Oregon – in the Pacific Northwest of the USA – is one of the world's youngest and most promising wine regions. The state first earned a place on the international wine map in the late 1960s and has secured its position steadily ever since.
Production volumes have remained relatively low-key. The 2017 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report recorded just short of 34,000 acres (13,750 hectares) of planted vineyards. California has over ten times more vineyard area than Oregon.
?Sokol Blosser / willamettewines.com
Still, in the early 21st Century, Oregon is regarded as a world-class wine region, particularly for its Pinot Noir. The classic Oregon Pinot has deep red cherry color. It gives aromas of black cherries, stewed strawberries and an earthy edge.
Unheard-of 50 years ago, Oregon Pinot Noirs now rank among the very finest American wines. Those from the Willamette Valley have attracted particular acclaim. The best examples are remarkably similar to their equivalents from Burgundy – a comparison which is no doubt crucial to their continued success.
In a similar way to Burgundy, much smaller AVAs have developed within the broader zones. Thus producers can create quite lengthy portfolios of subregional Pinot Noirs. Dundee Hills, Ribbon Ridge, Chehalem Mountains and Eola-Amity Hills are four such appellations in the Willamette Valley.
Subregional AVAs of note in Southern Oregon include Rogue Valley, Umpqua Valley and Elkton Oregon. They tend, however, to be less exclusively focused on Pinot Noir.
According to the state's industry census of 2017, 58 percent of vineyard area is devoted to Pinot Noir. This equates to 19,700 acres or 7970ha. The next most widely planted variety here is Pinot Gris, with around 4900 acres (1980ha). Although Oregon Pinot Gris, with its rich scent of spiced pears, is held in relatively high regard. But its dollars per ton value is around half that of Pinot Noir.
Pinot Gris is followed by two other internationally popular cool-climate, white wine varieties – Chardonnay and Riesling. The supporting cast of red grapes is small in scale at present. It is led by French varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot, plus Spain's Tempranillo. There are also a few higher-profile estates using the more Burgundian Gamay.
Based on cost of grapes, the "next big thing" in Oregon wine will be Cabernet Sauvignon. This now commands the same price per ton as – and sometimes more than – Pinot Noir. In 2017 there were about 1100 acres (280ha), compared with 1300 for Syrah.
The state's bright and spicy Syrah is overshadowed to some degree. It was first planted several decades ago as the early option for a more robust alternative to Pinot Noir. Syrah tends to appear more often in the warmer areas of southern Oregon and the Walla Walla Valley.
Columbia Gorge and Walla Walla Valley are notable winegrowing zones in the north of the state. However, the majority of Oregon vineyards are located in state's western one-fifth, within 80 miles of the Pacific coastline. Here, a broad, shallow valley is formed between the low-lying mountains of the Coast Range and the much larger Cascades to the east.
Temperatures are moderated by proximity to the ocean, which also leads to relatively high rainfall; moderate, long summers and wet autumns are the norm. Warmer, drier conditions are found in the Rogue Valley, at the state's southern edge near the border with California.
Oregon has the most marginal climate of the West Coast's three wine-growing states. Vintages can vary quite considerably, but growers have adapted their viticultural techniques and grape selection to suit the climatic variations.
Oregon's wine industry stands in stark contrast to that of its southern neighbor. California is the long-established, dominant force of American wine, dominated by a few large companies, Oregon is a relative newcomer composed of smaller, family-run, boutique wineries.
California's 150 American Viticultural Areas span 600 miles from north to south and 150 miles inland. In contrast, Oregon's 25 AVAs are all located almost exclusively in the western fifth of the state, near the Pacific coast. California's warm, sunny climate produces rich, robust wines, whereas Oregon's moist, cool climate creates finer, more delicate wines.
There are also obvious differences between Oregon and its northern neighbor, Washington, which has around 60 percent more vineyard area. These run at a much higher average yield, producing over three times more wine. This makes Washington the USA's second most important wine region by volume.
Washington wine often comes from grapes grown under contract in the state's dry, continental interior. They are then shipped to one of the numerous wineries located around Seattle. Oregon wine, by contrast, comes almost exclusively from estate grapes grown in cool, rain-refreshed vineyards relatively close to the coast.
The affinity between Oregon and Burgundy has led a number of Burgundian wine icons to set up operations in the state. The movement was led by Maison Joseph Drouhin in the late 1980s. Domaine Drouhin Oregon was founded in the Dundee Hills, next door to Eyrie Vineyard owned by David Lett (aka 'Papa Pinot').
In 2013 and 2014, such prestigious names as Louis Jadot, Liger-Belair and Meo-Camuzet joined the list. This confirmed that there really is something 'Burgundian' about Oregon.