We tend to think of Washington and Oregon together, but the wine climates for the two states could not be more different. Even though Washington is further north than Oregon, the climate in its main wine producing regions is hotter than Oregon.
As the topographical map of the two states indicates, the difference lies in the configuration of mountain ranges. In Oregon, a relatively low coastal range protects the interior from the worst of the Pacific chill. Some cool air does flow into the interior valley over the tops of the coastal range and through several gaps, supporting the cool climate wine region of the Willamette Valley. The Washington coast lacks a protecting coastal range, making western Washington too cold and wet for fine wine grapes (although there are wineries and tasting rooms in this populous region).
Further inland, the high Cascades act as a near total rain shadow in both states. The eastern side of the Cascades is arid, but irrigated, in both states, by water from the mighty Columbia River. Washington’s main wine growing appellations are here. Several of them edge over onto the Oregon side of the Columbia.
Oregon is the nation’s third largest producer of vinifera wine after California and Washington. Major wine grapes include Pinot Noir (more than half the state’s vineyard acreage), Pinot Gris (about 10% of acreage), Chardonnay (about 5%), Riesling, and Syrah.
Oregon has three major wine climate zones, none of them relating to the others.
- The Coastal Range supports the interior regions of the Willamette Valley AVA, the Umpqua Valley AVA, and the Rogue Valley AVA, running north to south down the entire length of the state. Umpqua and Rogue together constitute the Southern Oregon
- In the interior along the Columbia River, several AVAs which are primarily in Washington have Oregon components south of the Columbia River: the Columbia Valley AVA, the Columbia Gorge AVA, the Walla Walla Valley The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA, although entirely in Oregon, is a sub-AVA of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, which is largely in Washington, creating some jurisdictional controversy.
- In far eastern Oregon, the state shares the Snake River Valley AVA with Idaho.
The Willamette Valley AVA south of the largest city Portland is Oregon’s most prominent wine region. (Willamette is pronounced with a stress on the “am.”) The state capital of Salem and the city of Eugene are both within the region. The largest AVA in the state, Willamette has over 200 wineries. The region is known for its mild climate year round. Summers are dry. Rain falls primarily in winter. Willamette has often been likened to cool-climate Burgundy in France, but its highest temperatures are slightly warmer, its coolest temperature somewhat cooler. Like Burgundy, the region gets a good deal of vintage variation. Heat waves or unexpected spells of chilling rain can seriously compromise a year’s crop. Pinot Noir and to a lesser extent Pinot Gris are the two stars of the region, in both cases vinified in a less fruit-forward traditional French style that they are in California.
Willamette contains five nested AVAs: the Dundee Hills AVA, the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, the McMinnville AVA, the Yamhill-Carlton District AVA, and the Chehalem Mountains AVA . Chehalem in turn has its own nested AVA, the Ribbon Ridge AVA.
The Southern Oregon AVA is comprised of the Umpqua Valley AVA (immediately south of Willamette), and the Rogue Valley AVA (in the state’s south just above the California line). Umpqua and Rogue have different characteristics and are separated by an expanse of mountains. The Southern Oregon AVA (a so-called “super-AVA”) was created in 2004 to allow the two regions to market wine under a joint label.
German immigrants planted the first vines in the Umpqua River Valley in the 1880s. Umpqua is slightly warmer than Willamette, and, like Willamette, the region produces Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, and Syrah among the reds, Pinot Gris and Riesling among the whites. Umpqua has two sub-AVAs: Red Hill-Douglas Country and Elkton.
Further south, the Rogue River Valley’s vineyards concentrate on the Rogue River’s three major tributaries. The Illinois River Valley, cool climate high country, produces Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Applegate Valley AVA (Rogue’s only sub-AVA) has a warmer climate more suited to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with Syrah, Chardonnay and Zinfandel. Thickly settled (it includes the cities of Ashland and Medford), Bear Creek Valley is warmer still, and produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah.
In north central Oregon the two major regions, both shared with Washington, are the Columbia Valley AVA, and the Columbia Gorge AVA. Both AVAs are warmer and drier than the regions nearer the coast. The Oregon portion of Columbia Valley has 1200 acres of vineyards, growing a wide variety of grapes, leading with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese. Wine here tends to be fruit forward, but keeping some of the balance and structure of European wines. The Columbia Gorge is marketed as “a world of wine in 40 miles” because of the variety of climates, terrains, and grape varieties in such a small space, covering two states. Grapes (the list is large) include Zinfandel, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Riesling, and Pinot Gris.
The large Snake River Valley AVA (shared with Idaho) on the eastern edge of the state is both cool and dry, with a short growing season. In this climate, cold-hardy white grapes like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Chardonnay prosper. The region also has an ice wine industry. Some warmer pockets within Snake River produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.