The birthplace of modern winemaking in Oregon, the Willamette Valley traces the course of its namesake river for 160 kilometres, from the Columbia River near Portland in the north to just south of Eugene. Protected by the Coast Range mountains to the west and the Cascades to the east, the valley is blessed with a grape-friendly climate that generates most of its rainfall in the winter, giving way to long, warm summers. Pinot Noir dominates in the valley, and Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Blanc are grown here too.
With a winemaking history dating back to the mid-1800s, this is Oregon’s oldest and second largest wine region, with 25 per cent of the state’s planted vineyards. Pinot Noir reigns supreme in southern Oregon, accounting for the majority of the plantings, yet the varied climate and topography mean dozens of varieties, including Tempranillo, Viognier and Cabernet Sauvignon also thrive here.
Officially recognized as an American Viticultural Area, or AVA, in 1984, the Columbia Valley has a winemaking history that dates back to the early 1900s, when Zinfandel grapes were first planted. Today, the region covers some 11 million acres (4.5 million hectares), although much of it is located across the border in Washington. Stretching through picturesque valleys formed by the Columbia River, including the Snake, Walla Walla and Yakima rivers, the sunny region is known for Riesling and Chardonnay, and also produces a wide variety of other grapes, including Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Walla Walla Valley
Established as an AVA in 1984, the tiny Walla Walla Valley comprises just over 1,200 hectares straddling the Oregon-Washington border; just under half the vineyards sit in Oregon. A hub for artisanal crafters (the region's first winery was started in a garage in the 1970s, and today more than 100 small wineries operate here), Walla Walla is known for its Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, among many other popular varietals that thrive in the dry summers and cool autumns.
Situated in the northeastern corner of the state and spilling over into Idaho, this region has been producing wine since the mid-19th century. Prohibition put a 50-year gap in that history, however, and winemaking didn’t resume in earnest until the 1970s. The region’s dry conditions mean most vineyards are irrigated, while the cool nights and warm days create conditions ideally suited to balancing the acids and sugars in grapes. The most commonly grown varieties here include Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Merlot, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay.
There are 19 recognized winemaking regions in Oregon and close to 800 wineries.
Pinot Noir accounts for more than half of the wine grapes grown in Oregon. It was first planted in the Willamette Valley in 1965.
Despite Oregon’s relatively small size in the wine world, the state’s wines comprised 5% of Wine Spectator magazine’s Top 100 list in 2019.
The grape that first put Oregon wines on the map, Pinot Noir remains the state’s most widely planted. Elegant and complex, it’s known for vibrant, sweet spice and sage aromas alongside dark cherry and raspberry flavours.
TRY IT WITH: Grilled or planked salmon or pork, and mushroom dishes
Although Cab production in the state is still dwarfed by Pinot Noir, there is a great deal of excitement around the potential for this classic grape. The Oregon style is usually dense, with dark fruit, chocolate and vanilla notes, and hints of almond and walnut.
TRY IT WITH: Prime rib, lamb or smoked baby back ribs
Most commonly grown in the warmer regions of Walla Walla and the southern AVAs of the Rogue and Umpqua valleys, Oregon Syrahs show great character. White pepper and herb notes are typical, often complemented by blackberry and anise flavours.
TRY IT WITH: Barbecued chicken, portobello mushroom burgers or braised meat dishes
Outside Europe, Oregon is home to some of the world’s oldest Pinot Gris grapes. These clean, crisp, food-friendly wines often showcase melon and spiced pear flavours with light floral aromas.
TRY IT WITH: Tuna sashimi, grilled fish or butter-roasted scallops
Oregon winemakers are putting a distinctive spin on this global grape to make sure their bottles stand out. The style is lively and well balanced, with a satisfying, buttery texture, and citrus and white flower flavours.
TRY IT WITH: Wild salmon, crab cakes and lobster dishes
While most Oregon wines tend to favour the higher end of the market, Riesling from the state still offers some great bargains. Bright and racy, with good acidity, it shines with apricot and tangerine flavours.
TRY IT WITH: Ceviche, sausage rolls and Asian takeout