Washington State Wine & Oregon Wine | Gems of the American North West

Harry Lambourne
31st August 2023

Everyone has heard of Californian wine, but compared to them Washington State Wine & Oregon Wine are relative newcomers onto the wine scene. However, they are not to be overlooked.

Both these areas in the north west of the United States are responsible for some outstanding wines. Whether it is Washington State wine and their Bordeaux style blends, or Oregon wine and there commitment to Burgundy. We will look into the history behind both of these regions, as well as the key grape varieties to look out for.

After this article, you’ll be itching to try some of the best wines in the whole of America. Get to a bottle shop, or a restaurant and look beyond that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that is always on the menu!

Let’s dive into the interesting world of these two up and coming American wine regions.

Washington State Wines – The History & Climate

Since the 1990s, the Washington State wine region has established itself as a place where both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot excel. What sets the Cab Sav and Merlot of this region apart is the concentration of the wines. An intensity of rich berry flavours like nothing else.

There are a number of prominent sub-regions within Washington State. In America, these are called AVAs, (American Viticultural Areas). Some of the top regions are Columbia Valley, which contains the Yakima and Walla Walla Valley.

The latter is known for a rather unique combination of wine and onions. The onions of Walla Walla are remarkably sweet and some eat them as you would an apple, (MacNeil 744)!

The wine industry in this area began with Italian and German immigrants in the 1860s and 1870s. However, it would take over 100 years before the modern wine industry we know today would take hold.

Prohibition obviously took its toll and the bulk of wine production was focused on sweet, cheap and fortified wines. Yet today, things are changing and while there were just 15 wineries in Washington in 1960, by 2012 this number had reached over 740, (MacNeil 744). Today, it is over 1000. Washington State wine is on the rise.

It is quite striking that Washington State wine manages to reach the lofty heights you can often find. If you’re a fan of grunge or Frasier, then you’ll be familiar with how rainy much of Washington state is. Yet, the grapes aren’t located around the area of Seattle. In fact the eastern portions of Washington State are much more desert-like, amongst the Cascade mountains which help divide the grape-growing area of this region into two.

The eastern portion of the Washington state wine region would be close to a desert, were it not for a few rivers which flow down from the mountains. Columbia, Yakima, Snake and Walla Walla are the key ones. 99% of production comes from Columbia Valley, with the Yakima Valley being the heart of premium wine production, (MacNeil 749). There’s practically no rainfall, with it only having a sixth of the rainfall to the western half of the state, (MacNeil 746).

Yakima Valley Washington State Wine Region
Yakima Valley – Washington State Wine Region

This means the rivers are essential for irrigation and a key defining natural factor for viticulture. The rivers have helped to transform this vast and empty area into rich and vibrant farmland.

A dry climate is certainly a key factor, however it is not the only viticultural consideration for winemakers in the area. The Washington State wine region is found at a latitude which is more northern than many of the world’s wine-making nations. This means it gets a lot of sun, but the sun isn’t scorching. Gentle rays bounce off the grapes for two hours more than California to the south.

Washington is also known for a huge diurnal range. The diurnal range is the difference between the night and daytime temperatures. A swing of 28 degrees centigrade is not uncommon, (MacNeil 746). This preserves acidity and freshness in the grapes, as they’re given the chance to cool off.

These temperature drops can be too severe though. Frost is certainly an issue, with temperatures dropping to -18 degrees centigrade. Rather shockingly, the water in the vines can freeze and this can cause them to explode, (MacNeil 747).

Soil is rich and varied due to the colliding of tectonic plates in the Pacific ocean which caused a chain of volcanoes to pop up along the coast. Luckily, this was around 140 million years ago. Subsequent eruptions, freezing and melting caused deposits of sand, silt, clay, volcanic and gravel soils to be scattered across the state.

Interestingly, this area has also managed to be resistant to the classic pest of the wine world – phylloxera. This is likely due to the cold winter climates. Even the nearby California and Oregon wine regions weren’t safe from phylloxera.

Washington State Wines – The Grapes & Wines

We touched upon the fact that Washington State wines excel as Bordeaux style blends. Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot perform excellently. This was something of a revelation as many had assumed that white grapes would rule the roost here.

Indeed, great white wine can be found here – particularly Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay. After that, you can also find world class Riesling and Syrah.

Dry styles of Riesling are fantastic here, but you can also get good quality off-dry and sweet versions. Then, Syrah can be found in a classic new world and Rhône Valley style. Expect jammy concoctions like Australian Shiraz to sit alongside lean, peppery examples of this grape variety.

Indeed, the best American Rieslings probably all come from here and you’ll struggle to find American Syrah to match that of Washington State.

The Washington State wine world is also home to a few oddities. Regional staples that you’ll rarely find anywhere else in America. These include Madeleine Angevine (found primarily in England), Siegerrebe, (a German crossing), and Lemberger, (which is known as Blaufränkisch in Austria), (MacNeil 748). If you’re the type of person to hunt for the more unique style of wines, then keep your eye out for these!

Oregon Wines – The History & Climate

The Oregon wine region is fraught with challenges and you need a real passion to push yourself to cultivate vines in this unforgiving environment, (MacNeil 753).

