Wine Region in Focus: Oregon

When talking about wine production in the United States, there are basically three states that need to be discussed. While there is wine production in all fifty states (though not grapes grown in all fifty states; none in Alaska, for instance), the West Coast states are the ones most heralded as having excellent wine regions. Therefore, it is no surprise that on the list of states with the largest production of wine, they are the first, second, and third. California is the unchallenged king of wine production in America; in 2009, they produced 631 million gallons, about ninety percent of the wine made in the country. Washington State is a distant second with about 28 million gallons. Oregon pulled up the rear in these three with 10 million gallons.

Since California is clearly King, and Washington is undeniably a burgeoning wine region, what does that make Oregon? Like many of the Western states in America, the first known plantings of wine grapes date back to settlers in the 1800s. They planted vines for personal consumption, and the resulting wines were undoubtedly of fair to middling quality. But – again, like most other fine wine regions in America – Prohibition stunted the growth of the wine industry in Oregon, and high-quality commercial wine did not begin until the 1960s. Wine in Oregon in the modern era began with Richard Sommers at HillCrest Winery. Founded in 1961 in the Umpqua Valley (which is further south in Oregon than the more-famous Willamette Valley appellation), it is the official first post-Prohibition winery in the state of Oregon. There, he planted the state’s oldest Pinot Noir vines.

Sommers was followed several years later by his several other pioneers of Oregon viticulture: Charles Coury, Dick Erath, and David Lett. However, these three ventured further north and began operations in the Willamette Valley, which would go on to become Oregon’s premier wine growing region. Charles Coury started the eponymous Coury Winery (now defunct, though his original plantings are now farmed by David Hill Winery), Dick Erath founded what is now Erath Winery, and David Lett began Eyrie Vineyards. All of these visionaries moved north from California, where vineyard land was too expensive and the winemaking culture focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and not Pinot Noir.

Wine in Oregon in the modern era began with Richard Sommers at HillCrest Winery. Founded in 1961 in the Umpqua Valley (which is further south in Oregon than the more-famous Willamette Valley appellation), it is the official first post-Prohibition winery in the state of Oregon. There, he planted the state’s oldest Pinot Noir vines. Sommers was followed several years later by his several other pioneers of Oregon viticulture: Charles Coury, Dick Erath, and David Lett. However, these three ventured further north and began operations in the Willamette Valley, which would go on to become Oregon’s premier wine growing region. Charles Coury started the eponymous Coury Winery (now defunct), Dick Erath founded what is now Erath Winery, and David Lett began Eyrie Vineyards. All of these visionaries moved north from California, where vineyard land was too expensive and the winemaking culture focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and not Pinot Noir.

In Oregon, they set the foundations for a wine industry that now has a dedication to quality, typicity, and the expression of terroir. Since the mid-1960, it has grown from five wineries to 314 in 2005, and has firmly set itself upon the world stage as a high-quality wine growing region. The focus in the state is on Pinot Noir, the majority of which is produced in the Willamette Valley. The Willamette spans from the north end of the state at the Columbia River down to just south of Eugene; with a total of 3.3 million acres within the appellation, it is by far the largest AVA within Oregon. The Pinots produced in the region can be beautiful; in general, they are of a more delicate style than those of California; the finest can be reminiscent of an excellent red Burgundy. Chardonnay also grows excellently in the Willamette, making wines that are often elegant and mineral-driven. Many say that the Chardonnays of the Willamette Valley are the domestic wines most reminiscent to the great white Burgundies of France.

Beyond the Burgundian grape varieties (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), the Willamette Valley also makes excellent wines from several other white grape varieties. Pinot Gris grows wonderfully in its maritime climate; it makes wines that are soft, fruit-driven, and can have an element of sweetness. Some producers do well with the German variety Riesling; these wines are made in a variety of styles, from dry and racy to sweet and unctuous. Other, more obscure varieties are beginning to gain a foothold in the valley as well; some producers are experimenting with the Austrian variety Gruner Veltliner, while others have had some success with the Loire Valley grape Melon de Bourgogne (the grape variety utilized in the production of Muscadet). Red varieties other than Pinot Noir have failed to develop a presence in the region; whether this is because of Pinot’s popularity or the unsuitability of the region for other varieties remains unclear. It is likely that Cabernet Franc or Gamay might be grown successfully there (and there is limited development of these grapes by a few vineyards), but the commercial viability of Pinot Noir ensures that it will continue to dominate the red wine vineyards of the Willamette.

Living within the long shadow of the Willamette Valley are two wine regions to the south in Oregon: The Umpqua Valley and the Rogue Valley. The Umpqua, within which the most prominent town is Roseburg, has a broad variety of wine growing microclimates; the vineyards there produce a diverse portfolio of grapes, from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to Riesling, Tempranillo and Merlot. The Rogue Valley (which is just to the north of the California border) is the land of heat-loving grapes; Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah can thrive there. At the same time, there are small pockets where the cool-loving varieties Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be grown with great success.

Ever since David Lett’s 1975 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir scored second in the 1979 wine competition put on by Burgundy’s Joseph Drouhin (above the much-vaunted 1961 Drouhin Clos-de-Beze), Oregon has been on the map as one of the world’s finest wine-producing regions. The Pinot Noirs of the state are renowned as being top-notch, and the other varieties grown can be excellent as well. More importantly, the culture of winemaking in Oregon is one of innovation, experimentation, and uncompromising quality. There is little doubt that this state will continue to produce wines at the highest possible level.

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