I was perusing the Californian wine aisle at my friendly neighbourhood booze merchant last week, when I spied a smaller section of wines from Washington and Oregon.
For those readers in the audience who skipped geography class, if you start in California wine country and start driving north, you will drive through Oregon wine county, then Washington wine county, and eventually end up in the Okanagan Valley of BC, where wine country ends around the 50th parallel.
Being wedged in between California and Washington gives the state of Oregon a prime location for wine growing, particularly along the Yamhill River near Portland.
With just over 700 wineries in Oregon, the local wine industry contributes nearly $3 billion to the economy each year, which sounds like a lot, until you compare it to the California wine industry, which generates over $60 billion each year.
There was some small-scale wine production for personal consumption as early as the 1840’s, when there were several waves of Italian immigrants settling in Oregon, and brought their traditional grape-stomping ways from the old country.
However, the tragic onset of Prohibition in 1917 killed the nascent wine industry, and there was no production to speak of until the 1960’s, when a few brave California wineries started expanding northwards into Oregon, in search of cooler climes for certain grape varietals.
The vineyards of Oregon are still dwarfed by their Californian cousins, but the cooler climate of Oregon has proven advantageous for certain varietals, particularly Pinot Noir, which does not do well in the hot California summers.
Indeed, the most commonly planted varietals in Oregon read like a who’s who of cool-climate grapes, including Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Syrah.
Most of the wine growing areas of Oregon are located in river valleys, where breezes from the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia Gorge keep the grapes warm during the day, but lead to significant temperature drops at night. This large diurnal range help the grapes retain acidity, leading to better wine at harvest time.
The wines of Oregon are known for their fruit-forward flavours and crisp acidity. Much of this can be attributed to the climate around the 46th parallel, with the northerly latitude providing long hours of sunlight during the growing season, which results in a well-ripened grape harvest.
While the Pinot Noir grape can produce some of the finest wines in the world, it is a temperamental and finicky vine, given to uneven ripening, and thin-skinned enough to be susceptible to mildew or rot.
Despite the trials and tribulations involved in growing Pinot Noir, the winemakers of Oregon have proven their mettle, and are widely considered second only to the wines of Burgundy, which is the ancestral home of the Pinot Noir grape.
This is a high honour indeed, making Pinot Noir the grape that put the Oregon wine industry on the world stage, and the success is all the sweeter for a wine industry that is only a few decades old, compared to nearly two millenia of Pinot Noir cultivation in Burgundy.
Fortunately, the bad reputation as a difficult grape to cultivate is balanced by a good reputation once the grapes are crushed into wine. Pinot Noir is highly expressive of terroir, so it will reflect the soil conditions in the vineyard, and the climate during the growing season.
Even the amount of time spent in oak barrels will make a significant difference with Pinot Noir, with the winemaker choosing brief ageing in oak to showcase bright fruit flavours, while a longer repose in the barrel adds a solid tannic structure with toasted vanilla overtones.
This makes the Pinot Noir from Oregon distinct from its Californian cousins, and even more so from the plantings found around the world.
Pinot Noir wines from Oregon tend to be light-bodied and fruit-forward, bursting with notes of pomegranate and dark cherry. With low levels of tannin, these wines can even benefit from 10 minutes in the fridge, just to bring them down by a few degrees for the optimal serving temperature.
Luckily for us here in Alberta, the wines of Oregon are well-represented at our local booze merchants, with hundreds of different brands available. Take a wander down the USA aisle at your wine shop, and see than there is more to our southern neighbor than Californian wine!