When you think of wine country, images of Napa Valley probably pop into your mind. And when you think of Oregon, you probably recall playing the game Oregon Trail in elementary school and braving the country foothills of the state rather than focusing on its more interesting offerings. But since it does have wine regions of its own that are more than worth noting, you might find yourself wondering, what are the best Oregon wines? There are varieties and regions to consider because it’s not as simple as listing a few reds and whites and calling it a day. But as any wine lover can attest, that’s kind of the best part about discovering regional wines.
In fact, Oregon has ranked the third most notable state in the United States for its wine production and while some might not know this, the state’s reputation for producing unique and delicious wines began all the way back in the 1840s. Oregon is known for producing at least 30 different varieties of wine from its many regions, but to really understand and appreciate all that Oregon has to offer wine aficionados, it might be best to take a deeper look at how it came to be one of the highest nationally ranked states for wine production.
One of the wines that Oregon has become most well known for is Pinot Noir and it has nothing to do with the luck of the draw. Pinot Noir requires red wine grapes and Oregon just so happens to have the perfect cool growing climate in the Willamette Valley for those grapes. And because of the unique microclimates of Southern Oregon and the Columbia Gorge AVA, the conditions for growing the fruit needed for the top of the line Oregon wines are near perfect.
While there are seemingly endless wineries throughout the state to help you find the best Oregon wines and try virtually any variety available, the value in the state’s wine also stems from the more recent corporate wineries and introduction of small production. Wineries in Oregon have become high traffic tourist attractions, but because of the sometimes high-class tasting rooms and meals offered, they also remain hot spots for locals. In short, Oregon might attract visitors regular because of all of the wine regions, but there is never really a “slow” season when it comes to Oregon wines.
Oregon Wine Regions
The Willamette Valley in Oregon is flanked on either side by mountains and the west coast, which makes for a solid climate beneficial for the growth of vineyards for Pinot Noir. Although the further up the mountains you get the more meso climates you will find, most of the planting is done on lower hillsides to have optimum growth every year.
Unlike the Willamette Valley, Southern Oregon is home to a more Mediterranean-like climate that you can feel the moment you step out of your car and into a vineyard. This makes for hot and dry summers and perfect growing conditions to produce wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Dolcetto, Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, and Syrah.
Instead of being surrounded by mountains or acres of flat land, the Columbia Gorge is situated at the Columbia River Gorge, a river that stretches 15 miles in a 40-mile region where the climate differs greatly depending on where you are. The west area of the wine grape growing region is cooler and can experience up to three feet of rainfall per year while the east has more of a desert-dry climate. Both make for temperate vineyard conditions.
Snake River Valley
This Oregon wine region goes through all four seasons, but the winter conditions in Snake River Valley still actually make for ideal growing patterns. The winters allow vines to go dormant and rest to conserve important carbohydrates. And during this time, the plans are also being rid of bugs that may have attached to them in the warmer months.
Oregon Wine Varieties
If you go to Oregon with the intent to try the wine the state is best known for, then you’d want to try the Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir grape is most popularly grown in the Willamette Valley and it has a distinct cranberry taste to it. That might make for a sour or bitter taste in some wines, but in this case, you can also taste some Earthy undertones, which sort of balances it out.
Another popular Oregon wine is Pinot Gris. Oregon’s climate offers perfect conditions to grow the Pinot Gris grape and the resulting wine is light-bodied and crisp. If you’re looking for an “easy” wine that doesn’t feel too heavy on the taste buds, this might be your flavor.
While Chardonnay might not be on the main wines produced by Oregon wineries in the past, it is slowly becoming another favorite. This white wine in Oregon has a pleasantly acidic taste that might give off flowery undertones to offset some of the acidic flavors. The ending result is a white wine that feels like it should have been produced in Oregon wine country all along.
Although you might expect most feelings to have generally the same taste, somehow the unique Rieslings of Oregon have different notes depending on the winery you go with. Some might, for example, gives off hints of lime, while other options might have a pear flavor undertone. Like other whites, Riesling might not be what Oregon is immediately known for, it is becoming a fast favorite among wine connoisseurs and those who are less experienced in the art of wine tasting.
Slowly but surely, Cabernet Sauvignon is becoming as in demand in Oregon as Pinot Noir, which might have been unheard of in recent years. But now its price per pound is up there with Pinot Noir, proving that it may be the one to watch. It’s more of a fruity and dry full-bodied variety, but the fact that this predominantly France-produced wine is growing so popular in Oregon now shows how unique and special its taste is.
Unlike the fruity wines that Oregon produces, Syrah is more of a spicy wine that might take acclimating to. It tends to take on a rich flavor and is almost black in color, giving a whole new name to deep red wine. And in Oregon specifically, at the Cowhorn Vineyards, you can take advantage of a system of biodynamic agriculture within the cooler climate, which helps bring out an even stronger and more unique flavor that is specific to Oregon Syrah.
