All wine lovers know the major wine regions of California such as Napa and Sonoma, but the name of Oregon’s primary wine region is much less well known.
The obvious reason is California’s wine production is so much greater that it dominates the market. In fact several California wineries individually produce more than the entire state of Oregon.
But Oregon receives much attention for its wonderful Pinot Noir, which accounts for 64 percent of the state’s vineyard plantings. Oregon Pinot Noirs have been ranked among the world’s best since 1975, and today Oregon is in its “Golden Era” thanks to a series of superb vintages. Pinot Gris and Chardonnay are other favorites from Oregon.
Oregon’s wines reflect its northern climate with long daylight hours in summer producing ripe fruit flavors and cool evenings allowing grapes to retain acidity. As a result, Oregon wines are very well balanced and thereby palate and food friendly.
Oregon’s primary wine region is the Willamette Valley with nearly three-fourths of the state’s vineyard area. It is often mispronounced as if based on the name “William.” Instead it is “will-AM-et” (Oregonians amusingly remind visitors “it’s Willamette dammit.”)
Willamette Valley extends southward from Portland halfway to California and is bounded by coastal mountains to the west and the Cascade Range to the east. It is at nearly the same latitude as Burgundy, also renowned for Pinot Noir.
Willamette Valley is recognized as an American Viticultural Area (AVA); however, soils and weather differ throughout the valley. Therefore, much of the northern half of Willamette Valley, where there is a greater concentration of wineries, has been further designated as more narrowly defined AVAs. These are Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton…names to remember for their site-specific wines.
Oregon has three other wine regions, but these are not well known outside the Pacific Northwest. The Southern Oregon AVA extends directly south from Willamette Valley to California and includes several other AVAs. Other regions are along Oregon’s north-central border with Washington and east-central border with Idaho.
Recommended Wines: $10-$19
Cedar + Salmon 2016 Pinot Gris “Willamette Valley” ($19): The top Pinot Gris I tasted is expressive on the palate with strong fruit and fine balance, along with pleasing complexity, integration and refinement. Available online.
Oregon Trails 2016 Pinot Noir “Willamette Valley” ($19): This very good value is light on the nose, but features fruit on the palate followed by development of complexity and attractive, medium-soft tannins.
A to Z 2015 Pinot Noir “Oregon” ($20): This widely available bottling is pleasing all around. Its impressive nose portents a forward attack with fruit well balanced by pleasant acidity. A fine food wine.
Locations non-vintage Pinot Noir “OR5, Oregon” ($20): Notable quality for its price, Locations OR5 has exceptional color, a strong, complex nose and powerfully rich fruit enveloping a core of rounded tannins.
Van Duzer 2016 Riesling “Norris-McKinley Vineyard, Ribbon Ridge” ($20): Attractive to the eye and palate, this strong Riesling has a hint of sweetness, but complexity and strength soon dominate. Available online.
WillaKenzie 2016 Pinot Gris “Willamette Valley” ($20): More bold than refined, this wine with personality is full-bodied with expressive fruit, excellent balance and great length. Also, the winery’s 2015 Pinot Noir “Pierre Léon, Yamhill-Carlton” ($55, available online) has the tannins to be a red-meat wine plus superb fruit, engaging complexity and great length.
Marshall Davis 2016 Pinot Noir “Yamhill-Carlton” ($23): My favorite Pinot Noir in this price range is impressive all-around, featuring an outstanding nose and a strong attack that quickly develops balance, complexity and length. Available from the winery.
Roco 2014 Pinot Noir “Gravel Road, Willamette Valley” ($30): Shines on the palate with rich fruit, fine balance, dusky tannins, very engaging complexity and more, making it a fine value for its price. The Roco 2015 Chardonnay “Gravel Road, Oregon” ($40, available online) is another highly pleasing choice.
Rex Hill 2015 Pinot Noir “Willamette Valley” ($35): Impressive all-around, beginning with eye-catching purple-tinged color. Features more expressive fruit than usual for Oregon and has agreeable tannins, appealing complexity and a forward finish.
Sokol Blosser 2014 Pinot Noir “Dundee Hills” ($38): My favorite in the $30s features beautiful fruit on the attack coupled with highly pleasing balance, complexity, integration, length and power.
Shea 2014 Pinot Noir “Shea Vineyard, Willamette Valley” ($45): Tops in the $40s, it features gorgeous fruit dominating an attack that quickly reveals wonderful balance and pleasing tannins of a powerful, complex wine. Available in Arizona soon.
Stoller 2015 Pinot Noir “Reserve, Dundee Hills” ($45): I loved the beauty and complexity of its nose and how a gentle entry develops in the mouth, revealing fine fruit, well-honed balance and outstanding integration, refinement and length.
$60 and above
Penner-Ash 2015 Pinot Noir “Shea Vineyard, Yamhill-Carlton” ($65): This wonderful, exceptionally well made wine features highly pleasing fruit but develops much more in the mouth and finishes with great beauty and length.
Lange 2013 Pinot Noir “Lange Estate Vineyard, Dundee Hills” ($70): Forward fruit at first sip is joined by luxurious tannins, impressive complexity and excellent balance. A very well integrated beauty.