The state of Oregon is famous for its flagship wine, Pinot Noir. With regions you’ve likely heard of including Willamette Valley, Columbia Gorge, and Snake River Valley, they’re no strangers to producing Pinot Noir, even though they’ve only been doing it for about fifty years.
Willamette Valley remains the standard of quality, but overall, Oregon Pinot Noir producers pride themselves on the cost of their wine. No one likes to tout that their wine is expensive, but for those in Oregon, it’s a sense of pride.
On average, a bottle of Pinot Noir from Oregon costs about $5 more than those from Washington, and $10 more than those from California, both of which still have fantastic Pinot Noir options.
So, from a region where you expect quality, which Pinot Noir is the best? What you choose may be influenced by where it’s from, so a history lesson is in order first. It’s fun to learn about where the wine comes from because that’s what defines much of its character.
Oregon Wine Regions
There’s something about the Oregon wine experience that makes Oregon a place you “do,” not a place you “see.” There are mountains, volcanoes, forests, and beaches. The scenery is beautiful, and it’s this unique land that makes some of the best Pinot Noir in the world.
Here’s a glimpse into some of the wine regions of Oregon (there are a total of 19), the wineries located within (more than 790), and the landscapes they feature. Each is a fantastic place to visit for the wine, the scenery, and so much more.
Grapes have only been growing in Central Oregon for a decade, but faced with challenges, a group of people from Central Oregon turned them into possibilities. This region is remarkable in the sense that the land is more desolate and the communities less populated than in other parts of the state.
Wineries here have thrived despite opposition and some of the best wineries in the state are located right in the middle, including Naked Winery, The Wine Shop and Tasting Bar, Va Piano Vineyards, and Portello Winecafe.
With Mt. Hood in the background and the Columbia River flowing right through, the Columbia Gorge region is one of the most spectacular wine regions in Oregon. It’s close to Portland and includes fertile soil perfect for establishing vineyards.
The climate is as extreme as the scenery, producing a variety of high-quality wines from sweet whites to hearty red. Wineries located here include Idiot’s Grace Wines, Jacob Williams Winery, Upsidedown Wines, and Hawkins Cellars.
Southern Oregon is home to fields, mountains, and rivers. The Rogue Valley has a diversity of climate leading to more varied wines. In fact, it’s one of the most diverse wine regions in the world.
The Applegate Valley is picturesque and features smaller wineries offering a big taste. Meandering roads lead to vineyards where you can experience a glass of wine at a slower pace.
Umpqua Valley is also diverse in a climate with a natural beauty beyond compare. Enjoy your visit with covered bridges, epic waterfalls, warm hospitality, and plenty of wildlife.
Walla Walla Valley
This region is welcoming, but the land demands patience. The winegrowers here have the dedication to their incredible finished products, which are harder to create than in many other places, but well worth the hard work.
The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is nestled in this region and is the only AVA in the United States that has boundaries fixed by a single landform and a single soil series. The pebbles in the soil retain heat in the day and produce distinct flavours in their wines.
Famous for Pinot Noir, this region features wineries that take a personal, artisan, handcrafted approach to their wines. It’s by far the largest wine region in Oregon, including areas like Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills, Cascade Foothills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, and Yamhill-Carlton.
Distinct Oregon Pinot Noir Growing Conditions
Pinot Noir is one of the most fickle grapes to grow. It’s thin-skinned and sensitive to everything from climate and growing conditions to harvesting, handling, and winemaking. What makes Oregon Pinot Noir so special is that Oregon seems to have just the right climate for growing these particular grapes.
It’s one of the few parts of the world containing the conditions needed to make exceptional Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is grown all over the world, but stellar Pinot Noir can only be found in a number of places you can likely count on one hand.
There are three things that make Oregon one of the best places on earth to make Pinot Noir.
Oregon has a temperate climate with plenty of rain and well-draining soil. Pinot Noir grapes grow especially well when in cool climates because they thrive on taking their time and ripening slowly.
Pinot Noir loves this temperate climate that is often foggy. Because Pinot Noir buds and ripens early, the longer it can stay on the vine, the more complex the end product will be. In warm climates, winemakers have to fabricate the perfect conditions for Pinot Noir to remain on the vine longer, but Oregon’s natural climate does this for them.
