A young & promising USA Region.
Oregon – in the Pacific Northwest of the USA – is one of the world's youngest and most promising wine regions. The state first earned a place on the international wine map in the late 1960s and has secured its position steadily ever since. Although production volumes have remained relatively low-key, the reputation of Oregon wines has not. In the early 21st Century, Oregon is regarded as a world-class wine region, particularly for its Pinot Noir. The classic Oregon Pinot has a deep cherry-red color and aromas of spiced black cherries, stewed strawberries and fresh-cut field mushrooms.
Unheard-of 50 years ago, Oregon Pinot Noirs (particularly those from the Willamette Valley and its tiny Dundee Hills sub-region) now rank among the very finest American wines. The best examples are remarkably similar to their equivalents from Burgundy – a fact pivotal to their continued success. The mutual affinity between Oregon and Burgundy has led a number of Burgundian wine icons to set up operations in the state. The movement was led by Maison Joseph Drouhin in the late 1980s, when he established Domaine Drouhin Oregon in the Dundee Hills – right next door to David Lett (aka 'Papa Pinot') at his Eyrie Vineyard. In 2013 and 2014, such prestigious names as Louis Jadot, Liger-Belair and Meo-Camuzet joined the list, confirming beyond doubt that there really is something 'Burgundian' about Oregon.
Of Oregon's total vineyard area (21,000 acres / 8,500ha), just over 60 percent is devoted to Pinot Noir. Outnumbered 5:1 by its dark-skinned cousin, the next most widely planted variety here is Pinot Gris, with 2800 ha. Although Oregon Pinot Gris, with its rich scent of spiced pears, is held in relatively high regard, its financial value (dollars per ton) is almost half that of Pinot Noir.
Pinot Gris is followed by two other internationally popular cool-climate, white wine varieties – Chardonnay and Riesling, before the acreage pendulum swings gently back in favor of red wine grapes. These are led by the two classic Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. If the price paid per ton of grapes is anything to go by, the "next big thing" in Oregon wine will be Cabernet Sauvignon, which now commands the same price per ton as – and sometimes more than – Pinot Noir. Also on the radar, although barely audible above the clamor for Oregon Pinot, is the state's bright, spice-tinged Syrah.
The majority of Oregon vineyards are located in state's western one-fifth, within 80 miles of the Pacific coastline (although those of the Columbia Gorge and Walla Walla Valley in the north should not be ignored). Here, a broad, shallow valley is formed between the low-lying mountains of the Coast Range and the much larger Cascades to the east. Temperatures are moderated by proximity to the ocean, which also leads to relatively high rainfall; moderate, long summers and wet autumns are the norm. Warmer, drier conditions are found in the Rogue Valley, at the state's southern edge near the border with California.
Oregon has the most marginal climate of the West Coast's three wine-growing states. Vintages can vary quite considerably, but growers have adapted their viticultural techniques and grape selection to suit the climatic variations.
Oregon's wine industry stands in stark contrast to that of its southern neighbor, California. Where California is the long-established, dominant force of American wine, controlled by just a few companies, Oregon is a relative newcomer composed of smaller, family-run, boutique wineries. Where California's 150 AVAs span 600 miles from north to south and 150 miles inland, Oregon's 25 AVAs are all located almost exclusively in the western fifth of the state, near the Pacific coast. California's warm, sunny climate produces rich, robust wines, where Oregon's moist, cool climate creates finer, more delicate wines.
There are also obvious differences between Oregon and its northern neighbor, Washington, which produces more than 10 times as much wine and is the USA's second most important wine region by volume. Almost all Washington wine comes from grapes grown under contract in the state's dry, continental interior, before being shipped to the wineries located around Seattle. Oregon wine, by contrast, comes almost exclusively from grape grown by the wineries themselves, in cool, rain-refreshed vineyards located relatively close to the coast.
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