Oregon AVA 101
Although Central Oregon is not an AVA, the state does have 18 official regions all Oregon wine lovers should know.
Oregon encompasses 18 specific winegrowing regions called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Each is unique in its geographic location, climate, soil and topography. When an AVA is designated on the wine bottle’s label, 85 percent of the grapes used to make the wine must be sourced from the AVA.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and the U.S. Department of the Treasury defines AVAs at the request of wineries and other petitioners. As of March 2015, there were 230 AVAs in the U.S.
Since many consumers here and beyond are still familiarizing themselves with Oregon’s AVAs, OWP is getting “back to the basics” with everything you should know about the state’s 18 official appellations.
Modern winemaking in the Willamette Valley dates back more than 50 years with the genius of three UC Davis students who believed Oregon was an ideal place to grow cool-climate varieties.
Between 1965 and 1968, David Lett, Charles Coury and Dick Erath separately forged their way to the north Willamette Valley despite negative rumblings from their college cohorts who told them it was impossible to grow winegrapes in Oregon.
The pioneers proved their peers wrong, as the Willamette Valley is now recognized as one of world’s finest wine regions, growing world-class Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, as well as other varietals.
The Willamette Valley contains six sub-appellations located in the northern part of the wine region: Yamhill-Carlton, Dundee Hills, McMinnville, Eola-Amity Hills, Chehalem Mountains and Ribbon Ridge.
Location: The biggest Oregon AVA at 5,200 square miles, the Willamette Valley encompasses the drainage basin of the Willamette River. It runs from the Columbia River in Portland, south through Salem, to the Calapooya Mountains near Eugene. The Coast Range marks its west boundary and the Cascade Mountains mark the east.
Climate: Overall, the climate is mild. Winters are typically cool and wet; summers are dry and warm. Heat above 90°F only occurs 5 to 15 days per year, and the temperature drops below 0°F once every 25 years. Most rainfall occurs in the late autumn winter, and early spring, when temperatures are the coldest. The valley gets relatively little snow, 5 to 10 inches per year.
This temperate climate, combined with coastal marine influences, make growing conditions ideal for cool-climate grapes, including Pinot Noir. The Willamette Valley’s warm days and cool nights during the growing season allow the fruit to develop flavor and complexity while retaining their natural acidity.
Soils: The Willamette Valley is an old volcanic and sedimentary seabed that has been overlaid with gravel, silt, rock and boulders brought by the Missoula Floods from Montana and Washington between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago. The most common of the volcanic type is red Jory soil, which is found above 300 feet (as it had escaped the Missoula Floods deposits) and is between four and six feet deep; it provides excellent drainage for wine grapes. Anything below 300 is primarily sedimentary-based soil.
Topography: The Willamette Valley is protected by the Coast Range to the west, the Cascades to the east and a series of hills to the north. The largest concentration of vineyards are located to the west of the Willamette River, on the leeward slopes of the Coast Range, or among the valleys created by the river’s tributaries. Most of the region’s vineyards reside a few hundred feet above sea level, with some exceptions.
Varieties Grown: Auxerrois, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Dolcetto, Gamay Noir, Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Marechal Foch, Melon, Müller-Thurgau, Muscat, Muscat Ottonel, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Tempranillo.
Historically nourished by forestry and farming, the area now known as Yamhill-Carlton has a relatively recent wine history. In 1974, pioneers Pat and Joe Campbell started Elk Cove Vineyards, which produced the first commercial wine in the Yamhill-Carlton area. The area is primarily known for its Pinot Noir.
Location: Yamhill-Carlton is located 35 miles southwest of Portland and 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean; it includes the towns of Yamhill and Carlton.
Climate: The Coast Range to the west soars to nearly 3,500 feet, establishing a “rain shadow” over the AVA. Additional protection is afforded by Chehalem Mountain to the north and the Dundee Hills to the east. The moderate growing conditions are perfectly suited for cool-climate grapes.
Soils: Yamhill-Carlton is comprised of coarse-grained, ancient marine sedimentary soils, over sandstone and siltstone that drain quickly, making them ideal for viticulture. Grapes grown in such soil often result in wines lower in acid than those made from grapes grown in basaltic or wind-blown soils.
Topography: Low ridges surround the towns of Yamhill and Carlton in a horseshoe shape. The free-flowing North Yamhill River courses through the center of it all. Vineyards thrive on sites with elevations between 200 and 1,000 feet, avoiding low valley frost and high elevation temperatures unsuitable for effective ripening.