Proper maintenance of the vineyard is also key, but because humans can’t control the climate, choosing the appropriate climate for growing Pinot Noir is the first and most important step.
It’s no mystery that volcanic soil is highly fertile. Growing anything in volcanic soil is almost always better than any other type of soil. But because the soil has the biggest impact on a grape’s flavour, growing Pinot Noir in volcanic soil enhances its the depth of character.
Because volcanic soils are formed in many different ways, this only adds to the Pinot Noir personality. Depending on the region, the volcanic soil could be formed by explosively ejected rock, slow-flowing lava, or settling ash.
That means that even in volcanic soil, the variety of wine produced in nearly endless. Variations of soil in differing climates, slopes, sun exposure, harvesting conditions, and winemaking processes means the best and most diverse Pinot Noir in all the world.
Believe it or not, a passion for making wine is a necessary component to producing excellent varieties. Pinot Noir is finicky enough before throwing a vintner into the mix who simply doesn’t care for his craft.
Winemakers in Oregon are intensely proud of their product. The success of Oregon Pinot Noir speaks for itself and comes from the desire to produce something great and be the best they can possibly be.
Many oenophiles will attest to the ability to taste a winemaker’s passion in their wine. If it’s been crafted with care, you’ll immediately notice the difference between an excellent wine and an average one.
Oregon Wine Characteristics
Unfortunately, Oregon wine makes up less than 1% of wine production compared to California. While it’s growing, it’s still very small, despite its amazing characteristics. Oregon Pinot Noir is special because while it varies in taste from one region to the next, you can count on it having a few consistent characteristics across the board.
Cranberries and Earth
Oregon Pinot Noir has been described as tasting like cranberries and earth. No matter where you go to get your hands on a bottle, from north to south and east to west, Oregon Pinot Noir will have a rustic quality that is subtle and nuanced.
If your preference is more fruit-forward wines, you won’t find that here. Many people who love bright, fruity California wine will need some time to adjust to the vast difference. While California is bright and sunny, Oregon is often cool, foggy, and rainy, and the wine’s flavour reflects those differences well.
Cool climate wines have much higher acidity than warm-climate wines. Because Pinot Noir grows so well in cooler climates, Oregon Pinot Noir is marked by a much higher acidity than many other wines. If you don’t like your wines to be high in acid, you may have a bit of trouble stomaching this one.
Thanks to the cooler weather keeping the grapes on the vine for longer, Oregon Pinot Noir has a lot of personality and depth of flavour. You won’t find any other wine as complex and multi-dimensional.
On top of that, long oak ageing also adds to the intense earthy flavours of clove, vanilla, and cinnamon. Even Oregon Pinot Noir that is not aged in oak barrels will have a lot of body and tannins.
Ties to France
One of the only other places on earth that have near-perfect growing conditions for Pinot Noir is France. The northern part of the country has a temperate climate and delivers a large volume of Pinot Noir from regions like Champagne and Burgundy.
While Oregon Pinot Noir is young compared to French Pinot Noir, Oregon’s ties to France are undeniable, giving it the support it needs to continue to grow and may explain why the Pinot Noir found here is some of the best in the world.
The French have always been connected to Oregon. French explorers settled in the territory as early as the eighteenth century, and it is rumoured that the name Oregon even comes from the French word ouragan, which means windstorm or hurricane.
Fifty years ago, no one would have thought Oregon had any potential to grow Pinot Noir. It wasn’t until a young Robert Drouhin from the Burgundy region, and no stranger to Pinot Noir, purchased the land where Dundee Hills now sits in 1987, that people started to change their perspectives.
Since 1987, other French nationals have joined Drouhin in Oregon and there are more than a dozen French winemakers who have ties to wine projects in Oregon including Maison Louis Jadot’s Resonance, Domaine Divio, and the Beaux Freres Winery.
Other French-run wineries in Oregon include Chapter 24 Vineyards, Phelps Creek, Lingua Franca, Solena Estate, Van Duzer Vineyards, Hyland Estates, and Torii Mor Winery. They feature classically-trained vintners from the heart of France where Pinot Noir was first discovered.