Sunlight and heat are both hard to come by which can mean that grapes may not ripen. Then, rain and frost fall can also devastate the vines. They’re particularly prevalent in spring and fall which is the worst time of year for winemakers. This is when they can truly ruin an entire harvest.

The Pacific Ocean could be another key source of stress from Oregon winemakers as it batters the coastline with rain and cold air. Thankfully, Willamette Valley is protected from the worst of this via a chain of mountains known as the ‘Coast Range’. It is known by local winemakers as ‘the first line of defence’, (MacNeil 757).

The Coastal Pacific Mountains
The Coastal Pacific Mountains – Protector of Vines

Although, the Van Duzer Corridor does allow for some rain. However, the difference is notable. The coast gets around 200 centimetres of rain a year, but Willamette Valley gets less than half of this amount, (MacNeil 757). A key factor is that rain falls in winter, when vines are dormant. Any earlier could dilute the grapes.

This lack of stability and harsher conditions are a source of issues. However, some point to this as the source of Oregon’s greatness. Grapes don’t achieve ripeness quickly. They can struggle across the finish line, but when they reach it, they do so as mature and complex grapes. Maturity and complexity which has been born out of struggle. It may be a risk, but when the risk pays off – the rewards are great.

The rise of Oregon wine is one of the most recent in the new world. It wasn’t until the 20th century that consistent results were being found. They’d established their own style and approach to winemaking, which is required in such a temperamental region.

Maybe they’re masochists but the bread and butter of Oregon is the equally temperamental Pinot Noir.

The focus on a single variety is astounding and stands in stark contrast to many new world wine regions which focus on a number of different grape varieties. Oregon wine is very much the Burgundy of the USA, with a keen focus on terroir.

There are four major wine regions in the Oregon wine world, but none holds focus as much as the Willamette Valley. This area is just south of the city of Portland and runs 100 miles from north to south. It has soft, rolling green hills. This is the reason Oregon has found fame abroad. The wines of this region are ‘Oregon wine’, (MacNeil 755).

Similarly to Washington state, seismic events over 100 million years carved out the landscape of the Oregon wine region. Mountains, valleys and a host of different soil types which have been hurled up from the ocean.

Now, the fertile valley floors are home to the best vineyards. In prime conditions, these could lead to high yielding wines without much distinction. This is the case in regions such as Veneto. However, ripening needs all the help it can get here. You do also find vines occupying space on numerous hills which reach up to 200 feet above sea level, (MacNeil 756).

As in Tuscany, there are no straight lines in the Willamette Valley. Roads wind through hazelnut orchards, fir forests, oak and maple trees and of course vines.

Though, the wineries are somewhat unassuming. They’re not grand sprawling chateaus. They’re modest farmhouses. Interestingly, wineries must make at least 75% of their revenue from the sales of wine, (MacNeil 756). Rather than merchandise or secondary practices. They are truly winemakers by trade.

Oregon Wine Region
Stunning Views of the Oregon Wine Region

Oregon Wines – The Grapes & Wines

We’ve touched upon Oregon wine being similar to that of Burgundy and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay certainly hold winemakers focus, (Pinot Noir more so than Chardonnay). Yet, you can find small amounts of other grape varieties.

Riesling, (of the dry variety) has found traction, as has Pinot Gris. The latter of which has been referred to as ‘what you drink while you decide on which Pinot Noir to have’, (MacNeil 755).

Generally, all Oregon wines will display a palpable acidity and freshness, due to the climate. Don’t expect heavily oaked or big jammy new world wines! Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling are similar to Pinot Noir in that they are on the leaner and racier end of the spectrum with a palpable acidity.

Yet, Pinot Noir is the undoubted star of the show. They really are mad for Pinot Noir in the Oregon wine world and with good reason!

They are described as complex and quietly compelling, (MacNeil 759). This tends to mean that they’re light, fresh and offering a unique richness of flavour without being weighty or jammy. These are the types of Pinot Noir that many of the original Burgundian monks would aspire to.

You’ll note forest floor, wild mushroom and bramble mixed with wild sweet berries. In keeping with the Burgundian theme, the best Willamette Valley Pinot Noir can age for decades. You can likely find high-quality Pinot Noir that is older than many of the region’s top modern wineries, (MacNeil 760).

They also generally require some time in the glass. Time allows the more subtle aromas to develop over time and also brings the genuine suppleness and succulence to the forefront of the palate.

Chardonnay on the other hand is slightly more controversial in the Oregon wine world. Without a doubt, Chardonnay has a potential for quality here and most winemakers attest to this fact but the results have been varied. Clones from Dijon have recently been brought over from Burgundy and this has caused some tentative jumps in quality, (MacNeil 761).

These new waves of Chardonnay are citrus heavy, with touches of quince, nut and a defined minerality. If you’re keen for Chablis then Oregon Pinot Noir could certainly be the one for you. Keep an eye out for those Dijon clones!

We hope you’ve enjoyed our look into the wine world of the Pacific North West of America. There’s more to America than California. Be sure to check out some Washington State Wines or Oregon Wines. If you love Bordeaux and Burgundy, then you will be onto a winner!

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Work Cited

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.

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