Oregon’s wines have benefited from the state’s varied but accommodating climate and unique terroirs. Most of its wineries are small and family owned, many producing fewer than 5,000 cases annually. They can be found sprinkled along country roads, tucked into mountain foothills, situated high above vineyards with breathtaking views of the landscape and now in downtown storefronts on historic main streets.
Oregon’s has more than 400 wine tasting rooms and are worth the pilgrimage.
All of this made wine touring one of Oregon’s top draws. In 2013 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), wine-related tourism contributed an estimated $207.5 million in revenues to the Oregon economy.
Oregon wines are available online, at restaurants and from fine wine stores throughout the U.S. and around the world, but there are many small-batch offerings only available at the wineries’ tasting rooms.
Here is our story.
When Oregon’s wine pioneers looked out across the state’s varied landscape, they saw what others couldn’t: a perfect place for wine.
They understood that Oregon’s northerly latitude meant grapes would get extra growing season sunlight for long, even ripening, and that crisp, cool nights would help grapes retain their freshening acidity. Such a combination meant Oregon grapes would naturally achieve mature, balanced flavors and full varietal character. The resulting wines, they surmised, could be sustainably grown and made without dramatic manipulation to be naturally fresh, lively, and have true-to-the-fruit flavors.
They were right. Today, the suitability of Oregon for great wine is unquestioned. There’s a home in Oregon for any wine grape, from Arneis to Zinfandel.
In the marine-influenced Willamette Valley, cool-adapted grapes such as Pinot noir, Pinot gris, Riesling and Chardonnay ripen to perfection, producing elegant wines with a global reputation. In the warm, high-elevation vineyards of Southern Oregon and the Walla Walla Valley, heat-loving varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Syrah and Viognier are crafted into head-turning wines earning top scores from national critics. And in the Columbia Gorge and Eastern Oregon, varied microclimates allow winemakers and growers the luxury of working with the widest range of grape varieties of anywhere in the state.
If you were a wine grape, you’d want to be planted in Oregon.
In Oregon, it’s all about the wine, not the image. Oregon’s winemakers wear jeans, not chinos; boots, not boat shoes. They speak more of sustainable farming than creative branding, of biodynamics instead of market dynamics. They are an unpretentious and independent lot who are as committed to the pursuit of their entrepreneurial wine vision as they are to the collaborative protection and advancement of Oregon wine quality.
It’s always been that way. Oregon’s wine community was founded by free thinkers who stubbornly planted Pinot noir where accepted wisdom said the grape would not grow – because they were convinced they could make their greatest wines only in Oregon. They were right.
Since then, second-generation and new wave Oregon winemakers continue to build on that heritage. They established the toughest wine labeling laws in the nation and imported never-seen-in-the-US grape clones to ensure they could continue to craft the best possible wine quality. They still pioneer new wine grapes for North America, including Tempranillo, Albariño, Grüner Veltliner, Lagrein and Vermentino. And they have established Oregon as a leader in sustainability, setting new standards for organic, biodynamic, and eco-sound vineyard and winery practices.
Above all, they maintain the primacy of quality: lower yields in favor of quality are embraced; excess fruit is stripped from the vine so what remains will ripen better; just-picked grapes are inspected to eliminate substandard fruit; native yeast fermentation helps keep the character of the terroir. Nothing is spared to create quality wines; Oregon’s vines are hand-tended, the wines hand-crafted.
Eccentric? Perhaps. Uncompromising? Definitely. Oregon? Absolutely.
Oregon wines taste of the land. The French call it terroir. We call it delicious.
A Pinot noir from the Dundee Hills has lean ripe cherry and strawberry notes, reflecting the iron-rich redness of its volcanic soil. A sophisticated Syrah from the Walla Walla Valley shows swaths of minerals and herbs, reminiscent of the cobblestone ground where the vines grow. A suave Viognier offers creamy touches of apricot and honey, conjuring images of summer sun and wildflowers in Southern Oregon vineyards.
Oregon wines taste this way on purpose. A key Oregon principle is to match the grape variety to the place where it will grow best, not just where it is able to grow. That’s why Willamette Valley Pinot noir is so wonderful: a cooler climate is best for that grape; and why Tempranillo from the Umpqua Valley is so full of character: that variety prefers warmer temperatures.