Varieties Grown: Chardonnay, Dolcetto, Gamay Noir, Gewürztraminer, Melon, Muscat, Muscat Ottonel, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, Riesling.
Dundee Hills is home to some of Oregon’s most beloved wine pioneers — “Papa Pinot” David Lett, Dick Erath and Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol Blosser. With the firm belief that cool-climate grapes would thrive, these winemakers and others cleared south-facing slopes to plant many of Oregon’s early vineyards — the first being Lett in 1965.
Location: Dundee Hills can be found 28 miles southwest of Portland and 40 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. It is situated within an irregular circle of about 6,490 acres.
Climate: The Dundee Hills AVA is protected from severe climatic variations by surrounding geographic features. The Coast Range to the west helps weaken effects of the Pacific’s heavy rainfall and windstorms, and casts a rain shadow over the area, resulting in only 30 to 45 inches of annual precipitation, most of which falls outside of the growing season in the winter. Slope and elevation benefit vineyards with warmer nights and less frost and fog than nearby valley floors.
Soils: The area is known for its rich, red volcanic Jory, which was formed from ancient volcanic basalt and consist of silt, clay and loam soils. They typically reach a depth of 4 to 6 feet and provide excellent drainage for superior quality wine grapes.
Topography: The Dundee Hills consists of a single, continuous landmass rising above the surrounding Willamette Valley floors and is defined by the 200-foot contour line to the highest peak of 1,067 feet. The area comprises a north-south spine with ridges with small valleys on its east, south and west sides. Dundee Hills is part of a hill chain that developed from volcanic activity and the collision of Pacific and North American plates.
Varieties Grown: Chardonnay, Melon de Bourgogne, Müller-Thurgau, Muscat Ottonel, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, Riesling.
McMinnville has a long farming history that dates back to the mid-1800s, when berry fields, fruit orchards and livestock, especially turkeys, were the norm. All that began to change when, in 1970, one of Oregon’s winemaking pioneers, David Lett, bought an old turkey processing plant in McMinnville to house his winery. Soon after, winegrowers began planting vineyards and establishing wineries in the area.
Location: McMinnville AVA is just west of the city of McMinnville, about 40 miles southwest of Portland and extends 20 miles south-southwest.
Climate: McMinnville sits in a protective rain shadow cast by the Coast Range. As a result, the primarily east- and south-facing vineyards receive less rainfall (just 33 inches annually, as compared to 40 inches in Eola-Amity Hills) than sites only 12 miles to the east. The foothills also provide protection from cold wind occurring in the spring and fall. Winegrowers also have the option of planting vineyards on more southerly facing sites to take advantage of the drying winds from the Van Duzer corridor, which helps control mold and mildew during Oregon’s humid summer days.
Soils: The soils are the oldest and most complex of any Oregon AVA, primarily consisting of uplifted marine sedimentary loam and silt with alluvial overlays; beneath is a base of uplifting basalt. Clay and silt loam averages 20 to 40 inches in depth — the range in which the AVA’s terroir is best achieved — before reaching harder rock and compressed sediments shot with basalt pebbles and stone.
Topography: McMinnville’s elevation levels range from 200 to 1,000 feet, and the area encompasses the east and southeast slopes of the Coast Range foothills. Geologically, the most distinctive feature in this area is the Nestucca Formation, a 2,000-foot-thick bedrock formation that extends west of the city of McMinnville to the slopes of the Coast Range.
Varieties Grown: Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Syrah.
Salem’s Honeywood Winery, just south of the AVA boundary, is the oldest continuously operating winery in the state, bonded in 1933. Long known for their fruit and berry wines, owners Paul and Marlene Gallick now also have an 18-acre Vitis vinifera vineyard in the AVA.
The AVA’s first planting of vinifera was in 1971 by Jerry and Anne Preston, who sold Amity Vineyards to Myron Redford in 1974. Two other vineyards were planted in 1973. Don and Carolyn Byard planted Eola Hills Vineyard, and Jim and Connie Feltz planted their first two acres of Feltz Vineyard.
Location: Eola-Amity Hills is about a 35-minute drive south of the Portland, and stretches from Amity in the north to Salem in the south. It’s comprised of 37,900 acres.
