are resistant to frost.
Soils: The soils are typically uplifted marine sedimentary loams and silts, with alluvial overlays. As compared to other appellations in the Willamette Valley, these soils are uniquely shallow for winegrowing with low total available moisture.
Topography: McMinnville’s elevation levels range from 200 to 1,000 feet, and the area encompasses the east and southeast slopes of the Coast Range foothills. Geologically, the most distinctive feature in this area is the Nestucca Formation, a 2,000-foot-thick bedrock formation that extends west of the city of McMinnville to the slopes of the Coast Range. This formation contains intrusions of marine basalts, which affect the region’s ground water composition, resulting in grapes with unique flavor and development characteristics.
- Dundee Hills AVA
The first grapes in the Willamette Valley were planted in the Dundee Hills and the AVA was established in November 2005. It remains the most densely planted locale in the valley and state. Within the 12,500 acres of this almost exclusively basaltic landmass that runs north-south and overlooks the Willamette River to the south and the Chehalem Valley to the north, more than 1,700 acres of grapes are planted in approximately 50 vineyards. It is approximately 30 miles to the southwest of Portland and 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, with protection from the ocean climate provided by the higher Coast Range of mountains.
The Dundee Hills offer spectacular views, including Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson’s snowy peaks.
Wine history: Winemaker David Lett planted the first Pinot noir in the Dundee Hills in 1965, naming it The Eyrie Vineyard and which soon gained international acclaim. Soon after, Dick Erath, the Sokol Blosser family and other winemakers cleared south-facing slopes to plant many of Oregon’s first vineyards.
Climate: The Dundee Hills area is effectively an island protected from great climatic variations by surrounding geographic features. The Coast Range to the west lessens the effects of the Pacific Ocean’s heavy rains and windstorms, causing a rain shadow over the Dundee Hills area. The region receives just 30 to 45 inches of annual precipitation, most of which falls in the winter months outside of the growing season. Because of their slope and elevation, Dundee Hills vineyards benefit from warmer nights and less frost and fog than the adjacent valley floors.
Soils: Dundee Hills is known for its rich, red volcanic Jory soil, which was formed from ancient volcanic basalt and consists of silt, clay and loam soils. They typically reach a depth of 4 to 6 feet and provide excellent drainage for superior quality wine grapes.
Topography: The Dundee Hills viticultural region consists of a single, continuous landmass that rises above the surrounding Willamette Valley floor and is defined by the 200-foot contour line to the AVA’s highest peak of 1,067 feet. The area comprises a north-south spine with ridges, as well as small valleys on its east, south and west sides. Dundee Hills is part of a North Willamette Valley hill chain that developed as a result of intense volcanic activity and the collision of the Pacific and North American plates. Dundee Hills is typically volcanic over sedimentary sandstone.
- Eola-Amity Hills AVA
Established in 2006 and adjacent to the Willamette River and located just west-northwest of Salem, Oregon’s state capitol. The Eola-Amity Hills are composed of the Eola Hills, on the 45th parallel on the southern end and the Amity Hills on the northern spur, constituting almost 40,000 acres on which more than 1,300 acres of grapes are planted.
Wine history: The agricultural history of this area near Salem dates back to the mid-1850s, though it wasn’t until the 1970s that winemakers started to discover the area as having ideal growing conditions for high-quality wine grapes. It was around this time that a few modern pioneers, including Don Byard of Hidden Springs, planted a patchwork of vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills.
Climate: The Eola-Amity Hills region enjoys a temperate climate of warm summers and mild winters, and 40 inches of annual rain, most of which falls outside of the growing season. Average maximum temperatures are 62 degrees Fahrenheit in April and 83 degrees Fahrenheit in July, which contribute to the ideal conditions for the cool-climate grape varieties that dominate the Eola-Amity Hills. The climate in this region is greatly influenced by its position due east of the Van Duzer Corridor, which provides a break in the coast range that allows cool Pacific Ocean air to flow through. This decreases temperatures in the region dramatically, especially during late summer afternoons, helping to keep grape acids firm.