Oregon winemakers also know that to get the best from the grape, they must get out of Nature’s way. The majority of Oregon’s vineyards are organic, many are biodynamic, and the prevailing winemaking philosophy is “nonintervention,” meaning do as little as possible to manipulate the wine − let nature do it naturally.
The result is wines that have a genuine freshness, balanced fruit, and true varietal flavor: wines that taste of the place they were grown. And in a place as pristine, natural and diverse as Oregon, you might expect our wines would show the same qualities. You’d be right.
From sprightly sparklers and jaunty rosés, to minerally Rieslings and peachy Viogniers; from elegant Pinot noirs and sumptuous Syrahs, to classy Cabernets and dulcet dessert wines, Oregon’s wine variety will satisfy anyone’s palate.
Columbia Gorge and Columbia Valley
Mt. Hood and the cliffs of the Columbia River look down on waterfront towns, countless waterfalls and the world’s best windsurfing waters. This brewpub mecca and up-and-coming wine region is also the home of the Hood River Fruit Loop driving trail.
Located in the Hood River area, the Columbia Gorge AVA’s climate varies widely. From the high desert-like east to the cooler, wetter west, a range of grape varietals − Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, among them – thrive in this region.
While much of the arid Columbia Valley AVA is located on the Washington side of the Columbia River, a number of new, innovative Oregon wineries are making Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and a host of other wines in The Dalles area.
With orchards and vineyards set against alpine meadows, crystal-clear rivers and lush valleys, this rugged, diverse region is home to Crater Lake National Park.
Oregon winemaking originated here when the first wine grapes were planted in the 1800s. Today, new vineyards and wineries are reigniting the established wine culture by producing top-notch wines. Comprised of 170 microclimates, Southern Oregon is the state’s largest warm-climate growing region.
With five Sub AVAs − Umpqua Valley, Red Hills Douglas County, Rogue Valley, Applegate Valley and the new Elkton – in addition to the Southern Oregon AVA, and more than 65 wineries, it’s one of the most diverse winegrowing regions in the world. Cooler areas produce Pinot noir, Pinot gris, Sauvignon blanc and more. The warmer, arid regions ripen Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Syrah and others.
The spirit of the West is alive and well in Eastern Oregon, where visitors can take in rodeos, fishing, hunting, snow sports and incredible wildlife viewing. Orchards, wheat fields and vineyards dot the countryside graced by the Blue Mountains on the horizon.
Located in northeastern Oregon eight miles south of Walla Walla, Wash., this region is open, spacious and home to vineyards along the Columbia River. Diverse soils form the basis of distinctive Walla Walla AVA terroirs: silty, sandy earth from the Missoula Floods, basalt cobblestones and fractured basalt bedrock.
Earthy and spicy, full-bodied Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Semillon, Pinot gris, Chenin blanc and Syrah produced here are easily recognized for their distinctive minerality.
More than 50% of Walla Walla AVA wine is made from grapes grown in Oregon.
The Snake River Valley AVA straddles the Oregon-Idaho border and is one of the state’s newest. Currently, there are no wineries in the Oregon portion of the AVA.
With its namesake river running through it from Portland to south of Eugene, the region of more than 500 wineries is protected by the Coast Range to the west, the Cascades to the east and a chain of hills to the north. The Willamette Valley is the heart of Oregon’s agricultural production with farms growing everything from fruit and nuts to Christmas trees and flowers, and, of course, wine grapes.
In addition to the Willamette Valley AVA, Sub AVAs include Chehalem Mountains, Yamhill-Carlton District, Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills, McMinnville and Eola-Amity Hills.
Wet, cool winters and warm, dry summers make this an ideal climate for Pinot noir and other cool-climate grapes, including Pinot gris, Chardonnay and Riesling.
Oregon wines are made for the table.
Before Oregon became famous as a foodie haven, Oregon winemakers were creating food-friendly wines. Because of the natural refreshing fruit flavors inherent in Oregon wines, they make easy and memorable matches for a wide variety of ingredients and cooking styles.
Matching food and wine: At its best, Oregon wine is paired with the season’s freshest ingredients grown from nearby farms or drawn from Oregon’s rivers and coast.
