While Oregon has produced wine since the mid-19th century, the state’s modern wine industry is only about 50 years old. It’s growing quickly, though: The number of vineyards in Oregon has nearly doubled to more than 900 since 2005, according to the Oregon Wine Board.
Cheers traveled to the Pacific Northwest state to attend the 2021 Wine Media Conference in Eugene, OR. A media tour courtesy of Travel Lane County included tastings and visits to a few wineries in the south Willamette Valley. Here’s a bit of what we learned about Oregon’s wine industry.
1) Its wine grapes are like gold.
Oregon is known for its exceptional fruit, and wine grapes are the state’s most valuable crop at $238 million — more than apples, cherries, cranberries and hazelnuts combined, according to the Oregon Wine Board. In fact, Oregon’s famous pears come in a distant second at $109 million.
2) Oregon wine is much more than pinot noir.
It’s true that the pinot noir varietal helped put Oregon wine on the map, and it’s the dominant grape of the celebrated Willamette Valley AVA. But thanks to its diverse terroir, the state produces a plethora of different wines and styles such as pinot gris, riesling, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Other leading varietals used in Oregon wines include viognier, gewurtztraminer, tempranillo, pinot blanc and cabernet franc.
3) It’s a pioneer in sustainable winemaking.
Oregon has long been a leader in protecting the environment and preserving its natural resources, and its wine industry learns toward sustainable farming and winemaking practices. Nearly half (47%) of Oregon’s vineyards are certified sustainable — the most of any major U.S. wine-growing region.
Eugene, OR-based King Estate (shown atop), founded in 1991, is the largest certified biodynamic certified vineyard in North America. The Estate, which in addition to vineyards includes orchards, berries, beehives and culinary gardens, boasts a 1,000-ton compost production for biodynamic preparations.
Troon Vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley in 2021 became the first farm in Oregon and second winery in the world to receive the new Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). Regenerative agriculture reverses climate change through rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring biodiversity; ROC is based on the three pillars of soil health, animal welfare and social fairness. Troon Vineyard is also Demeter Biodynamic Certified, a holistic farming certification that signifies the highest standards and practices in natural farming and winemaking.
4) Oregon has a brand new AVA.
Lower Long Tom, the newest appellation in Oregon and the southernmost in the Willamette Valley, recently received federal recognition as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). Drawn to reflect distinct soil, topography and climate attributes, Lower Long Tom is the 22nd federally recognized winegrowing region in Oregon, the 10th nested AVA within the Willamette Valley, and the first in the Southern Willamette Valley. The new AVA was granted approval by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) on Nov. 10 and took effect on Dec. 10, 2021.
5) Its sparkling wine is ready to shine.
The state’s terroir is perfect for producing bubbly: Oregon shares the 49° Parallel with Champagne and Bourgogne. This means a cool climate, with an average temperature of 57.6 F/14.2 C, and plenty of sun — more than 15 hours of daylight in the summer and about nine in the winter. In the Willamette Valley in particular, where pinot noir and chardonnay are the main varietals used for sparkling, grapes ripen with natural acidity.
Figures on Oregon’s sparkling wine are not available, and the segment is estimated to be small, but that will likely be changing soon. For instance, the Bollinger family, owners of Champagne Bollinger, in spring 2021 purchased Sherwood, OR-based Ponzi Vineyards. Established in 1970 and known for its pinot noir and sparkling wines, Ponzi is Bollinger’s first American winery acquisition.
Willamette Valley Vineyards, which has been growing grapes for sparkling wine since 2014, is building a sparkling wine facility with an aging cellar that’s scheduled to open in May 2022. Several other Oregon wineries have sparkling projects, including Troon Vineyard and Sweet Cheeks Winery in the south Willamette Valley.