Climate: The region enjoys a temperate climate of warm summers and mild winters, and 40 inches of annual rain, most of which falls outside of the growing season. The climate in this region is greatly influenced by its position due east of the Van Duzer Corridor, which provides a break in the Coast Range that allows cool Pacific Ocean air to flow through. This drops temperatures in the region dramatically, especially during late summer afternoons, helping to keep grape acids firm.
Soils: The soils mainly contain volcanic basalt from ancient lava flows as well as marine sedimentary rocks and alluvial deposits at the lower elevations. This combination results in a relatively shallow, rocky set of well-drained soils that produce fruit with great concentration.
Topography: Eola Hills, and its northern extension, Amity Hills, is part of a North Willamette Valley hill chain that developed out of intense volcanic activity and the collision of the Pacific and North American plates. The main ridge of the Eola Hills runs north-south and has numerous lateral ridges on both sides that run east-west. The majority of the region’s vineyard sites exist at elevations between 250 to 700 feet.
Varieties Grown: Auxerrois, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Grüner Veltliner, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier.
Chehalem Mountains’ winegrowing history dates back to 1968 when UC Davis refugee Dick Erath purchased 49 acres on Dopp Road in Yamhill County. He aptly called the property Chehalem Mountain Vineyards.
By the mid- to late-1970s, there was a patchwork of vineyards in the area, including those planted by such modern wine pioneers as the Adelsheims, Ponzis and Paul Hart of Rex Hill Vineyard.
Location: Encompassing over 100 square miles, the AVA touches three counties (Yamhill, Washington and Clackamas) and yet is only 19 miles from the heart of Portland and 45 miles east of the Pacific Ocean.
Climate: Chehalem Mountains’ elevation goes from 200 to 1,633 feet, resulting in varied annual precipitation (37 inches at the lowest point and 60 inches at the highest) as well as the greatest variation in temperature within the Willamette Valley. These variations can result in three-week differences in the ripening of Pinot Noir.
Soils: The Chehalem Mountains reflect millions of years of soil accumulation, creating a rich geological experiment in one tightly packed geographical area. Within this one region there are ancient, uplifted sedimentary seabeds, weathered rich red soils from lava flows down the Columbia River and relatively new glacial sediment scoured from western states and blown onto north-facing hillsides from windstorms.
Topography: Chehalem Mountains is a single landmass made up of hilltops, ridges and spurs uplifted from the Willamette Valley floor. The appellation includes all land in the area above the 200-foot elevation. They are the highest mountains in the Willamette Valley with their tallest point, Bald Peak, at 1,633 feet.
Varieties Grown: Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Gewürztraminer, Marechal Foch, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Syrah.
In 1980, Harry Peterson-Nedry was the first to plant wine grapes on Ribbon Ridge at his Ridgecrest Vineyards. Two years later, the first commercial vineyard was established with the planting of 54 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In 1985, Yamhill Valley Vineyards was the first use these grapes. Other vineyards were soon planted on this small ridge.
Location: Ribbon Ridge sits 22 miles southwest of Portland, four miles northwest of Dundee and 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. Ribbon Ridge is contained within the larger Chehalem Mountains.
Climate: Protected by geographical features to the north, south and west, Ribbon Ridge’s grape-growing hillsides are slightly warmer and drier when compared to the adjacent valley floors. Its moderate climate is well suited for early grape growth in the spring, consistent and even ripening over the summer and a long, full maturing season in the fall.
Soils: Ribbon Ridge contains mostly sedimentary soils that are younger, finer and more uniform than the alluvial sedimentary and volcanic soils of nearby regions. These well-drained, silty clay-loam soils are part of the Willakenzie series and are of low fertility and ideal for growing grapes like Pinot Noir.
Topography: Geographically, Ribbon Ridge is a 3.5-mile long by 1.75-mile wide ridge that extends from the Chehalem Mountains. The ridge rises 683 feet from the Chehalem Valley floor, giving it an island-like appearance.
Varieties Grown: Cab Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Gewürz., Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc.
Southern Oregon has the oldest history of grape growing in the state. It dates back to 1852 with an early area settler named Peter Britt, who operated a winery in Jacksonville. Post-prohibition winemaking started in 1961 when vintner Richard Sommer migrated from University of California Davis and founded HillCrest Vineyards in the Umpqua Valley.
Impressed with the diversity of growing conditions in this area, other winemakers began planting roots in the 1970s, resulting in a patchwork of vineyards growing both cool- and warm-climate varieties. Today, this winegrowing region continues to grow and turn out a great variety of high-quality wines.