In true Oregon style, Merlot, which is a dark blue colored variety of wine, is another common option in the regions. It’s no big surprise that it is a big deal among wine drinkers who stream through the Oregon wine country and in this case, it has a lower acidity than some other paler wines. That might be why some people prefer it, but it could also be because of Merlot’s herb-centric taste and aroma.
Tempranillo grapes are prominent in the western region of Oregon, but it’s no secret that the grapes found their home in Oregon because of its ideal climate for proper growth. The Tempranillo itself has a fruity and herb-like flavor that is robust, but not overpowering. It’s more of a black grape wine that is known better for its abundant growth and production in Spain, but if you prefer to find your wine in the Oregon wine country, you can grab a few bottles of this.
Although Pinot Noir is considered one of the premier wines of Oregon, it’s easy to see why Pinot Blanc also holds a special place in the hearts of those who frequent the Oregon wine country. It’s a medium bodied wine with an aroma of honey that is so distinct you can’t really ignore its uniqueness. In Oregon specifically, the method used to make Pinot Blanc is fermentation in stainless steel or older oak, which eventually leads to rich and smoky wines that make them unique to Oregon.
Oregon isn’t immediately known for Gewürztraminer wine, but that could be because it’s relatively hard to get the formula just right to really do the wine justice. It’s mostly a dry wine and sometimes, that can lead to a wine lacking in concentration and one that almost taste diluted. In this case, however, Oregon’s Gewürztraminer is finished with some residual sugar to steer away from a totally dry result. Different Gewürztraminer wines in Oregon range from light to dark varieties and overall, they are quite full-bodied.
Viognier is most well known for its origins in France. Because it comes from a grape that is difficult to grow in just any region and because it is equally as complicated to craft the perfect wine from the grape. In the Pacific Northwest, however, including Oregon, some vineyards have developed the right temperament and grow atmosphere to create a variation of the wine. While it is made in a dry style, the wine still has hints of apricots and orange blossoms, which adds to its overall unique style and flavor.
Originating in France, Cabernet Franc is often used as a companion to compliment the flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. So understandably, it is almost a treat to find such a complex wine on its own and in Oregon, no less. The warm and dry weather of southern Oregon makes for extra sweet and ripe fruit which lends that sweetness to the resulting wine. Some wineries in Oregon might also have other ripened fruits to the Cabernet to make it truly unique and one of a kind that you will only find in Oregon, despite it being a delicacy wine known for its perfection in France.
Müller-Thurgau is a German wine that is grown all over the world, but in Oregon, it is easily one of the top varieties, especially if you’re looking for something other than red or dark wine. This wine comes from white wine grapes of course and has a moderately sweet taste while being light-bodied. It is commonly found in vineyards in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which should come as no surprise to wine lovers who are already familiar with the expansive wine lists that can be found in that region.
As another white wine found in Oregon, Sauvignon Blanc is dry with a fruity but also grassy flavor and light colors. But, unlike some other Oregon wines, this is almost a delicacy in the area. In fact, there are only around 100 acres in Oregon dedicated to the growth of grapes for this particular wine. To some, that makes it even more in demand. And for those who prefer white wine over all others, this can be a fast favorite.
Although Zinfandel grapes are primarily grown in California, Oregon has adopted its own way to grow the vines to produce its own kind of Zinfandel that offers another wine variety to wine-loving visitors and residents. Oregon wineries may have either a light colored Zinfandel or, if the grape skins are left on the grapes during production, you’re left with a more full-bodied red Zinfandel which offers its own flavorful benefits.
To some, Arneis is a lesser known wine because of its high production in Italy rather than all over the world, like some other wines. In this case, however, the Oregon version of Arneis is just as flavorful and has notes of citrus, pear, and almonds. Others are made to have flavors of jasmine and orange blossoms mixed in to really make the Arneis unique. And if you happen to visit a winery in Oregon that has barrel aged their Arneis, you’ll even pick up hints of toasted almond and nutmeg in the wine.
In the late 1800s, a white, Folle Blanche, was crossed with an unknown American wine and the end result was Baco Noir. It’s a deep red wine that has so many layers of flavor it can sometimes be hard to pinpoint just one note. But if you taste blueberry, plum, mocha, and spice somehow all at the same time or individually, that’s not uncommon. The wine is commonly grown in cooler climates and it was first brought to Oregon by a French wine maker, so you know it’s the real deal.
It wasn’t until recent years that Chenin Blanc was even a thing in the Oregon wine country. It comes from a grape known most well for being planted in the Loire Valley of France and then becoming more popular in California, but not Oregon until a few years ago. Now, it remains one of the premier white wines and has a fruity dry flavor while remaining one of the more mild wines that are easy to drink and smooth for even the less experienced wine drinkers.
Because deep red and even darker wines are so prominent in Oregon, it should come as no surprise that an Italian-originated wine like Dolcetto, which is almost black in color, is another popular variety in the region. In Oregon, it is most common in the Southern Oregon wine country valley and it is typically a dry but fruity and mild wine. Unlike some other wines, however, this one should be consumed a few years after it is released rather than age for much longer than that.