Soil: The soils in the Eola-Amity Hills predominantly contain volcanic basalt from ancient lava flows as well as marine sedimentary rocks and alluvial deposits at the lower elevations of the ridge. This combination results in a relatively shallow, rocky set of well-drained soils, which typically produce small grapes with great concentration.
Topography: The Eola Hills, and its northern extension, the Amity Hills, are part of a North Willamette Valley hill chain that developed out of intense volcanic activity and the collision of the Pacific and North American plates. The main ridge of the Eola Hills runs north-south and has numerous lateral ridges on both sides that run east-west. The majority of the region’s vineyard sites exist at elevations between 250 to 700 feet.
- McMinnville AVA
The McMinnville AVA was founded in 2005 and with nearly 40,500 acres sits due west of Yamhill County’s seat, the city of McMinnville. It extends approximately 20 miles south-southwest toward the mouth of the Van Duzer corridor, Oregon’s lowest coast range pass to the Pacific Ocean. Encompassing the land above 200 feet and below 1,000 feet in elevation on the east and southeast slopes of these foothills of the coast-range mountains, the soils are primarily uplifted marine sedimentary loams and silts, with alluvial overlays and a base of uplifting basalt. The soils are uniquely shallow for winegrowing. The planted slopes sit in the protecting weather shadow of the Coast Range mountains, and rainfall is lower than on sites to the east. The primarily east- and south-facing sites take advantage of the drying winds from the Van Duzer corridor. Approximately 600 acres are currently planted here.
- Ribbon Ridge AVA
Ribbon Ridge, established in 2005, is a very regular spur of ocean sediment uplift off the northwest end of the Chehalem Mountains, containing a relatively uniform 5 1/4 square miles (3,350 acres) of land. Approximately 500 acres are currently planted on the ridge, within 20 vineyards. The AVA is distinguished by uniform, unique ocean sedimentary soils and a geography that is protected climatically by the larger landmasses surrounding it. Paucity of aquifers forces most vineyards to be dry farmed. Ribbon Ridge is contained within the larger Chehalem Mountains AVA.
- Yamhill-Carlton District AVA
Yamhill-Carlton was established in 2005 and is North of McMinnville, the foothills of the Coast Range to create an AVA of nearly 60,000 acres. It is located 35 miles southwest of Portland and 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, the area includes the towns of Carlton and Yamhill.
Low ridges surround the two communities in a horseshoe shape, with the North Yamhill River coursing through nurseries, grain fields, orchards and more than 1,200 acres of vineyard. The Coast Range to the west soars to nearly 3,500 feet (1,200m) establishing a rain shadow over the entire district.
Wine history: Once primarily known for tree-fruit orchards, nurseries, livestock, wheat fields and logging, the area now known as Yamhill-Carlton has a relatively recent wine history. In 1974, pioneers Pat and Joe Campbell started Elk Cove Vineyards, which produced the first commercial wine in the Yamhill-Carlton area at a time when other areas of the North Willamette Valley were just starting to be planted.
Climate: Yamhill-Carlton is protected by high elevation areas to the west (Coast Range), north (Chehalem Mountains) and east (Dundee Hills), which results in less rain than surrounding areas and moderate growing conditions perfectly suited for cool-climate grapes, including the area’s signature variety, Pinot noir.
Soils: Yamhill-Carlton is comprised of coarse-grained, ancient marine sedimentary soils over sandstone and siltstone that all drain quickly, making them ideal for viticulture. Grapes grown in such soil often result in wines lower in acid than those made from grapes grown in basaltic or wind-blown soils.
Topography: Yamhill-Carlton vineyards grow on sites with elevations between 200 and 1,000 feet, avoiding low valley frost and high elevation temperatures unsuitable for effective ripening. Geographically, this area is bounded by the Coast Range to the west, the Chehalem Mountains to the north and the Dundee Hills to the east.
Southern Oregon AVA
The Southern Oregon AVA is an AVA which was formed as a result of a combination between the Rogue Valley AVA (which contains the Applegate Valley AVA sub region) and the Umpqua Valley AVA in 2004 (A small strip of connecting territory is included in the Southern Oregon AVA to make it a continuous region but this strip passes through mountains regions not suitable for vineyards.)