The Southern Oregon appellation was established as a “super AVA” to allow the two principal winegrowing regions in the southern part of the state — Umpqua and Rogue valleys — to jointly market themselves.
Location: The Southern Oregon AVA exists in the southwest portion of the state, stretching 125 miles from south of Eugene to the California border, and 60 miles at its widest between the Cascade Mountain Range to the east and the Coast Range to the west. It encompasses Umpqua Valley, Rogue Valley, Red Hill Douglas County and Applegate Valley AVAs.
Climate: While this region provides the warmest growing conditions in Oregon, there exist cool microclimates within its varied hillsides and valleys that enable Southern Oregon to successfully grow both cool- and warm-climate varietals. This area receives significantly less rainfall than other viticultural areas in Oregon (40 percent less than in the Willamette Valley) and is generally a warm, sunny, arid climate.
Soils: Southern Oregon’s soils are varied and complex, though generally derived from bedrock, specifically from the 200-million-year-old Klamath Mountains, which are comprised of sedimentary rocks, to the west.
Topography: The Southern Oregon AVA contains varied, mountainous features with vineyards typically situated in high mountain valleys at elevations between 1,000 to 2,000 feet. The lofty southern coastal mountains provide a barrier to the west, blocking marine air and casting a rain shadow to the area’s south and east.
Varieties Grown: Albariño, Baco Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Canelli, Carmenere, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Dolcetto, Gewürztraminer, Graciano, Grenache, Malbec, Marsanne, Merlot, Montepulciano, Mourvedre, Müller-Thurgau, Muscat, Nebbiolo, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Pinotage, Primitivo, Riesling, Rousanne, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Syrah, Tannat, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Vermentino, Viognier, Zinfandel.
The Umpqua Valley’s winegrowing history dates back to the 1880s when German immigrants who had worked for the Beringer Bros., the oldest continuously operating vineyard in Napa, planted the first wine grape vineyard in the Valley.
Post-prohibition, Richard Sommer established HillCrest Vineyards near Roseburg in 1961. He planted Riesling and small amounts of other varieties despite being told by his California (Davis) cohorts that it was impossible to successfully grow wine grapes in Oregon. Obviously, they were wrong.
Just eight years later, in 1969, Paul Bjelland of Bjelland Vineyards founded the Oregon Winegrowers Association in the Umpqua Valley. During the ’70s, new wineries opened, including Henry Estate, whose winemaker Scott Henry developed his eponymous world-famous trellis system, which increases grape yield, among other benefits.
Umpqua Valley continues to evolve as new winemakers discover the area, bringing with them a passion for innovation and world-class wine.
Location: Umpqua Valley sits between the Coast Range to the west and the Cascades to the east, with the Willamette Valley to the north and the Rogue Valley, south. Named for the legendary fishing river that runs nearby, the appellation stretches 65 miles from north to south, and is 25 miles from east to west.
Climate: The Umpqua Valley can successfully grow both cool and warm varieties. It’s comprised of three distinct climatic sub-zones: 1) The northern area around the town of Elkton enjoys a cool, marine-influenced climate. It receives around 50 inches of annual rainfall, making irrigation unnecessary. Pinot Noir and other cool-climate varieties thrive here. 2) The central area to the northwest of Roseburg has an intermediate climate where both cool and warm varieties do well. 3) The area south of Roseburg is warmer and more arid, similar to Rogue and Applegate valleys to the south, making irrigation a necessity. Warm-climate varieties, including Tempranillo, Syrah and Merlot flourish here.
Soils: Umpqua Valley soils are as varied as the climate. Generally, they are derived from a mix of metamorphic, sedimentary and volcanic rock; though more than 150 soil types have been identified in the region. The valley floor levels have mostly deep alluvial or heavy clay materials, while the hillsides and bench locations have mixed alluvial, silt or clay structures — all excellent for winegrowing.
Topography: The complex topography of the Umpqua Valley is a result of the collision of three mountain ranges of varying age and structure: Klamath Mountains, Coast Range and Cascades. Many say the area should not be thought of as a single valley, but, rather, more accurately the “Hundred Valleys of the Umpqua” because it is made up of a series of interconnecting small mountain ranges.
Varieties Grown: Albariño, Baco Noir, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Dolcetto, Gewürztraminer, Graciano, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Muscat Canelli, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Zinfandel.