Although Grenache is most commonly produced in Mediterranean countries, it also holds a special place in the hearts of Oregon wine lovers. It comes from a deep red grape and is slightly sweet with a fruity and spicy flavor. Luckily, Southern Oregon’s hot dry summers and long sunny days during the fall make for the optimum growing conditions for the grapes for this wine. It might not be totally comparable to the Mediterranean, but it is an area that has a low risk of cold blasts in the colder months out of the year.
The really special thing about Marechal Foch wine is that it is believed to be from a hybrid grape that may be a cross between Gold Riesling and Vitis Riparia. This results in a grape that ripens early but maintains protection against harsh cold as well as the fungus that can sometimes grow in vineyards. Because it can be grown in almost any climate, the fruity red wine is a popular variety across the midwest and other states. And in Oregon, it is most commonly produced in the Willamette Valley.
Malbec is another wine that might not have had a permanent home in Oregon up until a few years ago. It comes from a grape that was commonly grown in Argentina and even New Zealand thanks to the warm climates those areas offer, but it has also found a home in Northwest Oregon. The flavor is full bodied with notes of blackberry, plum, and even smoke to give it a rich feel.
While Nebbiolo wine comes from a grape that is also used in famously expensive wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, in this case, it is more affordable and more approachable. But it still doesn’t take away from the flavor, which remains full-bodied and can have hints of cherry, anise, rose, and leather. The grape can be temperamental to properly grow, but when made into wine, you are left with a rich and overall unique flavor.
Wines which are made from Sangiovese grapes tend to be high in acidity and sometimes strong flavors of black cherry, black currant, or mulberry. But as the wine ages, the Sangiovese grape tends to come out a little more, lending itself to a smooth taste. Because of its notable high acidity, though, Sangiovese is notoriously perfect when paired with almost anything, from pizza or roasted chicken.
Sémillon comes from a white grape variety and, unsurprisingly, makes for a pale wine with a light and crisp flavors. It is often blended with Chardonnay, which results in almost yellow hues and an overall dry wine. In Oregon, it is most commonly produced in the Willamette Valley and is easily one of the more popular white wines in the state’s wine country.
Five Things You Need To Know About Oregon Wine
A Large Portion Of The State Makes Up Primary Wine Country
While the entire state if Oregon isn’t necessarily covered in wineries and wine production plants, a good portion of the state is indeed dedicated to it. In fact, there are roughly 300 wineries across Oregon, with about 20,000 acres dedicated to vineyards to help product all of the different coveted varieties.
The Oregon Trail Does Play A Role In Oregon’s Wine Origins
The popular educational game The Oregon Trail does actually have a place in the Oregon wine country history. Sort of. When settlers arrived in Oregon in the 1800s via the real-life Oregon Trail, they began planting the first vines. Little did they know that they would start a booming trend across the state.
Oregon’s Climate Is Kind Of A Big Deal
The Willamette Valley in Oregon is situated between the mountains and the west coast, making for a cool and wet valley that also gets an extra hour of sunlight. This makes for unique and near perfect growing conditions. And Oregon’s overall cool climate plays a big role in ensuring that different grapes and other fruits for wine are grown properly.
Pinot Noir Is Where It’s At
While Oregon produces dozens of different wine varieties, Pinot Noir is arguably it’s most famous overall. Settlers in the 1800s planted vines for Pinot Noir grapes before any others and even when prohibition cracked down on the sale of wine, bootleggers kept Pinot Noir circulating underground.
Wine Has Helped Boom The State’s Overall Economy
The state’s production of wine has more than just momentary positive effects. Vineyards create a beautiful landscape to attract more tourists every year and the revenue related to wine sales, vineyard tours, tasting, and overall tourism are in the millions. Clearly, Oregon hit gold when settlers realized long ago that this is the place for thousands of acres of lush vineyards.
Oregon Wines Brands your might want to try out:
In tourism or the tourism of wineries and vineyards, is becoming a culture all on its own in Oregon specifically. That’s not entirely uncommon in regions of the country where wineries are present, but lately, it is more of a thing in Oregon. Clearly, there is no shortage of places in Oregon to satisfy one’s taste for wine and there are dozens of varieties to try. There are even established wine organizations to help promote events and news in the wine industry in Oregon. These include the Oregon Wine Board and Oregon Wine Grower’s association team and both are instrumental in helping to grow the wine industry in Oregon regularly. There’s no wrong wine region to visit if you happen to find yourself in Oregon and there are certainly no “bad” wines to sample from the state’s dozens of options. Honestly, the Pinot Noir probably shouldn’t be missed because Oregon has become well known for its high-quality grapes for that wine in particular, but clearly, there are varieties for all palettes. Whether you are looking for something fruitier or more dry wine, Oregon has almost too many options to choose from and enough wine-centric regions to give you an excuse to go back for more than one visit.