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Regional Profile Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington winemakers

Norm Roby assesses the distinct identities Oregon and Washington winemakers have forged for themselves, now they've moved out of the shadow of California.

In simple terms, Oregon’s focus is Burgundian in both the wines made and in the search for that special slope or tiny parcel. Washington winemakers lean more towards Bordeaux in terms of varieties planted and an openness to blend, but it also flaunts its diversity as it keeps pace in the Chardonnay market and begins to explore Syrah and Sangiovese. Though small by comparison, Oregon is on a roll with the number of wineries now pushing 175 (up from 71 in 1990). Since 1990, sales have increased 300% and in 2,000 case sales of Oregon wine were just under one million. Its northern neighbour Washington is now home to 160 wineries, which is amazing when one remembers that in 1981 it had only 19 wine producers.


Despite Pinot Gris’ growth over the last decade, Pinot Noir remains Oregon’s calling card. Now covering 2,000ha (hectares), Pinot Noir covers almost half of Oregon’s 4,250 total hectares. In 1990, the state had fewer than 120ha of Pinot Gris. Today, the total hectarage of Pinot Gris is more than double that. As a wine, Pinot Gris has succeeded as a bottle-early, cash-flow wine, surpassing Chardonnay in area.

Oregon’s main growing region is the Willamette Valley, primarily the northern section between Salem and the Chehalem Mountains. This area remains the focus of winemaking activity through vineyard expansion and includes two leading sub-regions: the Red Hills of Dundee and the Eola Hill. Closer to the southern border with California, the Rogue Valley grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but it is also developing a solid record for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.Encouraged by researchers at the university, Oregon viticulturists began importing and experimenting with Dijon clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay over a decade ago. This was part of a programme to find substitutes for the clones popular in California’s much warmer climate. As a result of this research, all new vineyards and many older ones now contain several Dijon clones of Pinot, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. Along with a new emphasis on Burgundian clones, most growers adopted a tight vine-spacing programme, crowding 7,500 to 12,500 vines into one hectare (the old standard was 1,300 to 1,500 vines per hectare), and with renewed emphasis on micro-climate, Burgundian philosophy led naturally to more Pinots and Chardonnays being bottled from specific sites and parcels.Another aspect of the move towards traditional old-school style is that winemaking now follows the gentle, minimalist approach. Today’s cutting edge Pinot Noir winemakers shoot for ripe fruit and most favour using indigenous yeasts for fermentation. Pre-fermentation cold soaking is now common and those wineries in the forefront move the wine from crushing to bottling by gravity flow.Of recent vintages, both 1998 and 1999 enjoyed late season warm spells and most give 1998 the edge for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Far less tannic and acidic than their predecessors, the current batch of Pinots are dark, with developed aromas of black cherry, plum and raspberry with floral, smoky and earthy elements in their profile. Oregon’s Chardonnay is definitely on the upsurge. The new clonal mix seems to contribute to Chardonnays with mineral and floral notes to accompany the fruit, and a silky texture and harmony that’s missing in early vintages. Best vintages: 1996, 1998, 1999.



The second largest wine-producing state after California, Washington now has close to 12,145ha planted. Since 1993 its hectarage has almost doubled. Merlot has been going in at a rate of 400 new hectares a year and Cabernet Sauvignon is close to that figure. Washington’s 2000 vintage yielded a record harvest with 90,000 tons crushed, but even if no new vines are planted, overall production will increase over the next few years as new vineyards mature. Recent surveys indicate Washington has enough suitable land to expand to 40,000ha by 2020, but water in the semi-arid wine region east of the Cascade Mountains is supplied by irrigation systems from rivers and water rights are complicated.

Merlot has increased from 546ha in 1993 to 2,900 in 2000, surpassing Cabernet Sauvignon, which is still growing in popularity. For the moment, Chardonnay remains the most widely planted type at 3,000ha, but the current big story is the surge of interest in Syrah, which has gone from zero to 810ha in the last five years.

By the 1990s, irrigation and canopy management techniques had all but eliminated any hint of vegetative or weedy notes in Merlot and Cabernet grapes. Though Merlot still remains vulnerable to winter kill, growers are isolating better protected areas in the Columbia Valley. Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc are winter-hardy and Syrah appears to be even better. Early signs are that Syrah’s downside is a tendency to produce a large crop in the Columbia Valley.Among present appellations, Columbia Valley is the best known and the largest. It includes the Yakima Valley and the Walla Walla region. However, the recently approved Red Mountain region, part of the Yakima Valley, is a special place for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Walla Walla, in the southeastern corner, is also carving out a special niche for itself for Merlot, Cabernet and Sangiovese.

The 1998 vintage was one of Washington’s finest and its better red wines will still be evolving in 10 years. Cabernets and Merlots display the richness, bright, vivacious fruit and supple texture that are regional hallmarks. Other fine vintages for reds: 1991, 1994 and 1996.