Winegrowing in Elkton dates to the early ’70s when Ken Thomason began planting cool climate whites and Pinot Noir. The first winery was established in 2000. Currently, there are six licensed wineries and 8 commercial vineyards, totaling 96.5 planted acres.
Location: Located in Douglas County, the AVA is 33 miles from the Pacific Ocean, with the Cascade Range to the east, Willamette Valley to the north and Rogue Valley to the south. A part of the Umpqua Valley AVA, it is named for the town of Elkton and claims the northernmost and lowest elevation region in the Umpqua.
Climate: Elkton Oregon is the coolest and wettest region within the larger Umpqua Valley and produces different varieties and different wine styles than the rest of the larger AVA. Elkton enjoys a cool, marine-influenced climate with a longer growing season than the rest of the Umpqua. The region receives about 50 inches of rain each year.
Soils: The AVA is dominated by the coastal mountain geology, lying over a combination of sedimentary, volcanic and metamorphic rock from the middle Eocene. More than 50 different soil series or complexes are present, made up of mostly residual clay and/or silt loam soil or cobble-rich alluvial deposits from the Yamhill and Tyee formation, and the Umpqua River terrace.
Topography: Elkton Oregon contains a wide range of terrain dissected by the broader meanders of the Umpqua River. The majority of the AVA falls below the 1,000-foot contour and includes the river bottom land — elevation 130 to 160 feet — as well as river terraces and foothills near the river — also 130 to 160 feet.
Varieties Grown: Baco Noir, Chardonnay, Gewürz., Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Syrah.
Red Hill Douglas County
The Applegate and Scott families, pioneers of Southern Oregon, settled at the foot of Red Hill in the mid-1800s. Jesse Applegate planted Douglas County’s first established vineyard in Yoncalla in 1876.
Location: Red Hill Douglas County is a sub-appellation of the Umpqua Valley near the small town of Yoncalla, which lies about 30 miles north of Roseburg and parallels Interstate 5. It encompasses 5,500 acres and is a single-vineyard AVA — one of just a few in the country — with Red Hill Vineyard planted to 220 acres of vines.
Climate: Red Hill Douglas County has a relatively mild climate, with daytime averages of 75°F during growing season (as opposed to regions farther south that can experience highs of 105°F). The marine influence reaching this area also provides a wetter climate than the surrounding Umpqua Valley area. Thanks to its higher elevation, the area generally enjoys a frost-free growing season.
Soils: Red Hill Douglas County is dominated by iron-rich, red volcanic Jory soils, which were formed from ancient volcanic basalt and consist of silt, clay and loam soils. They are mostly deep and well drained to the 15-foot depth.
Topography: Elevation in this area ranges from the 800-foot contour line to 1,200 feet, the maximum elevation for quality grape production. Geologically, Red Hill is part of the Umpqua Formation, which is composed of basalts similar to the volcanic rocks on the Pacific Ocean floor. It has many rising domes that give it an undulating appearance.
Varieties Grown: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling.
Rogue Valley’s wine history dates back to the 1840s, when European immigrants began planting grapes and bottling wine. In 1852, photographer Peter Britt planted vines, although it wasn’t until 1873 that he opened Valley View Winery — Oregon’s first official winery. Valley View closed in 1907 (though its name was resurrected by the Wisnovsky family in 1972), then prohibition arrived. It wasn’t until after an Oregon State University professor planted an experimental vineyard here in 1968 that winemakers rediscovered Rogue Valley as a superb winegrowing region.
Location: The Rogue Valley is the southernmost winegrowing region in Oregon. It’s made up of three adjacent river valleys (Bear Creek, Applegate and Illinois) that extend from the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains along the California border north to the Rogue River. It is 70 miles wide by 60 miles long and encompasses the Applegate Valley sub-appellation.
Climate: Rogue Valley is made up of three distinct valleys with progressively warmer microclimates, which enables the region to successfully grow both cool- and warm-climate grape varieties. To the west, the region is affected by mountain and ocean influences, making it suitable for some cool-weather varieties, including Pinot Noir. Farther east, Rogue Valley has the highest elevations (nearly 2,000 feet) of Oregon’s winegrowing regions, but it is also the warmest and the driest, making it well suited for warm-weather varieties.
Soils: Rogue Valley soil types are many and varied, including mixes of metamorphic, sedimentary and volcanic derived soils ranging from sandy loam to hard clay.
