Grapes for wine do not trace their roots back to the northwest part of the Pacific Ocean – the first vines were brought by settlers. Henderson Luelling brings over 700 fruits and nuts, including vineyards, with a waggon in 1847. Some of the first wines in Oregon are made in the southern part of the state. In 1850 Peter Britt opens the Valley View Vineyard - the first trading wine cellar in Oregon. Britt is a renaissance person who also works as a miner, banker, meteorologist and beekeeper.
At the beginning of the 20th century, wine production in Oregon began to achieve its first successes. At that time, the alcohol ban was gaining power and under the pressure of the state, it was adopted in Oregon four years before the production and sale of alcohol received a national ban in the 1920s because of the 18th Constitutional Amendment. But the ban did not bring wine production in Oregon to an end. Many farmers continued to grow grapes and made wine in their basements. According to the US Department of Agriculture census, the production of wine grapes in Oregon has actually increased from 1,421 tons in 1919 to 2,668 tons in 1929.
In 1961, Richard Summer became the first student at the University of California Davis to head to Oregon with plans to grow wine. Summer and his classmates were schooled by their professors that the European varietal Vitis Vinifera could never grow successfully in the cool, rainy Oregon. In the spirit of America's early pioneers, this did not stop these enthusiasts from refuting their teachers.
Another two students from California, David Lett and Charles Curry, moved to Oregon in 1966. David Lett planted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and America's first Pinot Gris. Curie moved to the northern Willamette Valley, planting Pinot Noir and the Alsace varieties at David Hill. These young winemakers not only managed to grow grapes in Oregon but they also achieved wines that compete with the best in the world.
In 1979, Oregon and its Pinot Noir got in the limelight. Quite randomly, two bottles of Pinot Noir from The Eyrie Vineyards, 1975 vintage, reached the prestigious Paris Olympics, organized by Gault-Millau. The wine makes it to top ten. Intrigued, the famous Burgundy wine maker Robert Drouhin organized a new competition - Oregon versus Burgundy. This time, David Lett's wine comes second, leaving behind several well-known names. The press spreads the word around the world and Oregon's wine appears on the map.
Robert Drouhin has another huge merit for the success of Oregon wine. In 1987 it was the first French family-run winery to buy land outside of the country, build a winery, and set up the surname Domaine Drouhin Oregon. His daughter Veronique Drouhin is the main winemaker. This serves as a "quality seal" for Oregon wine in front of the global public and not just a narrow circle of critics .
In the early 1990s, the grape and wine industry was threatened by a Phylloxera attack in the state, but wine growers were swiftly responded by replanting on resistant roots to prevent serious damage. State legislation actively stimulated viticulture and passed laws to ease the trade and distribution of Oregon wine. Currently Oregon opens up a new focus - "green" wine making, leading the American wine industry into more environmentally friendly practices.
Oregon is a state in the Northwest Pacific Coast of the United States. The Columbia River outlines much of Oregon's northern border with Washington, while the Snake River covers the eastern border with Idaho. The southern border with California and Nevada passes along the 42nd parallel north latitude.
Oregon is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area covering the Pacific Basin, responsible for 90% of the earthquakes and home to 75% of the active volcanoes around the world. Powerful and upheaval geological events in the past of the region have shaped its topography of breathtaking views and diverse wine regions.
It is generally accepted that the vine (vitis vinifera) has chosen to house the latitudes between 30 and 50 degrees in both hemispheres of the Earth. Oregon is in the range 42 to 46 degrees north latitude. This, roughly speaking, is halfway between the Equator and the North Pole (0 to 90 degrees).
During the summer season Oregon enjoys 15 hours of sunshine a day. These long warm days during vegetation and flowering are crucial to the growth of grapes until harvest time. Oregon's finest wines are made from well-ripened grape that blossomed in taste and with residual sugars, but whose acidity is preserved thanks to the cool nights.
Oregon has two major sources of winds: the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River. The coastal mountain range to the west and the Klamath Mountain to the south moderate the influence of the ocean, and the Chehalem Mountain to the north is a barrier to the cold winds that descend down the river valley towards the Oregon wine regions.
The northern positioning of the state ensures a significant amount of rainfall. Coastal and Cascading mountain ranges, however, play the role of an umbrella over the wine regions. Thus even in the rainiest parts of the state, rainfall is cumulated mainly during the winter. Due to that, during the ripening season the vines receive the stress from water scarcity allowing them to develop complexity of the fruit.
The Oregon vine regions stretch from cool to moderate climate zones. In the state, the pioneers of modern wine come from California in search of a cooler place for the perfect Pinot Noir - grapes and wine.
The turbulent geological past of Oregon is the cause of diversity among the soil types, where vines are grown. The three main types are: sedimetric-marine, volcanic and loess, not found in a variety of impurities and shifting layers of the landscape. Changes can be drastic, from hill to hill - a result of the turmoil events that took place 10 to 15 thousand years ago. With dozens of microclimates and soil types throughout the state, the Oregon grape is as different as the place it comes from.
Vineyards and Varietals
Pinot noir accounts for more than 60% of the grape plantations in the state, while the remaining 30% are varieties such as Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay and Syrah, which are increasingly gaining the attention of critics.
The efforts to create the white wine of Oregon date back to the 1970‘s, when the rise of the Oregon Pinot Noir began. Pinot Gris is definitely one of the candidates but lately many winemakers have turned to Chardonnay. Until recently the attempts were to mimic California's oak floral style, or the restrained and multi-layered style of Burgundy. However, the new wave manufacturers are already paying special attention and optimizing the sites selected for planting. The purpose is to reveal its true potential in the particular cool Oregon conditions.
Oregon's wine growers continue to experiment in search of the perfect combination of variety and terroir. It is not about forcing the land to follow trends. It is about soils, location and climate that will naturally offer the optimal conditions for a grape varietal.
Winemaking and Wines
Wine production in Oregon represents only 1% of that of the United States and ranks fourth after California, Washington and New York. Wineries in the state have dedicated themselves to making small batches of terroir orientated wines with high quality. In fact, most Oregon wineries are relatively small. Seventy percent of them produce less than 5,000 boxes (x12 bottles) per year. Oregon focuses on responsible and organic farming, and 47% of vines in the state are certified.
In addition labeling requirements for stamps are stricter than those at the federal level. The AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation requires 85% of the grapes to be from the area, and 75% of the country, state or area, while in Oregon these are respectively 100% and 95%.
Similarly, the varietal marked on the label must represent at least 75% of the wine, according to federal regulations, while in Oregon the limit is increased to 90%. This applies to Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and more than 50 other varietals. Still the system is flexible allowing 25% for 18 of the world's most common varieties in order to open up space for experiments with the classic French blends.
Oregon makes wine in all styles but lately there is a trend for increasing interest in sparkling wines, especially with the planting of vines in higher places. Still less than 70000 cartons (x12 bottles) are bottled per year. Many producers in the Willamette Valley experiment with the traditional Blanc de Noir and Blanc de Blanc, with no vintage markings (NV).
In 2013, the winemakers in Oregon are the first in the United States to persuade the state authorities to allow the sale of draft wines to pubs and shops. One container saves 39 glass bottles for the environment without any compromise on the quality of the wine.