It lies in the southwest portion of the state, stretching 125 miles south of Eugene to the California border, and 60 miles at its widest between the Cascade Mountain Range to the east and the Coast Range to the west. It encompasses Applegate Valley, Elkton Oregon, Red Hill Douglas County, Rogue Valley and Umpqua Valley appellations.
Wine history: Southern Oregon has the oldest history of grape growing in the state. It dates back to 1852 with an early area settler named Peter Britt, who operated a winery in Jacksonville. Post-Prohibition winemaking started in 1961 when vintner Richard Sommer migrated from University of California at Davis and founded Hillcrest Vineyards in the Umpqua Valley. Impressed with the diversity of growing conditions in this area, other winemakers began planting roots in the 1970s, resulting in a patchwork of vineyards growing both cool- and warm-climate varieties. Today, this winegrowing region continues to grow and turn out a great variety of high-quality wines. The appellation became official in 2004.
Climate: While this region provides the warmest growing conditions in Oregon, there exist cool microclimates within its varied hillsides and valleys that enable Southern Oregon to successfully grow both cool- and warm-climate varieties. This area receives significantly less rainfall than other viticultural areas in Oregon (40 percent less than the Willamette Valley) and is generally a warm, sunny, arid climate.
Soils: Southern Oregon’s soils are varied and complex, though generally derived from bedrock, specifically from the 200 million year old Klamath Mountains to the west, which are comprised of sedimentary rocks.
Topography: The Southern Oregon appellation contains a varied, mountainous topography with vineyards typically situated in high mountain valleys at elevations between 1,000 to 2,000 feet. The lofty southern coastal mountains provide a barrier to the west, blocking marine air and casting a rain shadow to the area’s south and east.
Umpqua Valley AVA
The Umpqua Valley AVA contains the drainage basin of the Umpqua River, excluding mountainous regions and has a warmer climate than the Willamette Valley, but is cooler than the Rogue Valley to the south. It is the oldest post-prohibition wine region in Oregon and is named after the legendary fishing river that runs nearby. The appellation stretches 65 miles from north to south, and is 25 miles from east to west.
Grapes grown here include Tempranillo, Baco noir, Pinot noir, Pinot gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, and a host of lesser known Vitis vinifera.
The region includes two sub-AVAs, the Red Hill Douglas County, Oregon AVA, a single vineyard AVA, as well as the Elkton, Oregon AVA, which was established in early 2013.
Wine history: The Umpqua Valley’s winegrowing history dates back to the 1880s when German immigrants who had worked for the Beringer Bros., the oldest continuously operating vineyard in Napa, planted the first wine grape vineyard in the Valley. Post-Prohibition, Richard Sommer established Hillcrest Vineyards near Roseburg in 1961. He was the first to plant Pinot noir in Oregon despite being told by his UC Davis cohorts that it was impossible to successfully grow wine grapes in Oregon. Obviously, they were wrong. Just eight years later, in 1969, Paul Bjelland of Bjelland Vineyards founded the Oregon Winegrowers Association in the Umpqua Valley. During the 1970s, new wineries opened, including Henry Estate Winery, whose winemaker Scott Henry developed a now world-famous trellis system, which increases grape yield, among other benefits. The Umpqua Valley appellation continues to evolve as new winemakers discover the area, bringing with them a passion for innovation and world-class wine. The Umpqua Valley appellation became official in 1984.
Climate: One of Oregon’s more diverse climates, the Umpqua Valley can successfully grow both cool and warm varieties. It’s comprised of three distinct climatic sub-zones: 1) The northern area around the town of Elkton enjoys a cool, marine-influenced climate. It receives around 50 inches of annual rainfall, making irrigation unnecessary. Pinot noir and other cool-climate varieties thrive here. 2) The central area to the northwest of Roseburg has a transitional, or intermediate, climate where both cool and warm varieties do quite well. 3) The area south of Roseburg is warmer and more arid, similar to Rogue and Applegate Valleys to the south, making irrigation necessary. Warm-climate varieties, including Tempranillo, Syrah and Merlot thrive here.
Soils: Umpqua Valley soils are as varied as the climate. Generally, they are derived from a mix of metamorphic, sedimentary and volcanic rock, though more than 150 soil types have been identified in the region. The valley floor levels have mostly deep alluvial or heavy clay materials, while the hillsides and bench locations have mixed alluvial, silt or clay structures-all typically excellent for winegrowing.
