Note: This tip originally appeared in the March 31, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator, "Bordeaux's Classic Cabernets." Pick up your copy, on newsstands now, for the full Oregon tasting report, as well as spotlighted wineries to know.
Winemaking in Oregon can be traced back to the 1840s, but the modern era began in the early 1960s, when Richard Sommer started Hillcrest Vineyards in Umpqua Valley in southern Oregon. Against the advice of just about everyone at the time, Sommer planted Pinot Noir. David Lett of Eyrie Vineyard followed in 1965, planting the first Pinot vines in Willamette Valley. Soon, future icons Dick Ponzi, Dick Erath and David Adelsheim joined the ranks of the state's wine pioneers. Robert Drouhin of Burgundy's Maison Joseph Drouhin purchased land in Dundee in 1987 and set about building his Domaine Drouhin Oregon estate, bringing international cachet to the Willamette Valley.
Today, Oregon has 19 different American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). They span the state and lie on both sides of the Cascade Mountains. Below are descriptions of the major designated areas.
Oregon at a glance
Total Wineries: 769
Main grapes by acreage
Pinot Noir: 19,697
Pinot Gris: 4,888
The state's largest AVA, the Willamette Valley spans 3.5 million acres and runs 150 miles in length and 60 miles in width in northwestern Oregon. It has mild growing seasons, with most of the rainfall coming in the winter and early spring. The valley's soil is an eclectic mix of old volcanic soils, ancient seabeds and various rock and silt washed south from Washington during the massive Missoula Floods at the end of the last ice age.
Before farmers planted grapes, the valley and hillsides were a patchwork of fruit and nut orchards, berry farms and, more recently, fields of grass seed. The AVA, approved in 1983, holds more than 10,000 acres of vineyards, with Pinot Noir the largest crop by far.
See below for information on Willamette Valley's seven subappellations.
The northernmost of Willamette Valley's subappellations, Chehalem Mountains spans 20 miles in length and 5 miles in width, covering 62,000 acres. The soils are the classic Willamette mix of marine sandstone, volcanic soil and ice age sediment. Elevation ranges from 200 feet to the top of Bald Peak, which at 1,633 feet is the highest spot in the valley.
The modern wine era here dates to 1968, when Dick Erath purchased 49 acres and launched his namesake winery. The appellation was approved in 2006, and today nearly 2,700 acres are planted to vines. Wineries based here include Adelsheim, Bergstrom, J Christopher, Le Cadeau, Ponzi, Rex Hill and Roco.
The first Pinot Noir vines in Willamette Valley were planted in Dundee Hills. Named for the town to its south, the Dundee Hills AVA is distinguished by its red volcanic soil, which layers down to depths of 6 feet. The AVA was approved in 2005.
Dundee Hills encompasses nearly 13,000 acres, of which about 2,200 are planted to vineyards, and ranges in elevation from 200 to 1,000 feet. Wineries based here include Archery Summit, Ayoub, Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene, Erath, Purple Hands and Sokol Blosser.
When Eola-Amity was approved in 2006, it stood apart from Willamette Valley's other subappellations due to its somewhat isolated location and the dense and savory style of its wines. The newly approved Van Duzer Corridor AVA is now adjacent Eola-Amity, and the two AVAs share a common climate effect: the Van Duzer gap in the coastal mountains that draws in cool wind from the Pacific, dramatically dropping late-summer afternoon temperatures to preserve bright acidity in the fruit.
Eola-Amity spans about 39,000 acres, of which only 3,000 are planted to grapes. Vineyards are largely on rolling hillsides between 200 and 700 feet in elevation, and the soil is shallow, rocky and volcanic. Between the wind and the feeble soils, grapes are typically small and concentrated. Wineries based here include Bethel Heights, Björnson, Cristom, Evening Land and Lingua Franca.
