Over the last few decades, the Pacific Northwest has become one of the most dynamic wine- producing regions in the United States. Characterized by mountainous and rugged terrain, cooler nights, and varying soil types, this corner of the world is remarkably special when it comes to viticulture. For this month’s TGT, I want to take us on a journey through Oregon’s vibrant winemaking scene, where innovation, sustainability, and good wine are in no short supply.
First, a little history. Wine has been made in Oregon for about 175 years, but production really became significant during the mid-20th century. As with most domestic winemaking, two World Wars and a thing called Prohibition put a serious dent in the region’s viticultural growth. Although it eventually began to revive in the 1960s, by 1970, only five commercial wineries operated within the state. However, 10 short years later, Oregon established some of the country’s first AVAs. The 1990s presented some interesting viticultural challenges, including the potential threat of phylloxera, but winemakers acted quickly, switching to resistant rootstocks to prevent infestation. Today, Oregon is the fourth largest wine-producing state in America, boasting over 725 wineries.
More than 1,050 vineyards across three major growing areas comprise Oregon’s viticultural scene. . The Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon AVAs are both fully contained within the state’s borders, but the state’s third major growing area, the Columbia Gorge, straddles the border between Washington and Oregon. In total, more than 11,000 hectares in Oregon are dedicated to vines, producing about 3 million cases of wine annually. For a relatively young wine region, the rapid rate of growth the state has seen is pretty impressive!
Regionality plays a huge role in understanding Oregon’s winemaking culture. The Willamette Valley has pretty much become the state’s claim to viticultural fame, spanning from the Columbia River in the north to Eugene in the south. The region is surround- ed by a slew of mountain ranges and is dominated by rather mild temperatures year-round. Winters are cool and wet while summers are dry and hot, and volcanic, basalt-based soils line the vineyards. The region is divided into six sub-AVAs: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Van Duzer, and Yamhill-Carlton District. As a whole, the Willamette Valley is home to about two-thirds of Oregon’s wineries, making it the most concentrated AVA within the state.
Southern Oregon is comprised of just two sub-AVAs: the Rogue Valley and the Umpqua Valley, the latter of which is the oldest post-Prohibition growing region within the state. The Rogue Valley is about 60 miles long and is known for being Oregon’s warmest and driest viticultural zone. The Columbia Gorge AVA straddles its namesake river, encompassing both Hood River and Wasco counties.
Here, strong winds and low rainfall (due to its location within the rain shadow of Mount Hood and Mount Adams) create an insane number of microclimates, making it one of the most diverse growing regions in the Pacific Northwest.
There’s no denying that Pinot Noir has become the state’s sweetheart variety, garnering serious praise from industry professionals worldwide. As much as I love the unique, soil-driven expressions of Oregon Pinot, the state’s vibrant viticultural scene goes so much further than that. Growers statewide are putting out insanely delicious bottles of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Riesling, all full of texture, complexity, and terroir-reflective qualities. Gamay is also seeing a renaissance in the state, and for those who love Gewurztraminer, Muller- Thurgau, and other cool-climate varieties, looking to Oregon is a pretty safe bet. Even Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and other European red varieties are finding a home here!
Because of its latitude, soil types, and overall growing conditions, Oregon is often compared to Burgundy, but I prefer to appreciate it for the one-of-a-kind place that it is. Optimal growing conditions make it a hotbed for good wine production, with organic farming, sustainability, and minimal intervention remaining at the forefront of production. I couldn’t be more excited about what’s going on in Oregon and I truly hope you enjoy exploring the magic of the PNW via this month’s box.
Dustin Wilson, Master Sommelier
Love & Squalor Riesling 2015
Love & Squalor was founded by Matt Berson and Angela Reat in 2007 with the mission to highlight the Pacific Northwest’s younger growing regions. Determined to produce something different than Europe or California, the duo firmly believes in flexibility, vintage variation, and honest winemaking, affirming that wines should reflect both the place and year from which they come. Fruit for their 2015 Riesling comes from multiple vineyards in the Willamette Valley, and is vinified dry in steel tanks with native yeasts. Cooler evening temperatures preserve loads of natural high acidity within the fruit, though an overall warmer vintage helped it to reach a juicy, ripe potential in 2015. The final wine shows flavors of stone fruit, green apple, and melon, and is marked by lip-puckering acidity.
PAIRING IDEAS: The high acid and fruit-driven notes in this Riesling make it the perfect match for crunchy salads, fish tacos, and raw bar favorites.
Ovum Wines ‘Big Salt’ 2018
Founded in 2011 by Ksenija and John House, Ovum Wines specializes in white wine production across Oregon, creating site-specific wines with a low-intervention mentality in the cellar. Fermentations are always done with native yeasts, followed by extended lees contact and aging in neutral barrel or cement eggs. ‘Big Salt’ is an aromatic blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, and Sauvignon Blanc, co-fermented together in a combination of steel and oak. The vines’ breezy seaside location adds a tropical, salty texture to the wine’s juicy flavors of white flowers, tropical fruit, and wet stones.
PAIRING IDEAS: The pronounced aromas and savory saltiness within this wine make it extremely versatile on the table, pairing gorgeously with fresh seafood, sushi, and vegetable pad thai.
Brooks ‘Runaway Red’ Pinot Noir 2017
Jimi Brooks, a Portland native, established Brooks just 20 years ago, focusing on organic and biodynamic farming across eight hectares in the Eola-Amity Hills. After an inspiring trip to Beaujolais, Brooks decided to dedicate his life to holistic farming, tapping into Oregon’s unmatched potential for complex Pinot Noir. Jimi’s work lives on through his son, Pascal, as well as his longtime friend, Chris Williams. The 2017 ‘Runaway Red’ shows flavors of dark cherry, blood orange, and herbs, with earthy, mushroom-driven undertones that leave a zesty, lingering finish.
PAIRING IDEAS: This energetic bottle of Pinot pairs perfectly with chicken marsala, grilled veggies, and a variety of roasted poultry dishes.
Buona Notte 'Centro Per Cento' Sangiovese 2017
Buona Notte is a small family project located in Hood River that’s spearheaded by winemaker Graham Markel. Inspired by childhood moments in his mother’s Tuscan culinary school, as well as past positions working at Antica Terra and Hiyu Wine Farm, Graham eventually set out on his own to explore the many microclimates and growing conditions within Oregon. The 2017 ‘Cento Per Cento’ is a varietal Sangiovese, fermented in tank and aged in a combination of steel and barrel. Light and easy-drinking, the wine shows flavors of tart red fruit, spices, and earth.
PAIRING IDEAS: This zesty, fruit-forward red is perfect for serving alongside pizza, pasta, and charcuterie boards. The wine shows its best when served slightly chilled!