Topography: The complex topography of the Umpqua Valley is a result of the collision of three mountain ranges of varying age and structure: the Klamath Mountains, the Coast Range and the Cascades. Many say the area should not be thought of as a single valley but, rather, more accurately “The Hundred Valleys of the Umpqua” because it is made up of a series of interconnecting small mountain ranges and valleys.
Elkton Oregon AVA
The Elkton Oregon AVA is located in Douglas County, Oregon. It is situated 33 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the west. The Cascade Range is located to the west, with the Willamette Valley AVA to the north and Rogue Valley AVA to the south. It is wholly within the Umpqua Valley AVA, which in turn lies within the larger Southern Oregon AVA. Named for the town of Elkton, the AVA covers approximately 11 percent of the Umpqua Valley AVA. Elkton Oregon is the northernmost and lowest elevation region in the Umpqua Valley.
Wine history: Winegrowing in Elkton dates back to the early 1970s when Ken Thomason began planting cool climate whites and Pinot noir. The first winery was established in 2000. Currently, there are four licensed wineries and 12 commercial vineyards totaling 96.5 planted acres.
Climate: Elkton Oregon is the coolest and wettest region within the larger Umpqua Valley and produces different varieties and different wine styles than the rest of the larger AVA. The northern area around the town of Elkton enjoys a cool, marine-influenced climate. Elkton Oregon has a cooler, but milder and longer growing season than the rest of the Umpqua Valley and receives much more rain annually, about 50 inches. Pinot noir and other cool-climate varieties thrive here.
Soils: Elkton Oregon is dominated by the coastal mountain geology, lying over a mix of sedimentary, volcanic and metamorphic rock units from the middle Eocene. The National Resource Conservation Service mapped more than 50 different soil series or complexes in Elkton Oregon. These soils are predominately residual clay and/or silt loam soil or small to large cobble-dominated alluvial deposits from the Yamhill and Tyee formation and the river terrace building of the meandering Umpqua River.
Topography: Elkton Oregon contains a wide range of terrain that is dissected by the broader meanders of the Umpqua River. The majority of the AVA falls below the 1,000-foot contour and includes the river bottom land (elevation 130-160 feet), river terraces (or benchlands) and foot hills near the river (elevation 130-160 feet).
Rogue Valley AVA
The Rogue Valley AVA, founded in 2001, is the southernmost wine growing region in Oregon and is the warmest and driest It is made up of three adjacent river valleys (Bear Creek, Applegate and Illinois Valleys) that extend from the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains along the California border north to the Rogue River. Most wineries in the region are found along one of these three tributaries, rather than along the Rogue River itself. It is 70 miles wide by 60 miles long and encompasses the Applegate Valley AVA.
There are currently 32 wineries with only 1,100 acres (4 km2) planted.
Wine history: Rogue Valley’s wine history dates back to the 1840s when European immigrants began planting grapes and eventually bottling wines. In 1852, an early settler named Peter Britt joined in on the grape growing adventure, though it wasn’t until 1873 that he opened Valley View Winery – Oregon’s first official winery. Valley View closed in 1907 (though its name was resurrected by the Wisnovsky family in 1972), then Prohibition began. It wasn’t until after an Oregon State University professor planted an experimental vineyard here in 1968 that winemakers rediscovered Rogue Valley.
Climate: Rogue Valley is made up of three distinct valleys with progressively warmer microclimates, enabling the region to successfully grow both cool- and warm-climate grape varieties. To the west, the region is affected by mountain and ocean influences, making it suitable for some cool-weather varieties, including Pinot noir. Farther east, Rogue Valley has the highest elevations (nearly 2,000 feet) of Oregon’s winegrowing regions, but it is also the warmest and the driest, making it well-suited for warm-weather varieties including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon blanc.
Soils: Rogue Valley soil types are many and varied, including mixes of metamorphic, sedimentary and volcanic derived soils ranging from sandy loam to hard clay.