Topography: Vineyards here are typically at elevations of 1,200 to 2,000 feet and are planted on hillsides rather than valley floor. Rogue Valley’s diverse landscape is derived from the convergence of three mountain ranges of varying ages and structure: the Klamath Mountains, the Coastal Range and the Cascades. This region includes the Rogue River and its tributaries: the Applegate, Illinois and Bear Creek rivers.
Varieties Grown: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Dolcetto, Gewürztraminer, Grenache, Malbec, Marsanne, Merlot, Montepulciano, Mourvedre, Müller-Thurgau, Muscat, Nebbiolo, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Pinotage, Primitivo, Riesling, Roussanne, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Syrah, Tannat, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Vermentino, Viognier, Zinfandel.
Applegate Valley’s wine history reflects Rogue Valley’s, as it encompasses Peter Britt and Valley View Winery. It wasn’t until the 1970s, after modern pioneers began discovering the neighboring areas’ quality wine growing conditions, that Applegate Valley experienced a resurgence of winemaking.
Location: Applegate Valley is a sub-appellation of the Rogue Valley. It stretches 50 miles north from the California border to the Rogue River just west of Grants Pass.
Climate: Applegate Valley has a moderate climate that generally enjoys a warm, dry (just 25.2 inches of annual rain) growing season with hot days and cool nights perfect for warm-climate varieties.
Soils: Applegate Valley’s soil types are typically granite in origin, and most of the area’s vineyards are planted on stream terraces or alluvial fans, providing deep, well-drained soils that are ideal for high-quality wine grapes.
Topography: Applegate Valley is surrounded by the Siskiyou Mountains, which were created by upthrusts of the ocean floor as a plate forced its way under the continental shelf. The Siskiyou National Forest borders the Applegate Valley to the west, and the Rogue River National Forest to the east. Vineyards are typically grown at higher elevations up to 2,000 feet.
Varieties Grown: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Marsanne, Petite Sirah, Primitivo, Riesling, Rousanne, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier, Zinfandel.
Grapegrowing in the Columbia Gorge area dates back to the 1880s when the Jewitt family, who founded the town of White Salmon, Wash., planted American vines they had brought with them from Illinois. Other pioneer families followed suit, and today some of their original vines are still alive and have withstood sub-zero temperatures.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that post-prohibition pioneers started experimenting with wine grape vineyards on the south facing slopes of the Underwood Mountain in Washington. Over the next two decades, well-known winemakers started to discover the incredible grapes of this region, and the rest is history.
Location: Just 60 miles east of Portland, the Columbia Gorge AVA lies in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, a stunning river corridor that straddles the Columbia River for 15 miles into both Oregon and Washington. This region, which encompasses 40 miles, includes both the Columbia Gorge AVA and part of the Columbia Valley.
Climate: Within the winegrowing region, the climate in the Columbia Gorge appellation changes drastically. To the west is a cooler, marine-influenced climate where it rains 36 inches per year; to the east it’s a continental high desert climate with just 10 inches of annual rainfall. This extreme variance of climate means this area can successfully grow a wide range of classical varieties.
Soils: The Columbia Gorge wine region soils are generally silty loams collected over time from floods, volcanic activity and landslides.
Topography: The Columbia River Gorge is a narrow, winding river valley whose walls range from steep volcanic rock faces to more gentle-sloped, terraced benchlands that are typically well suited for grape growing. The Gorge is the only sea-level passage through the Cascade Mountain Range. From north to south there are two iconic geographical features: Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood, both part of the central Cascade Mountain range.
Varieties Grown: Albariño, Aglianico, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Dolcetto, Gamay Noir, Gewürztraminer, Grenache, Grüner Vertliner, Lemberger, Malbec, Marsanne, Merlot, Mourvedre, Muscat, Nebbiolo, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Primitivo, Riesling, Roussanne, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier, Zinfandel.
On the Oregon side, the Columbia Valley wine history dates back to the early 1900s, when settlers planted the area’s first vineyard on a steep, southward-sloping hill near the small town of The Dalles. These Zinfandel vines, which are now more than 100 years old, still produce wine grapes at what is today known as The Pines 1852 Vineyard, whose vintner revitalized the land in the early 1980s. Around the same time, as the Washington side of the Columbia Valley appellation began to flourish with large-scale wineries, reputable winemakers started tagging the small Oregon side as an excellent location for high-quality winegrapes.
