Some of the wine world’s most hidden treasures can be found in the scenic and rugged hillsides of Oregon and the desert-like valleys of Washington State. The soils, the weather and the gentle, sunny slopes in Oregon enable wine grapes to ripen slowly during the summer and fall, developing exquisite and delicate wine flavors. Washington State, with its warmer, arid climate and sandy soils, yields wines with more ripe and robust flavor profiles.
Pinot Noir is the standout for Oregon Wine Country, with a unique wine style that helped put Oregon pinot noir on the worldwide wine map. Washington State is better known for its red blends, and more specifically, grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, chardonnay and riesling.
The growth of wineries in the Pacific Northwest has sky-rocketed in the last 20 years, with a number of experienced California winemakers moving north to plant their roots and vines. Pacific Northwest winemakers have pure philosophies: They are environmentally sound with sustainable grape-growing techniques and they have the strictest wine laws in the country for bottle content.
OREGON: Let’s start with climate: Oregon is the same latitude as Burgundy, France, and being farther north than Napa, it is generally cooler. Cool climate creates wines higher in acidity, helping a wine age and become more balanced.
The mighty Cascade Mountain Range runs from Oregon up through Washington State. In Oregon, the wineries are situated on the west side where rainfall occurs mainly in the spring and fall. In Washington, most of the wineries are on the east side and thus, mainly dry.
Think cool. Pinot gris (grigio), pinot blanc, riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir excel here. Willamette Valley is the coolest region, and that’s where you’ll find most of the wineries situated. What might surprise you is Willamette Valley gets very little rain in the summer— perfect for the ripening process. Vintage plays a big role here. Grapes are susceptible to the weather with the fall rains, so when to pick is crucial.
Toward the south, the climate gets warmer and grapes grown are more suited to bolder red wines, including merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. The Rouge Valley lies just 10 miles from California; and in the very northeastern part of the state, the wine appellations Walla Walla, Columbia Gorge and Columbia Valley straddle the Washington State-Oregon line, yielding warmer varietals.
I was fortunate to be invited to Oregon Pinot Camp (OPC), which is for select members of the wine trade. The purpose of OPC is to showcase what makes Oregon wines what they are: the soils, micro-climates, grape and vineyard selections. With the knowledge and experience of its predecessors in California, I think Oregon has done a proficient job of matching terroir to grape selection.
WASHINGTON STATE: Even more so than Oregon, Washington State has just exploded with wineries, plantings and new wine appellations.
Since it lies on the east side of the Cascades, Washington State can get very arid. Thus, irrigation plays an important role in developing the grapes. Being farther north, they enjoy two more hours of sunlight than California, which allows for greater ripening.
Washington State is known for combing New World fruit with Old World style. The wines develop full richness and big concentration. They also can be earthy wines, great for those big reds like cabernet sauvignon, syrah and yes, merlot. In fact, Washington State produces some of the biggest and better Merlots in the U.S.
Much like Bordeaux, Washington also is revered for its blends. The reds often exhibit a lush texture with very concentrated berry flavors reminiscent of the wild fruit found in the Pacific Northwest (blackberries, dark cherries, boysenberries and cherries).
Don’t forget the whites. Washington grows everything Oregon does and more, and they like to experiment. Look for big, fruit-forward chardonnays with obvious apple notes, and dry or off-dry rieslings.
It is my opinion that the climate, growth, development, attention to terroir and progressive wine-making techniques eventually will lead Oregon and Washington wines to be more sought-after than those of Napa and Sonoma. Only time will tell.
TASTING TIP: How can you tell if a wine has been aged with French or American oak? French oak gives aromas and flavors of vanilla. American oak gives aromas and flavors of dill pickle and/or sawdust. Taste the difference: One certainly sounds more appealing than the other, although both yield great-tasting wines.
WINE RECOMMENDATION: Try the different whites from Oregon to see the beautiful balance of fruit and acidity. The pinots from here continue to evolve in the glass, where you pick up something different in each taste. You also have to try the big Washington reds like cabernet franc and merlot.
Stanley Browne is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine by the Society of Wine Educators, and the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves. He is a 30-year veteran of the restaurant, hospitality and wine industry.