Topography: Vineyards here are typically at elevations of 1,200 to 2,000 feet and are planted on hillsides rather than valley floor. Rogue Valley’s diverse landscape is derived from the convergence of three mountain ranges of varying ages and structure: the Klamath Mountains, the Coastal Range and the Cascades. This region includes the Rogue River and its tributaries: the Applegate, Illinois and Bear Creek rivers.
Applegate Valley AVA
Applegate Valley is contained within the larger Rogue Valley AVA in Southern Oregon and was formed in 2001. It stretches 50 miles north from the California border to the Rogue River just west of Grants Pass.
Wine history: Applegate Valley’s wine history began in 1852 when an early area settler named Peter Britt planted wine grapes. In 1873, he opened Valley View Winery, Oregon’s first official winery. Valley View closed in 1907; then Prohibition hit. It wasn’t until the 1970s, after modern pioneers began discovering the neighboring areas’ quality wine growing conditions, that Applegate Valley experienced a resurgence of winemaking. It began with a few family-run wineries that planted their roots and opened their doors.
Climate: Applegate Valley has a moderate climate that generally enjoys a warm, dry (just 25.2 inches of annual rain) growing season with hot days and cool nights perfect for warm-climate varieties.
Soils: Applegate Valley’s soil types are typically granite in origin, and most of the area’s vineyards are planted on stream terraces or alluvial fans, providing deep, well-drained soils that are ideal for high-quality wine grapes.
Topography: Applegate Valley is surrounded by the Siskiyou Mountains, which were created by up-thrusts of the ocean floor as a plate forced its way under the continental shelf. The Siskiyou National Forest borders the Applegate Valley to the west and the Rogue River National Forest to the east. Vineyards are typically grown at higher elevations up to 2,000 feet.
Red Hill Douglas County AVA
Red Hill Douglas County is contained within the Umpqua Valley AVA, near the small town of Yoncalla, which lies about 30 miles north of Roseburg and parallels Interstate 5.
Wine history: The Applegate and Scott families, pioneers of Southern Oregon, settled at the foot of Red Hill in the mid-1800s. Jesse Applegate planted Douglas County’s first established vineyard in Yoncalla in 1876. Red Hill Douglas County appellation was approved in 2005.
Climate: Red Hill Douglas County has a relatively mild climate, with daytime averages of 75 degrees F during growing season (as opposed to regions farther south that can experience highs of 105 degrees F). The marine influence reaching this area also provides a wetter climate than the surrounding Umpqua Valley area. Thanks to its higher elevation, the area generally enjoys a frost-free growing season.
Soils: Red Hill Douglas County is dominated by iron-rich, red volcanic Jory soils, which were formed from ancient volcanic basalt and consist of silt, clay and loam soils. They are mostly deep, well-drained to the 15-foot depth, and considered premier wine grape growing soils.
Topography: Elevation in this area ranges from the 800-foot contour line to 1,200 feet, the maximum elevation for quality grape production in the Red Hill Douglas County region. Geologically, Red Hill is part of the Umpqua Formation, which is composed of basalts similar to the volcanic rocks on the Pacific Ocean floor. It has many rising domes that give it an undulating appearance.
Columbia Gorge AVA
The Columbia Gorge AVA lies in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge and straddles the Columbia River for 15 miles into both Oregon and Washington.It is 60 miles east of Portland. The AVA is comprised of Hood River and Wasco counties in Oregon, and Skamania and Klickitat counties in Washington.
The AVA includes both the Columbia Gorge AVA and part of the Columbia Valley AVA.
Because of the region's climate it grows a wide variety of grapes such as Syrah, Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot gris, Riesling, and Sangiovese. There are over 40 wineries situated here.
Wine history: Grape growing in the Columbia Gorge area dates back to the 1880's when the Jewitt family, who founded the town of White Salmon, WA, planted American vines they had brought with them from Illinois. Other pioneer families followed suit and today some of their original vines are still alive and have withstood sub-zero temperatures. It wasn’t until the 1970s that post-Prohibition pioneers started experimenting with wine grape vineyards on the south-facing slopes of the Underwood Mountain in Washington. The Columbia Gorge appellation became official in 2004.
