Although wines were made in Oregon in the nineteenth century, Prohibition effectively wiped out the wine industry. Oregon's wine pioneers arrived in the 1960s. At that time no Vitis vinifera vines were planted. Those first pioneers brought enthusiasm, new ideas, and, in some cases, degrees from UC Davis.
Oregon's climate is marked by cool growing seasons and plenty of rain. It presents more challenges than its neighbor California, but rather than give up, Oregon's new winemakers were simply more discerning about where and how they planted their vineyards.
Unlike in California where sprawling vineyard tracts were the norm, Oregon vineyards were planted in small pockets to take advantage of the best weather conditions. There are enough of these small pockets to make Oregon the fourth largest producer of wine in the United States.
Pinot Noir Takes Root
Oregon's location along the 45th parallel, in addition to its maritime weather, makes the growing climate very similar to that of Burgundy, France. One of Oregon's pioneers, David Lett of Eyrie Vineyard, was convinced that the traditional grapes of Burgundy could grow well in Oregon, and certainly grow better than they did in California. He planted the first Pinot Noir vines in 1965. A decade or so later, his Pinot Noir wines would bring serious recognition to Oregon among wine connoisseurs.
In a 1979 Paris tasting with entries from 330 countries, the 1975 Eyrie Pinot Noir placed in the top ten. In a follow-up match in early 1980, it came in second to — and less than a point behind — the 1959 Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny. It was an international achievement! Since then Pinot Noir has become Oregon's flagship wine.
Oregon's Other Pinot
Pinot Noir's companion grape in Burgundy is Chardonnay, and it's no stranger to Oregon. Chardonnay, however, has not seen the success of Pinot Gris, one of the great white grapes of Alsace, France. Again, thanks to David Lett, Pinot Gris was introduced to the region in 1965 and has since been adopted by winemakers across the state.
The style of Oregon's Pinot Gris has been compared to that made in Alsace, but subtle variations exist. In general, Oregon's Pinot Gris is medium-bodied, yellow to copper pink in color, crisp, with full fruit flavors. The wines from Alsace are medium- to full-bodied, slightly floral, and less fruity. Pinot Gris is the same grape as Pinot Grigio, but Pinot Grigio wines have a markedly different style. They are typically light-bodied, light in color, and neutral in flavor.
Oregon has more than 10 officially recognized AVAs, three of which are shared with neighboring Washington State. The following four have the most clout:
The Willamette Valley is the largest and most important region. This fertile river valley is located directly south of Portland in the northwest end of the state. It produces primarily Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
The Umpqua Valley is the site of Oregon's first winery, Hillcrest Vineyard. South of Willamette Valley, it has a warm climate and produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc.
The Rogue Valley is further south of the Umpqua Valley and has a dry, warm climate. Varietals include Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer.
The Applegate Valley AVA falls within the Rogue Valley AVA. It produces Cabernet Franc, Sémillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.