May is Oregon Wine Month

Food & Drink

Not that you need an excuse to drink these wines that truly speak of place.

The state of Oregon is a small and shining jewel in the crown of American wine regions. That’s not only for its physical beauty, but also for its association with France’s Burgundy region, a trend started in 1987 when the renown Drouhin wine family purchased land for vineyards in the Willamette Valley, a region on the same latitude as Burgundy.

Now considered the premier ground zero for Oregon fine wine, the valley has attracted other winemakers with French roots, who specialize in the flagship Pinot Noir but also finding other French varieties do well here, especially Chardonnay.

“The Drouhins always expected Chardonnay in Oregon to hit the same heights as Pinot Noir, just as it does in Burgundy,” said David Millman, president and CEO of Domaine Drouhin Oregon. “If it feels like Oregon is a jackpot for beautiful Chardonnay, I would say a lot of that is a combination of right grape, right place and the genuine excitement that new and veteran winemakers have for the potential here. I think we’re just getting going.”

I’ll focus the rest of this month on the stunning Chardonnays that are setting new benchmarks in the U.S., and at the same time, reviving the variety’s status as a noble grape. But first, an introduction to Oregon winemaking overall, since May has been designated as Oregon Wine Month.

Wine grapes have been grown in Oregon since the mid-1800s, but it wasn’t until 1965 that a new wave of winegrowers set down stakes—and Pinot Noir roots. The movement was pioneered by David Lett, and Chuck and Shirley Coury (the men were former classmates at UC-Davis), who made their first wines in 1970. Others followed in that decade, most of them using Washington State grapes while rooting their vineyards in Oregon (you can read about more the state’s beginnings at the Oregon Wine History Archive).

By the 1980s, Oregon established what are still the strictest labeling laws in the country, and the quality was such that the area attracted serious investment large and small. Big names arrived (Drouhin, for example), and then someone who would become a big name, critic Robert Parker. Today, the state boasts more than 700 wineries offering a diversity of styles and personal histories. You can view a comprehensive history here at this nifty interactive timeline. Recently, the Willamette Valley reached another milestone: its first collector’s auction of library wines conducted this spring by the Willamette Valley Wineries Association (WVWA) in conjunction with fine-wine auction house Zachys.

LOCALE. Long and broad, the Willamette Valley runs 150 miles north-south on the eastern side of the state, sited between the Cascades to the east and the Coast Range to the west, the former offering protection from the desert-like conditions of the east and the latter shielding the valley from the Pacific Ocean’s cold breezes.

AVAs. The Willamette Valley umbrella AVA, established in 1983, runs from Portland to Eugene, encompassing 3,438,000 acres and is home to more than two-thirds of the state’s wineries. In 2002, the first set of “sub” or nested AVAs was established. A seventh was added in 2019, two more in 2020 and the most recent added in late 2021, totaling 10 nested sub-AVAs, which include: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, Laurelwood District, Lower Long Tom, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, Tualatin Hills, Van Duzer Corridor and Yamhill-Carlton. About 26,000 acres are planted to vine.

CLIMATE. Numerous diverse mesoclimates and soils give vineyards distinct personalities, but in general, summers are warm and dry, with cool evenings and a diurnal temperature range that helps preserve acidity and freshness in the grapes. This spring, however, the region experienced an uncharacteristic frost, with estimates of damage at about 50% of the crop reported Decanter magazine.

GRAPES. Oregon’s flagship grape is Pinot Noir (59% production), but Chardonnay and Pinot Gris have found particular success here. Others on the rise include Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Melon de Bourgogne, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Gamay. Some winemakers are producing sparkling wine, using traditional varieties found in Champagne.

NOTABLE PRODUCERS. Historic producers include: Adelsheim, Amity, Bethel Heights, Charles Coury, Elk Cove, Erath, Eyrie, Knudsen, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser Winery and Tualatin. Though not in the early wave of pioneers, it can be said that Domaine Drouhin Oregon started the international interest in the region and the migration of many winemakers from fine-wine production areas.

Recent wine-industry awardees include: From Wine Spectators’s 2021 Top 100: Alexana, 2018 Pinot Noir Dundee Hills, Revana; Vines Evening Land Chardonnay, 2018, Eola-Amity Hills Seven Springs; Zena Crown Vineyard, 2017 Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills Slope; Chehalem, 2020 Chardonnay Willamette Valley Inox Unoaked

From Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100: Eyrie Vineyards 2019 Estate Pinot Gris; Ridgecrest 2020 Estate Dry Riesling; REX HILL Vineyard 2018 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir; Walter Scott 2019 X-Novo Vineyard Chardonnay; Quady North 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon.

From Wine & Spirits’ Top 100 wineries: Bergström, Brooks, Johan, King Estate and Lingua Franca.

Next up: tasting notes from Oregon.

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