Climate: Within the wine growing region, the climate in the Columbia Gorge appellation changes drastically. To the west is a cooler, marine-influenced climate where it rains 36 inches per year; to the east is a continental high desert climate with just 10 inches of annual rainfall. This extreme variance of climate means this area can successfully grow a wide range of classical varieties.
Soils: The Columbia Gorge wine region’s soils are generally silty loams collected over time from floods, volcanic activity and landslides.
Topography: The Columbia River Gorge is a narrow, winding river valley whose walls range from steep volcanic rock faces to more gentle-sloped, terraced benchlands that are typically well suited for grape growing. The Gorge is the only sea-level passage through the Cascade Mountain Range. From north to south there are two iconic geographical features: Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood, both part of the central Cascade Mountain range.
Columbia Valley AVA
The Columbia Valley AVA is a very large growing region with 11 million acres of land in total. Most of the Columbia Valley lies in Washington State, with a small section in Oregon stretching from The Dalles to Milton-Freewater. The region is 185 miles wide and 200 miles long.
Wine history: On the Oregon side, the Columbia Valley wine history dates back to the early 1900s, when settlers planted the area’s first vineyard on a steep, southward-sloping hill near the small town of The Dalles. These Zinfandel vines, which are now more than 100 years old, still produce wine grapes at what is today known as The Pines 1852 Vineyard, whose vintner revitalized the land in the early 1980s. Around that time, as the Washington side of the Columbia Valley appellation began to flourish with large-scale wineries, reputable winemakers started tagging the small Oregon side as an excellent location for high-quality wine grapes. The appellation became official in 1984.
Climate: The Columbia Valley has a largely continental high desert climate. The hot days promote slow, even ripening, while the cool nights ensure that grapes retain their natural acidity. The area receives just 6 to 8 inches of annual rainfall, making supplemental irrigation a necessity throughout the region.
Soils: Roughly 15,000 years ago a series of tremendous Ice Age floods (dubbed the Missoula Floods) deposited silt and sand over the area. These deposited sediments, along with wind-blown loess sediment, make up the area’s present-day soils, which are well drained and ideal for grapevines.
Topography: The Columbia Valley is a huge area covering 11 million acres. Mostly, the Columbia Valley lies on the Columbia River Plateau and encompasses the valleys formed by the Columbia River and its tributaries, including the Walla Walla, Snake and Yakima rivers. Mountain ranges border the Columbia Valley region on the west and north, while the Columbia River acts roughly as a boundary to the south, and the Snake River near Idaho acts as the border to the east.
Walla Walla Valley AVA
Parts of NE Oregon (in the vicinity of Milton-Freewater) are part of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, which was first set up in 1984. This AVA, which is part of the Columbia Valley AVA, lies primarily within Washington state and is about 250 miles east of Portland. The area is hemmed in by the Blue Mountains to the southeast, the Palouse to the north and the Columbia River westward.This region has nearly 100 wineries and 1,200 acres (5 km2) planted.
Wines grown in the valley include Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Sangiovese and a few exotic varietals including Counoise,Carmenère, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo and Barbera.
Wine history: It’s believed that winegrowing in the Walla Walla Valley dates back to the 1920s, although the modern day wine industry began in the 1970s when childhood friends Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar and Rick Small of Woodward Canyon began conducting enological experiments in Rick’s garage. They soon began growing grapes in the Valley, and subsequently founded their wineries in 1977 (Leonetti Cellar) and 1981 (Woodward Canyon). L’Ecole No 41 was established soon after, in 1983. The Walla Walla Valley was officially designated as an AVA in 1984, but it took another decade for the growth spurt to begin. At the turn of the millennium more than 50 wineries called the Valley home, and today that number has grown to more than 100. Additionally, the Walla Walla Valley has one sub AVA, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater.
Climate: The Walla Walla Valley is ideal for grape growing, as the dry July and August heat provides a vibrant core of ripeness in the berries, while the chill of September nights assures the acidic backbone necessary for creating top flight wines. Annual rainfall figures triple from a sparse seven inches at the western end of the valley to a lush 22 inches along the foothills of the Blue Mountains to the east.
Soils: There are four distinct soil terroirs in the Walla Walla Valley: loess (wind-deposited silt) overlying Missoula flood sediments, thick loess overlying basalt bedrock, basalt cobblestone gravels and very thin loess on basalt bedrock.
