The Oregon wine region has been exciting wine professionals and ahead-of-the-curve consumers for a while now, particularly with its cool-climate, high quality Pinot Noir – inevitably leading to comparisons with Burgundy, although more in terms of outright quality than stylistic similarities.
Oregon: a breakdown
Approximately 60% of Oregon’s grape production is Pinot Noir, while Cabernet, Riesling and Chardonnay combined only make up 10%. The second most widely planted variety after Pinot Noir is Pinot Gris, representing 13% of production.
The long summers are warm and dry, with cool evenings which help to preserve acidity in the grapes. These conditions help to produce the elegant and distinctly ripe character Oregon wines are known for.
There are seven major growing areas and 18 AVAs, six of which are located in the acclaimed Willamette Valley, which produces 91% of the region’s Pinot Noir and is home to over 500 wineries.
AVA map of the Oregon wine region. Credit: Oregonwinepress.com
The Willamette Valley
The Willamette Valley is located 50 miles from the Pacific, protected by the Cascade Mountains to the east, Coast Range mountains to the west, and a series of ranges to the north. The Eola-Amity Hills AVA is adjacent to a gap in the Coast Range, known as the Van Duzer Corridor, through which cool Pacific winds are channelled. Consequently its grapes are the last to ripen in the valley.
The hillsides in the valley are composed of volcanic, loess and sedimentary soils, all of which lend their own characters to the grapes grown in their soils. There are numerous different mesoclimates here, giving each vineyard its own unique style.
Despite the long, dry summer, there is always a risk of rain during harvest, so timing is vital. In 2013, considered one of the region’s best ever vintages, a deluge of rain in September forced producers to wait until early October to pick. Like Burgundy, which sits on the same latitude, there is a fine line between great vintage conditions and average vintage conditions.
Willamette Valley AVAs. Credit: Oregon Wine Board
The identification of subregional AVAs within the Willamette Valley, with their distinct styles based on topography and geology, mirrors the setup in the Côte d’Or. The dense muscularity of Yamhill-Carlton with its silty loam soils, for example, is in contrast to the lift and fragrance of the Eola-Amity Hills on volcanic soils. If anywhere in Oregon has the potential to match the best in Burgundy, it has to be here.
Oregon Pinot offers a ‘value’ entry point into the world of premium Pinot that the likes of Burgundy and California increasingly struggle to provide. This next decade will be vital in establishing its credentials as a serious contender, and it will be very interesting to watch the region’s progress.