Jeroboams Education is a new series on our blog providing you with the lowdown on the most iconic wine producing regions of the world. Led by our super buying team, Peter Mitchell MW and Maggie MacPherson will introduce you to the key facts and a little history of all the regions you recognise but perhaps don’t know too well. To help really further your education, why not drink along?
America’s 33rd state, Oregon, was founded in 1859, and is best known for its wild west past and its quirky present-day traditions. It is also home to many a natural phenomenon including the world’s largest living organism. What is it you ask? A Mushroom of course! Spanning approximately 2.4 miles in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, the enormous honey fungus is believed to be somewhere between 1900 and 8650 years old! It is also home to the only leprechaun colony west of Ireland… I did tell you it was famous for its quirkiness, didn’t I? Alongside its quirkiness Oregon is known for its natural beauty, and as such residents are fanatical about retaining it and as such sustainability and care of the land is high up on oregonites agenda. Portland, Oregon’s capital city, is reported to have the most bicyclists per capita of any city in the US, which shows their dedication given how un-bike- friendly the city is. Portland is the epicentre of the Oregon way of life focusing on local produce whether it be the wine, clothes, beers and food. The latter being particularly important for the famous food truck scene. In fact, there are around 475 food carts open at any given time in Portland! It is this eclectic mix of premium food served in casual locations that foster Oregon’s sense of community and experimentation. This feeds into the wine community and can be seen in Portland’s thriving urban wineries, where you’ll find multiple young winemakers making small their own small batch wines all sharing the same space, and at the infamous Pinot Camp. Pinot Camp is a cork dork’s mecca, a 3-day long festival celebrating all things Pinot Noir. The wineries and winemakers in Willamette spend a year planning how best they can promote Willamette Valley as a whole, putting together seminars, experimental wines, and of course lots and lots of Pinot Noir and top food.
What is wonderful about the history of winemaking in Oregon, is that many of the original ‘pioneers’ are recognisable names still producing top wines to this day. We’ll start the Oregon history in 1933 post prohibition with John Wood and Ron Honeyman of Salem receiving a bonded winery status shortly after Prohibition ended creating Honeywood Winery that is still going strong today and is Oregon’s oldest continuously operating winery. However, it wasn’t until Richard Sommer, of Hillcrest Vineyard, planted Oregon’s first vinifera grapes in Umpqua Valley in 1961 that ushered in the modern era of Oregon winemaking. The first plantings of Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley were made in 1965 by the legendary David Lett. Lett is often attributed as one of the forefathers of the Willamette valley and with good reason. David and his wife Diana actually spent their honeymoon planting vines at The Eyrie Vineyards in Dundee Hills creating the epicentre of the Oregon wine industry. Furthermore, it was Lett who first championed Burgundian varieties and that they may be better suited to Oregon cool climate over California. Turns out he wasn’t the only UC Davis grad who thought this, with Dick Erath rolling into Willamette in 1968 to follow in Letts footsteps. Over the next couple of years many more settled in Oregon to produce wine, and in 1973 David Lett and David Adelsheim established the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development to create maps designating the prime vineyard zones of the northern Willamette Valley, then lobbies to protect this land. Not content with just planting any Pinot Noir, David Adelsheim travelled to Burgundy and realised that the clones used in Burgundy performed better in cooler climates than the “Davis” clones from California they were currently using in Oregon. This kicked off his 10-year slog to import “Dijon” clones from Burgundy finally having them approved in 1984. Another recognisable name in Oregon’s history is Scott Henry. Scott Henry owned the Henry Estate Vineyard in Umpqua Valley, and in 1982 was alarmed at the declining quality of his fruit. He took it upon himself to design a unique four-pronged trellising system that exposed the grape bunches to maximum sunlight – the “Scott Henry Trellis System” was established. Oregon, like California, was firmly placed on the international podium by a blind tasting held in New York in 1985. They tasted Oregon Pinot Noir against Burgundies costing twice as much and the top 3 chosen were from Oregon. Following on from this, Burgundy-born Véronique Drouhin travelled to Oregon in 1988 to work the vintage in Willamette Valley and created the Domaine Drouhin Oregon label further pushing Oregon into the international spotlight. Unfortunately, just as Oregon was blossoming the dreaded vine-root louse, phylloxera hit the Willamette Valley in 1990 forcing vineyard owners to rip out vines and replant on grafted phylloxera-resistant rootstock. However, as is often the case, adversity forces creativity and in 1999 Bill Holloran launched the “garagiste” movement in Oregon when he converted his horse barn into a winery, blurring the lines between suburban and rural. It was actually one of these suburban wineries – Cooper Mountain Vineyards – which became the first Oregon winery to achieve Demeter-Certified Biodynamic status. Ten years later and continuing focus on sustainable practices leads the Oregon Environmental Council to kick off the Carbon Neutral Challenge, the first wine-industry carbon-reduction program in the United States. Nowadays Oregon is home to more than 790 wineries and its vineyards account for 52% of total US Demeter Biodynamic certified vineyards.