Topography: The Walla Walla Valley is hemmed in by the Blue Mountains to the southeast, the Palouse to the north, and the Columbia River westward. Elevations across the valley soar between 400 feet and 2,000 feet above sea level.
The Rocks District AVA
Location: The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is situated in the Walla Walla Valley in northeastern Oregon, 25 miles northeast of Pendleton, OR and 5 miles south of Walla Walla, WA. The AVA derives its name from the extremely rocky soils that underlie a region just north of the small town of Milton-Freewater. With an area of only 5.9 square miles, The Rocks District is the second smallest AVA in Oregon. The Rocks District is wholly contained within both Walla Walla Valley and Columbia Valley AVAs. It is Oregon's newest AVA, being officially recognised in 2015 and being the state's 18th AVA.
Wine history: Wine grape production in The Rocks District was initiated by Italian emigrants who first arrived in the area in the 1860s. By the early 1880s the region was producing thousands of gallons of wine, mostly for consumption by miners in the gold fields of northern Idaho. A series of very cold winters in the late 1880s, combined with the end of the gold rush, forced the farmers to turn most of their vineyards into orchards. However, many farmers maintained small vineyards and continued to produce limited quantities of wine for family and friends. Isolated wild vines that are the remnants of these small family vineyards can still be found in The Rocks District. The modern era of wine production began in 1996 when Frenchman Christophe Baron rediscovered the area, noting the similarity of its soils to those of the famous French wine region of Chateauneuf du Pape. The wines Baron produced from his vineyards received instant acclaim from critics, who noted their sumptuous aromas and unique flavor profile. Baron attributed these very special qualities to the rocky terroir of his vineyards. Other vineyards were soon planted by winemakers hoping to capture the unique terroir of the region that had come to be known as “the rocks.” By 2012, the cobbly soils near Milton-Freewater hosted more than 200 acres of vineyards.
Climate: The Rocks District receives an average of 15 inches of annual precipitation, which is insufficient for agriculture, so the vines are irrigated from wells and with water from the Walla Walla River, derived from snowmelt from the adjacent Blue Mountains. Most days during the growing season are sunny and clear with very low humidity, so large daily temperature variations are common. During summers, the region often experiences 5-10 days with temperatures exceeding 100°.
Soils: The unique soils of The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater are its defining characteristic. They consist of pebbles and cobbles of basalt (a dark volcanic rock) in a matrix of sand and silt. The rock soil is extremely well drained, encouraging the vines to root deeply, and the dark rocks efficiently transfer heat into the soils and radiate heat to the ripening grapes. The Rocks District is the only AVA in the United States whose boundaries were determined by a single land form and a single soil series.
Topography: The Rocks District occupies a very gently sloping alluvial fan that was deposited by the Walla Walla River where it exits the foothills of the Blue Mountains and enters the broad flat floor of the Walla Walla Valley. Elevations range from 800 to 1000 ft.
Snake River Valley AVA
A new viticultural area along the Snake River was established in 2007 and its total area is approximately 8,000 square miles. Mainly covering Idaho, the area also covers two large counties in Eastern Oregon, Baker County and Malheur County. The region's climate is unique among AVAs in Oregon; the average temperature is relatively cool and rainfall is low, creating a shorter growing season.
Current production is led by hardy grapes such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Chardonnay. The climate also lends itself extremely well to the production of ice wine. However, the AVA is quite large and warmer microclimates within the area can also support different types of grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Wine history: Approved in April 2007, Snake River Valley AVA is thinly populated with wineries and vineyards in Oregon, yet it features the largest density of vineyards and wineries in Idaho. The area encompasses more than 8,000 square miles at latitudes comparable to many famous wine regions around the world (43°- 46°). Formed more than four million years ago, the Snake River Valley overlays the ancient Lake Idaho bed, which creates its natural boundaries.
