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Oregon Wine Regions

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | June 29, 2011

Winemaking in Oregon has traditionally been different than that of other wine producing regions of the United States. While Oregon has a longer history of winemaking than California, most of that history did not see the explosive growth that occurred with California wineries. Like all other wine growing areas in the United States, Prohibition took its toll on the wine producers of the State of Oregon. Even at Repeal the State government still took an unfavorable stand concerning wine. Things changed for Oregon in the 1960s. Winemaking pioneers gambled that with its cooler climate, Oregon could produce high quality wines similar to the quality wines of Burgundy, Switzerland or Alsace. The gamble paid off and with it came the birth of Cool-Climate viticulture. Today Oregon produces some of the finest wines available in the United States.

Generally speaking, Oregon has three non-overlapping American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Oregon's various AVAs are smaller in size than AVAs of other wine producing States and include the Willamette Valley AVA, the Southern Oregon AVA and the Columbia Gorge AVA. Both the Willamette Valley AVA and the Southern Oregon AVA are fully contained within Oregon while the Columbia Gorge AVA extends the over the Oregon Border into Washington state. In addition to Oregon's AVAs, additional AVAs from neighboring states extend into Oregon. These AVAs are known as the Walla Walla Valley AVA of Washington and the Snake River Valley AVA of Idaho.

Oregon's Willamette Valley AVA encompasses the Willamette Valley area of Oregon. The Willamette Valley is in the northern part of Oregon and is located between the Columbia River in the North and the city of Eugene in the South. The area is also contained between the western Oregon Coast Mountain Range and the Eastern Cascade Mountain Range. The Willamette Valley AVA is the largest region in the State of Oregon and also contains three quarters of Oregon's Wineries. The climate of the Willamette Valley AVA is mild with wet winters, dry summers as well as rainfall occurring off-season. Due to the mild nature of the climate, the Willamette Valley receives very little snow. Not all areas of the Willamette Valley AVA are suited for grape production. Most vineyards are located on gentle slopes 300 to 700 feet above sea level, situated just west of the Willamette River.

Of the various grape varieties grown in the Willamette Valley AVA, Pinot Noir stands out for its high quality. With characteristics of focused fruit, delineated structure and intense aromatics, Pinot Noir produced in the Willamette River AVA share characteristics of Old World Burgundy rather than comparable New World varietals. While Pinot Noir is undoubtedly the signature red wine of the Willamette Valley AVA, the second most planted grape is the Pinot Gris. With its dry, fruity and richly textured characteristics, Pinot Gris is Oregon's signature White wine. Additional grape varieties include Gamay, Dolcetto, St-Laurent, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer and Zinfandel.

Like most large AVAs, the Willamette Valley AVA features various sub regions. These sub-regions include the Dundee Hills AVA, McMinnville AVA, Ribbon Ridge AVA, and the Yamhill-Carlton District AVA with applications pending for the creation of additional sub-AVAs.

The Southern Oregon AVA is composed several AVAs including the Umpqua Valley AVA and the Rogue Valley AVA. Created in 2004, the Southern Oregon AVA was developed in order to reap the benefits of joint marketing between the Umpqua Valley AVA and the Rogue Valley AVA. Included in the AVA designation is a small strip of land connecting both Umpqua and Rogue Valleys. This strip of land is not suited for grape growing due to the mountain regions it passes through.

The Umpqua Valley AVA is contained between the wetter and warmer areas to the north and the higher and dries areas to the south. Ultimately the Umpqua Valley AVA is contained to the drainage basin of the Umpqua River. Grape varieties of the Umpqua Valley AVA include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling. Of worthy note is the fact that the first commercial Gruner Veltliner of the United States was produced in the Umpqua Valley AVA.

The Rogue Valley AVA shows different climate characteristics than that of the Willamette Valley AVA. With average rainfalls being 10 to 20 inches, the Rogue Valley AVA is much drier than the Willamette Valley AVA. The Rogue Valley AVA is formed along the basin and tributaries of the Rogue River. Most wineries are located on the tributaries of the Rogue River as much of the land outside of the river tributaries makes grape cultivation difficult. These tributaries include the Illinois River, the Applegate River, and Bear Creek. Also, while the Illinois River and Bear Creek are not considered sub-regions, the Applegate River does have its own AVA. The Rogue Valley AVA is known for its quality, ripe and finely structured blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. The climate of the Rogue Valley AVA forces the various grape varieties to ripen slowly resulting in wines similar to those found in the State of Washington.

While the Columbia Gorge AVA exists in both Oregon and Washington, it is considered to be an Oregon AVA. A small area with a wide-ranging terroir, the Columbia Gorge AVA has great latitude with the variety of wine produced. The Columbia Gorge AVA is significantly drier than areas to the west. Precipitation varies greatly across the Columbia Gorge AVA with the western end receiving 36 inches and the eastern end receiving only 10 inches. Elevation also varies greatly with in the region and natural wind tunnels can make grape growing difficult. Despite these challenges, the Columbia Gorge AVA has approximately 40 vineyards with grape varieties including Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Zinfandel and Cabernet.

Out of State AVAs found in Oregon include the Walla Walla Valley AVA of Washington and the Snake River Valley AVA of Idaho. Both of these AVAs are not considered to be AVAs of Oregon, rather they simply extend into Oregon from their respected States. The Walla Walla Valley AVA has approximately 100 wineries and includes grape varieties such as Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese. The Snake River Valley AVA is a relatively new AVA being established in 2007. Comprising both Baker County and Malheur County, the climate of the Snake River Valley AVA is cool and rainfall is limited. This in turn leads to a shorter growing season. Due to the size of the Snake River Valley AVA, warmer microclimates are not uncommon and can lead to the development of grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The primary grape varieties of the Snake River Valley AVA include Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Chardonnay.

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