Small production and High Quality are the pillars of Oregon’s wine industry. Over the past decade Oregon has experienced an explosion in growth but hasn’t lost sight of its values: family-owned farms, attention to place and an uncompromising focus on crafting singular, expressive wines. The number of vineyards in Oregon has nearly doubled since 2005, yet 70% of Oregon wineries produce fewer than 5,000 cases a year. In fact, although Oregon produces only 1% of US wine, in 2015 and 2016 it earned 20% of Wine Spectator’s domestic 90+ ratings. This quality has been recognised with increased case sales, in 2018 they increased 15% from 3.60 million to 4.15 million, supported by increases in domestic sales outside of Oregon, direct to consumer channels and international sales. Canada is the leading the export market, accounting for 45% of export sales. However, in recent years exports to the Scandinavian market has increased with Denmark increasing 59% in 2018.
Oregon has a reputation for being rainy but even in the wettest areas, precipitation is concentrated into winter months and the growing season is typically dry. The Coast Range, Siskiyou Mountains and the Cascade Range help further by creating rain shadows in Oregon’s winegrowing regions. Oregon boasts on average fifteen hours of daylight during growing season and with the Pacific Ocean, loads of rivers and mountain ranges providing cool air flows in the summer and frost protection in spring helping to further extend the growing season. However, the growing season temperature does vary between regions with Willamette and Columbia Gorge being cooler with a 13-15c average, Southern Oregon is intermediate with 15-17c average, and Walla Walla is the warmest with 17 – 19c average. Throughout the state the warm days are tempered by the significantly cooler nights with the diurnal swing often boasting a 16.5 – 22c difference which preserves acidity and further extends the growing season.
Willamette in particular has two primary wind sources – the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia Gorge, however, four major geological landforms influence the intensity of the wind.
- The Columbia River Gorge provides cool sustained winds during growing season from the Pacific.
- The Coast Range protects regions from intense Pacific Wind
- The Chahalem Mountains protect from winds blowing down from the Columbia Gorge
- The Van Duzer Corridor is a break in the coastal range which allows a moderate cooling wind to reach McMinnville, Eola-Amity Hills and Van Duzer Corridor.
There are approximately 100 varieties grown in Oregon, however, Pinot Noir is dominant with 57% of plantings, followed by Pinot Gris with 14%. Chardonnay is next with 7%, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon each take 4%, and Riesling and Merlot each take 2%. All other varieties account for 10% plantings.
Oregon now has 19 approved winegrowing regions and more than 790 wineries producing almost 100 different varieties of grapes. It is blessed with some of the most diverse and beautiful wine-growing landscapes in the world, from the bench lands soaring above the Columbia River Gorge to Willamette Valley’s green, rolling hills and finally the deep valleys of Southern Oregon. The Expansion of Oregon’s wineries has been fast and furious growing from only 139 in 2000 up to 793 in 2018. However, winegrowing is concentrated in the northern Willamette valley, accounting for 68% of vineyards with Southern Oregon coming in second with 25%. The other Four regions combined account for a mere 7%, although they are in growth. In total there are 14,555Ha planted to vines in Oregon. The focus remains on small artisanal production with multiple producers in California and Washington producing more wine than all of the wineries in Oregon combined.
Pronounced like dammit with the focus on the A, Willamette Valley was established in 1983. It is the heart of Oregon’s wine industry, and its largest region with a total planted area of 9,890Ha. The soils are predominantly Marine Sedimentary, Volcanic and Loess. There are 7 AVAs within Willamette Valley, all known for making some of the world’s best Pinot noir as well as an assortment of other cool-climate varieties. In addition to producing world-renowned wines, the wineries have set themselves apart through collaboration and sustainability leadership.
- Chehalem Mountains was established 2006, and now has 1,100Ha planted to vines. It produces rich, elegant and complex Pinot Noirs, and is home to the historic Adelsheim Vineyards.
- Ribbon Ridge was established in 2005, and now has 620Ha planted to vines. It has a lower elevation than surrounding AVAs and is shielded from winds meaning it’s one of the warmer AVAs in Willamette.
- Dundee Hills was established in 2004, and now has 900Ha planted to vines. It has more than 30 wineries, including many of the founders of the Oregon wine community. It’s a warmer AVA as it’s nestled between Coast Range and Chehalem Mountains.