When centuries of knowledge, respect for old vines, and confidence come together, they’re sure to result in New World excellence. The French presence in Oregon is not new, and it continues to grow.
Despite the size of the Pinot Noir volume in Oregon, the distribution network is huge. You can find Oregon Pinot Noir throughout the country. Not all wineries ship to all states, but chances are that no matter where you are, you’ll be able to find several different Oregon Pinot Noir wines at your local store.
There are also a handful of wine clubs that specialize in shipping excellent wines from the Pacific Northwest. California Wine Club has a Pacific Northwest subscription that may be right up your alley if you want Pinot Noir and other Oregon wines delivered right to your door monthly.
When all else fails, take a vacation. Oregon has much more to do than just sample wines, but even if that’s all you were going to do while you were there, it would still be a worthwhile and very busy trip.
There are many fantastic Oregon Pinot Noir wines, and it’s nearly impossible to choose favourites. The list would be miles long simply because there’s almost no better place in the world to get spectacular Pinot Noir, especially if you live in the United States.
As agonizing as it was to pare this list down, here are my top Oregon Pinot Noir picks for your enjoyment.
Patricia Green Cellars 2016 Estate Vineyard Bonshaw Block Pinot Noir
This Pinot Noir is from Ribbon Ridge and costs $60 per bottle. Seem steep? It’s a small price to pay for one of the best Pinot Noir wines in the world. It has complex aromas, compact flavours, and thick, silky mouthfeel.
Berry and plum jam scents dominate with flavours of cherry, chocolate, and butterscotch, and just a hint of blueberry and coconut.
Domaine Divia 2016 Pinot Noir
Slightly less expensive is another wine from Ribbon Ridge, at $48 per bottle. It has bright aromas of raspberry jam with a wet rock base. The flavours of chocolate and cherry are well rounded and linger through the finish. These sweet flavours are complemented by a slightly salty oyster shell note. It sounds unappealing, but it’s absolutely delicious.
Firesteed 2015 Pinot Noir
This Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley is only $17 per bottle. It’s more widely available than the other two and is a great value wine. It has flavours of raspberry, cherry, and spicy cranberry with ripe tannins.
Here are a few frequently asked questions regarding the complicated topic of Oregon Pinot Noir.
Oregon is known, first, for its Pinot Noir. It produces more Pinot Noir volume than any other variety, followed closely by Pinot Gris, with Chardonnay coming up third. Pinot Noir from Oregon has received critical acclaim and Oregon is one of the premier Pinot Noir producers in the world.
Oregon has more than 790 wineries, 500 of which are in the Willamette Valley. It’s the largest wine region in Oregon, but there are more than 19 regions in all. Some are very small, but notable, and produce excellent wines, including Oregon’s flagship wine, Pinot Noir.
Most Pinot Noir wines will last up to five years in storage. However, exceptionally high-quality Pinot Noir grapes make wines that can last for up to 10 years, as is the case with the majority of Pinot Noir wines from Oregon. Because of superior grapes and growing conditions, these wines age much better than cheaper, lower quality Pinot Noir.
However, wines that are particularly high in tannins and acidity tend not to last as long, so there is a delicate balance between ageing and drinking young. There is no discernable worthwhile benefit to allowing your Pinot Noir to age for any amount of time. You can feel comfortable enjoying it right away and still experience all of the flavour and character you expect.
Pinot Noir should be served slightly cooler than room temperature, but not ice cold. Room temperature is too warm, but a light-bodied red like Pinot Noir is perfect at about 55 degrees.
It’s hard to say anything bad about Oregon Pinot Noir. Because of the diversity of landscape and climate, the flavours you’ll find vary more than any other wine region or any other wine variety. Oregon produces very distinct Pinot Noir that is world-renowned and as spectacular as you can expect.
If you’re looking for a truly unique and inviting experience, look for Oregon Pinot Noir in your local store. You’re bound to find something you like. Look for regions that produce the characteristics you like in a wine.
While some are pricey, others are not and you can generally get a bottle you like at a price you can afford. There is no comparison to the availability and the quality of Pinot Noir from Oregon.