Established in 2005, the McMinnville AVA is named for the nearby town, Willamette Valley's largest. Just a few wineries call this subappellation home, but many of Willamette Valley's leading winemakers harvest grapes from here.
This AVA is generally warmer and drier than others in the valley, and vineyards are planted at elevations ranging from 200 to 1,000 feet. It's a large region, comprising more than 37,000 acres, though just 750 are currently under vine. Wineries based here include Brittan, Hyland, Maysara and Youngberg.
The smallest of the Willamette subappellations, Ribbon Ridge encompasses 3,500 acres of land and only 580 acres in vineyards. Situated on the southwestern edge of the Chehalem Mountains, the AVA was approved in 2005. Wineries based here include Beaux Frères, Brick House, Eminent Domaine, Patricia Green and Trisaetum.
Van Duzer Corridor
Approved in late 2018, Van Duzer Corridor is the valley's newest subappellation. It contains nearly 60,000 acres, with about 1,000 acres planted to vines, and six wineries. The AVA, which takes its name from a natural break in Oregon's coastal mountains, is a triangular region of low, rolling hills. The soils are typically shallow and well-drained, and have high silt and clay levels, which also help maintain natural acidity as the vines ripen.
This pastoral subappellation preserves a window into Willamette Valley's past while also looking to the future. Quaint towns with a storefront or two, grain silos and ramshackle old farmhouses blend with million-dollar vineyards. Approved in 2005, the AVA consists of a horseshoe of hills located to the east and north of hamlets Yamhill and Carlton.
Protected on three sides by mountains, the region enjoys more moderate weather and less rain than neighboring AVAs. Vineyards are planted at elevations of between 200 and 800 feet, rooted in ancient marine sedimentary soils layered over sandstone. Yamhill-Carlton spans 53,000 acres and has about 2,400 acres of vines planted. Wineries based here include Big Table Farm, Elk Cove, Gran Moraine, Ken Wright, Penner-Ash, Résonance and Soter.
Other Notable AVAs
A subappellation of Rogue Valley, Applegate's wine history dates to 1873, when Oregon's first bonded winery, Valley View Winery, opened. Growing conditions are generally warm by the standards of coastal Oregon, favoring hearty reds, but crisp whites are also popular here. Granite makes a big footprint in the soil, and most vineyards are planted at elevation, up to 2,000 feet, where alluvial fans from ancient floods enrich the growing conditions. Approved in 2001, the AVA contains about 277,000 acres, with 621 in vineyards.
Perhaps the most visually dramatic of Oregon's AVAs, Columbia Gorge can be a demanding place to grow grapes, but few doubt its potential. Carved over the eons by the Columbia River, the Gorge growing region straddles the river for 15 miles and includes western Washington state. The eastern passage is high desert and gets little rain, while the west has a moderate, marine-influenced climate. Soils range from volcanic to silty loam, which was washed in by ancient river floods. The Gorge hosts an eclectic mix of grapes, owing to the diversity of the climate, ranging from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to Gewürztraminer and Riesling. The AVA, finalized in 2004, includes 191,000 acres but a modest 330 vineyard acres.
The southernmost winegrowing region in Oregon, Rogue includes three distinct valleys with progressively warmer climates. That permits winemakers to make a range of styles, from delicate whites to full-bodied reds, though Pinot Noir is a dominant player. Vineyards are planted at elevations of between 1,200 and 2,000 feet. Approved in 2001, the AVA encompasses 1.1 million acres, with just 2,200 under vine.
Umpqua Valley has a rich winegrowing tradition dating to the 1880s, and it was also Oregon's first region to grow Pinot Noir, when Richard Sommer of Hillcrest Vineyards planted his vines in 1961. It is the middlemost AVA in Oregon, situated south of Willamette Valley. The climate is one of the state's most diverse for grapegrowing, accommodating everything from Albariño to Syrah. Approved in 1984, the AVA includes 689,000 acres, with about 2,300 acres in vineyards.