- Eola-Amity Hills (pronounced yolamity) was established in 2006, and now has 1,230Ha planted to vines. It comprises of a string of hills located towards the centre of the Willamette Valley. The Van Duzer Corridor drops afternoon temperatures producing small berries that retain acid and thick skins.
- McMinnville was established in 2005, and now has 305Ha planted to vines. The region is due west of historic downtown McMinnville and the Van Duzer Corridor provides a gap for cool ocean winds to drop temperatures dramatically in the late afternoon
- Van Duzer Corridor is the newest AVA in Willamette, only established in 2019 but already has 405Ha planted to vines. The AVA is named after the Van Duzer Corridor, a natural break in the Coast Range that results in 40-50% stronger winds in the afternoon compared to other Willamette Valley AVAs.
- Yamhill-Carlton was established 2004,and now has 970Ha planted to vines. This area is rapidly emerging as a centre for Pinot Noir production. It’s surrounded on three sides by the Coast Range, the Chahelem Mountains and the Dundee Hills meaning it is a warmer AVA of Willamette.
Established in 2015, Southern Oregon is Oregon’s second largest winegrowing region with 3,605Ha planted to vines. The predominant soils are Marine Sedimentary, Alluvial, Gravel and Volcanic. It covers five AVAs defined by four rivers and three major mountain ranges providing the region with a variety of vineyard aspects and soils to produce a wide range of wines. Winters are cool and damp, and summers are warm and dry with diurnal temperature swings larger than any other wine region in the world. Southern Oregon also boasts the highest elevation vineyards in Oregon.
- Umpqua Valley was established in 1984, and now has 1,435Ha planted to vines. The region is diverse and as such has inspired a culture of experimentation with varieties not commonly grown elsewhere in Oregon such as Tempranillo, Garnacha, Albarino etc. The cooler valleys allow varieties such as Pinot noir and Pinot Gris to flourish while the warmer valleys focus on Syrah and Grenache.
- Elkton Gorge was established in 2013, and now has 125Ha planted to vines. It is the coolest AVA in Southern Oregon, in parts it is as cool as Willamette Valley due to high elevation and strong afternoon winds. It has water retaining clay soils resulting in a decreased need for irrigation, although this also means yields are small.
- Red Hill Douglas County was established in 2005, and now has 185Ha planted to vines. This is a single vineyard AVA comprised entirely of volcanic soils. It sits 240-350m above sea level and doesn’t benefit much from the protection of the Coast Range so its cooler than other parts of Umpqua Valley.
- Rogue Valley was established in 1991, and now has 2, 170Ha planted to vines, Southern Oregon’s largest AVA. It is the Southernmost and warmest AVA in Southern Oregon with an average July max temp of 32c.
- Applegate Valley was established in 2000, and now has 300Ha planted to vines. The Klamath Mountains to the West protect it from cooling marine air and rain from the Pacific meaning that Bordeaux and Rhône style wines can be produced here.
Walla Walla Valley
An unusual region in that it is shared with its neighbouring state – Washington, one third resides in Oregon. It accounts for 4% of Oregon’s vineyard area and, unusually for Oregon, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates with 38% of plantings, followed by Merlot with 18% and Syrah with 17%. It is the warmest region in Oregon situated far from the cooling influence of the Pacific. It has a continental climate with cold winters and hot summers and little rain during growing season.
- The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater was established in 2015, and now has 138Ha planted to vines. It resides entirely on the Oregon side of the Valley and is the only AVA in the U.S. whose boundaries have been fixed by a single soil series (Freewater Series) and a single landform (alluvial fan). The soil’s ubiquitous pebbles and cobblestones radiate daytime heat allowing Cabernet and Syrah to fully ripen.
Was established in 2014, and now has 364Ha planted to vines. It is located in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, so the average annual rain decreases dramatically between the Western and Eastern boundaries of the AVA. The east end boasts a maritime climate with damp cool winters and warm dry summers but transitions to a continental climate in the East only 40 miles away. Like the Walla Walla valley it crosses state lines with Washington and straddles the mighty Columbia River – including the fertile soils of both Oregon and Washington
Established in 1984, and now has 3,645ha planted to vines. It straddles the state line with Washington, although wines produced in the Washington section are better distributed on the international market.
Portland’s Urban Wineries
More than 25 wineries exist in the city of Portland. That means crushing grapes and making wine in Portland from grapes grown all over the Northwest. Many make wines from grapes such as Syrah, Tempranillo, Pinot blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, among others, as well as unique red and white wine blends.