Climate: From a purely geographical standpoint, the Snake River Valley offers ideal growing conditions. Wine grapes thrive in this distinctly four-season climate. The characteristic cold winters, which might at first seem a disadvantage, are in fact quite conducive, allowing vines to go dormant, to rest and conserve important carbohydrates for the coming season, while ridding the plants of bugs and discouraging disease. The region’s summer combination of cold nights and warm days serves to balance grape acids and sugars favorably. In the 30-40 degree F diurnal temperature variations typical of this higher elevation – swings from 1 to 65 degrees are common – sugars remain high, nurtured during the long days by the abundant sunshine, while acids are maintained at favorable levels by comparatively cool evenings. These natural acids, important for the wines’ taste and longevity, can be difficult to maintain in, for example, the warmer California climate. Adequate sugar, on the other hand, is often the obstacle in Oregon, where early rains absorbed by the grapes and vines in the final stages of ripening dilute the fruits’ natural levels of sugar. Because such potentially ruinous precipitation is also responsible for assorted other agricultural woes, including mold and rot, the Snake River Valley’s lack of rainfall is considered a plus; here, water is one element that can be controlled by the grower through irrigation, according to calculated timing.
Soils: The Snake River Valley is a distinctive grape growing region whose ancient volcanic sediment has bestowed fertile, well-draining soils that give growers better control throughout the grape-growing process. More importantly, this soil contributes to a unique terroir that, in the hands of talented winemakers, consistently delivers premium wines that are as memorable as they are delicious.
Topography: Located on the same latitude as Oregon’s Umpqua Valley AVA, the Snake River Valley has a more drastic diurnal temperature variation than other appellations in the Pacific Northwest due to the high elevation of most of the region’s vineyards. At elevations of 2,500 feet (760 m) to 3,000 feet (910 m) above sea level, the region is also more than 400 miles (640 km) from the tempering effects of the Pacific Ocean.
Recommended Oregon wineries and wines
Well known wineries include Adelsheim, Antica Terra, Archery Summit, Bethel Heights, Bergstrom, Brickhouse (an organic producer), Cristom, Chehalem, Domaine Serene, Eyrie Vineyards, Ken Wright Cellars, Hamacher, Knudsen, Lemelson, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser and Tualatin.
Wineries to visit in Oregon
1. The Eyrie Vineyards: David Lett, who died in 2008, is considered one of the founding Fathers of the Oregon wine industry planting his Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley in 1965. His Eyrie Vineyards 1975 South Block Pinot Noir won third place in the 1979 Wine Olympics.
Jason Lett now carries on his father's legacy with organically-certified vineyard principles and minimal intervention in the wine-making processThe Eyrie Vineyards' hours are 12- 5pm. daily, with a $15 tasting fee. 935 NE 10th Ave., McMinnville; (503) 472-6315; eyrievineyards.com.
2. Ponzi Vineyards: The Ponzi's like the Lett's were Oregon wine pioneers with Maria and Luisa Ponzi now running the winery.
See the state-of-the-art, gravity-flow winery and sample Ponzi wines as you visit each stage of production for $30 per person (by reservation only). Open 11 am to 5:30 pm daily. 19500 SW Mountain Home Road, Sherwood; (503) 628-1227; ponziwines.com.
3. Sokol Blosser: Founded by Susan Sokol Blosser, and now run by her son Alex, the winemaker and Alison.
There is a hill top tasting room with nice views which is open 10 am to 4 pm daily. Tasting fee is $15 or complimentary for Cellar Club members. 5000 Sokol Blosser Lane, Dayton; (503) 864-2282; sokolblosser.com.
4. Argyle Winery: Oregon's top sparkling wine producer
Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with a new tasting room just opened. Vistors have a choice of three different tasting flights at $15 each. 691 Highway 99W; (503) 538-8520; argylewinery.com.
5. Brooks Wines: Jimi Brooks built Brooks Wines on his passion for Riesling and biodynamic farming but died suddenly in 2004, just as the grapes were about ready to be harvested. Fellow wine makers in the area helped to harvest the grapes, press and produce the 2004 vintage. The winery is now run by Janie Brooks Heuck.
The new tasting room has great views from the deck on a clear day from Mount St. Helens to Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson along the ridge of the Cascade Mountain Range. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Several tasting flights are available for $15 each. 21101 SE Cherry Blossom Lane,Amity; (503) 435-1278; brookswine.com.