The subtle earthiness of a Willamette Valley Pinot noir is perfectly matched with fresh-picked wild mushrooms from the forest, while the wine’s dry fruit flavor wonderfully complements the richness of wild-caught Pacific salmon. The notes of spice and fruit in a brisk Pinot gris pair well with native hazelnuts and farm-fresh cheeses. Steely dry Riesling and crisp Chardonnay easily enhance oysters from the coast or free-range heritage turkey.
A hearty Umpqua Valley Tempranillo seems made-to-order for a roast of hormone-free Oregon lamb, while a silky Syrah from the Walla Walla Valley has a delicious affinity for elk loin and other game meats. The soft succulence of a Columbia Gorge late harvest Viognier marries with a dessert of Hood River apples, while a compote of Southern Oregon peaches is a wonderful foil to a zesty blanc de blancs.
Whatever your palate preference, there’s an Oregon wine to make the perfect pairing.
Photo credits: Brian Kimmel, Greg Robeson, Mike Chasar, Lance Koudele and Jenny Hill.
Walla Walla Valley
Red Hill Douglas County
Snake River Valley
The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater
Chehalem Mountains: a combination of Columbia River basalt, ocean sedimentation, and wind-blown loess derivation soil types.
Columbia Gorge: soils are generally silty loams collected over time from floods, volcanic activity and landslides.
Columbia Valley: roughly 15,000 years ago a series of tremendous ice age floods (dubbed the Missoula Floods) deposited silt and sand over the area. These deposited sediments, along with wind-blown loess sediment, make up the area’s present-day soils, which are well drained and ideal for grapevines.
Dundee Hills: known for its rich, red volcanic Jory soil, which was formed from ancient volcanic basalt and consists of silt, clay and loam soils. They typically reach a depth of 4 to 6 feet and provide excellent drainage for superior quality wine grapes.
Eola-Amity Hills: predominantly contain volcanic basalt from ancient lava flows as well as marine sedimentary rocks and alluvial deposits at the lower elevations of the ridge. This combination results in a relatively shallow, rocky set of well-drained soils, which typically produce small grapes with great concentration.
McMinnville: soils are typically uplifted marine sedimentary loams and silts, with alluvial overlays. As compared to other appellations in the Willamette Valley, these soils are uniquely shallow for winegrowing with low total available moisture.
Red Hill Douglas County: soils are iron-rich, red volcanic Jory soils, which were formed from ancient volcanic basalt and consist of silt, clay and loam soils. They are mostly deep, well-drained to the 15-foot depth, and considered premier wine grape growing soils.
Ribbon Ridge: primarily sedimentary soils that are younger, finer and more uniform than the alluvial sedimentary and volcanic soils of neighboring regions. These moderately deep, well-drained silty-clay loam soils are part of the Willakenzie soil series and are of low fertility and ideal for growing high-quality wine grapes.
Rogue Valley: soil types are many and varied, including mixes of metamorphic, sedimentary and volcanic derived soils ranging from sandy loam to hard clay.
Southern Oregon: soils are varied and complex, though generally derived from bedrock, specifically from the 200 million year old Klamath Mountains, which are comprised of sedimentary rocks, to the west.
Umpqua Valley: soils are as varied as the climate. Generally, they are derived from a mix of metamorphic, sedimentary and volcanic rock; though more than 150 soil types have been identified in the region. The valley floor levels have mostly deep alluvial or heavy clay materials, while the hillsides and bench locations have mixed alluvial, silt or clay structures-all typically excellent for winegrowing.
Willamette Valley: an old volcanic and sedimentary seabed that has been overlaid with gravel, silt, rock and boulders brought by the Missoula Floods from Montana and Washington between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago. The most common of the volcanic type is red Jory soil, which is found above 300 feet elevation (as it had escaped the Missoula Floods deposits) and is between four and six feet deep and provides excellent drainage for superior quality wine grapes. Anything below 300 feet elevation is primarily sedimentary-based soil.
Yamhill-Carlton: comprised of coarse-grained, ancient marine sedimentary soils, over sandstone and siltstone that all drain quickly, making them ideal for viticulture. Grapes grown in such soil often result in wines lower in acid than those made from grapes grown in basaltic or wind-blown soils.
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