Best wines, best with food, best value

Steven Spurrier’s top 10 favourites


Firesteed Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, 1999

Soft spice. Ripe fruit. No residual sweetness. Good balancing acidity.

£10–14.99; Lib

Chateau Ste Michelle Eroica Riesling, Columbia Valley, 1999

Brilliant silvery-yellow colour. Pure limey Riesling style. Apricot and peach ripeness. Superb length.

£50; Cax

L’Ecole No 41 Columbia Valley Semillon, 1999

Zesty touch from 19% Sauvignon. Beautifully balanced wine.

£8–9.99; Pim


Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir, 1998

Deep, vibrant colour and fruit. Burgundian liquorice spice and superb balance. Great class.

£20; Men

Canoe Ridge Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley, 1998

Firm fruit. Not reliant on oak. Elegant, Pomerol style. Very good.

£10–14.99; Cax

Hedges Red Mountain Reserve, Columbia Valley, 1997

Powerful, Cabernet-dominated. Deep, warm, grippy. Impressive.

£20+; BWC

Columbia Winery Milestone Merlot, Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima Valley, 1998

Deep black cherry colour. Blackberry and spice nose. Soft and approachable on the palate.

£15–19.99; For

Andrew Will Ciel du Cheval Merlot, Washington, 1999

Ripe colour. Good, spicy depth. Rich fruit. Elegance and purity.

£20; M&V

Andrew Will Pepper Bridge Merlot, Washington, 1999

Deep carmine colour. Accent on fruit. Magnificent middle palate.

£20; M&V

DeLille Cellars Chaleur Estate Red, Washington, 1998

Superb, deep colour. Ripe, plummy fruit. Will improve. Top marks.

£35; WTr

brian st pierre’s top 10 to drink with food

Firesteed Washington Pinot Gris, 1999

Apricot character. Light, vivid acidity. For cold fish appetisers.

Chateau Ste Michelle Semillon, Columbia Valley, 1998

Abundant fruit and lively acidity. A good starter or shellfish


£5–7.99; Cax

L’Ecole No 41 Columbia Valley Semillon, 1999

Weighty, full, almost creamy. For roast sea bass or even scallops.

£8–9.99; Pim

Chateau Ste Michelle Chardonnay, Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyard, Columbia Valley, 1998

Superb oak/fruit balance. Serve with lobster salad.

£15–19.99; For

Duck Pond Cellars Chardonnay, Oregon, 1999

Rich, austere, classic. Match with Dover sole or turbot.

£10–14.99; WTr

Columbia Crest Grenache, Columbia Valley, 1998

Lightly strawberryish. Perfect with barbecued chicken, trout or pork.

£5–7.99; Cax

Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir, 1998

Classic Pinot power and delicacy. More for meat than fish.

£20; Men

Canoe Ridge Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley, 1998

Fruity but serious. One for slow-braised lamb or beef stew.

£10–14.99; Cax

Columbia Winery Syrah, Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima Valley, 1998

Voluptuous. Good grip. Persistent flavour. For grilled tuna or steak.

Hedges Three Vineyards, Columbia Valley, 1998

Blackcurrant fruit and herbal aromas. Elegant with roast lamb.

£15–19.99; Ber

Susy Atkins’ TOP 10 UNDER £10

Columbia Crest Grenache 1998, Washington

Very soft. All cherries, plums and berries and a layer of milky coffee.

£5–7.99; Cax, Tes

Chateau Ste Michelle Sauvignon Blanc 1999 Washington

Clean lemon and grapefruit zest. Dry and refreshing.

£8–9.99; Cax

Columbia Crest Chardonnay 1999, Washington

Sweet, oaky aroma. Pineapple and peach. Long lingering


£5.99; Cax, Mor

Hedges Cellar Fume Chardonnay 1999, Washington

Rich, grapefruit character. Balanced but needs to settle.

£8–9.99; BWC

Hogue Cellars Fumé Blanc 1999, Washington

Tangy, fresh, slightly grassy. Dry, citrus peel and grapey fruit.

£5–7.99; SWB

Hogue Cellars Fruit Forward Chardonnay 1999, Washington

Easy-drinking and soft with a fresh fruit salad character.

£5–7.99; SWB

Hogue Cellars Vineyard Selection Merlot 1998, Washington

Concentrated cherryish, curranty Merlot fruit. Very ripe with hints of spice and toasted nut.

£8–9.99; SWB

Hogue Cellars Cabernet-Merlot 1999, Washington

Light and easy-drinking with a plum and blackcurrant finish.

£5–7.99; SWB

Amity Vineyards Oregon Dry Gewurztraminer 1998

A floral nose gives way to tinned mandarins, lychees and ground ginger. Good depth of flavour.

£8–9.99; Pim

L’Ecole 41 Columbia Valley Barrel Fermented Semillon 1999, Washington

A ripe, smoky Semillon with broad rich fruit. Honeyed flavour yet dry, with rich lemon-oil.

£8–9.99; Pim

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