Location: The Columbia Valley AVA is an extremely large growing region with 11 million acres of land. Most of Columbia Valley and its six sub-appellations lie in Washington State, with a small section in Oregon stretching from The Dalles to Milton-Freewater. The region is 185 miles wide and 200 miles long.
Climate: The region has a largely continental high desert climate. Hot days promote slow, even ripening, while cool nights ensure grapes retain their natural acidity. The area receives just 6 to 8 inches of annual rainfall, making supplemental irrigation a necessity throughout the AVA.
Soils: About 15,000 years ago a series of tremendous ice age floods (dubbed the Missoula Floods) deposited silt and sand over the area. These deposited sediments, along with wind-blown loess sediment, make up the area’s present-day soils, which are well drained and ideal for grapevines.
Topography: This is a huge area covering 11 million acres. Mostly, the Columbia Valley lies on the Columbia River Plateau and encompasses the valleys formed by the Columbia River and its tributaries, including the Walla Walla, Snake and Yakima rivers. Mountain ranges border the Columbia Valley region on the west and north, while the Columbia River acts roughly as a boundary to the south, and the Snake River near Idaho acts as the border to the east.
Varieties Grown: Barbera, Black Muscat, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Counoise, Gamay Beaujolais, Gamay Noir, Gewürztraminer, Grenache, Lemberger, Malbec, Marsanne, Merlot, Morio Muskat, Mourvedre, Muscadelle, Muscat Canelli, Nebbiolo, Orange Muscat, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Roussanne, Royalty, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Siegerrebe, Syrah, Viognier, Zinfandel.
Walla Walla Valley
Grapegrowing in this area dates back to the 1850s when Italian immigrants began planting vines and making wine. In 1950, the Pesciallo Family established Blue Mountain Vineyards, the first post-prohibition winery. They grew Italian varietals including Black Prince but ultimately closed their doors. It was in the 1970s that the region’s pioneer winemakers of today began producing wine commercially, with a more concerted effort on the Oregon side within the last 20 years.
Location: The Walla Walla Valley AVA, a sub-appellation of the larger Columbia Valley AVA, sits at the base of the Blue Mountains and stretches from the southeast corner of Washington, across the Columbia River and into the northeast corner of Oregon. Although a vast majority of this AVA’s wineries currently reside in Washington, almost half of the winegrowing acreage lies on the Oregon side.
Climate: Washington and Northern Oregon’s northern latitude position means long sunshine-filled days balanced by cool evening temperatures of the higher elevation. This temperature variation allows the grapes to develop their flavor and complexity while retaining their natural acidity. The appellation lies east of the Cascade Mountain Range, which limits the amount of rainfall to an annual 12.5 inches, allowing vintners to perfectly manage the plants through irrigation.
Soils: Walla Walla Valley soils come in varying combinations of well-drained loam, silt, loess and cobbles brought by a series of massive floods (dubbed the Missoula floods) some 15,000 years ago.
Topography: East of the Cascade Mountain Range, this area sits at the foot of the Blue Mountains, with vineyard elevations typically ranging from 650 feet to 1,500 feet.
Varieties Grown: Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Chardonnay, Cinsault, Counoise, Dolcetto, Gewürztraminer, Malbec, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Semillon, Syrah, Viognier.
The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater
Italian emigrants were the first to plant winegrapes in this region in 1860s; vineyards proliferated as thirsty gold miners of northern Idaho consumed what was produced. Cold winters and end of the gold rush forced growers to pull out vines and plant orchards — however, many farmers maintained small vineyards. In 1996, Frenchman Christophe Baron rediscovered the vineyard potential, noting the similarity of its soils to those of the France’s Chateauneuf du Pape. By 2012, the cobbly soils near Milton-Freewater hosted more than 200 acres of vineyards.
Location: The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is situated in the Walla Walla Valley in northeastern Oregon, 25 miles northeast of Pendleton and five miles south of Walla Walla, Washington. The AVA derives its name from the extremely rocky soils that underlie a region just north of the small town of Milton-Freewater. With an area of only 5.9 square miles, The Rocks District is the second smallest AVA in Oregon. The Rocks District is wholly contained within both Walla Walla Valley and Columbia Valley AVAs.
Climate: The Rocks District receives an insufficient average of 15 inches of annual precipitation, so vines are irrigated with water from the Walla Walla River fed by the Blue Mountains’ snowmelt. Growing season is mostly sunny with low humidity, so major daily temperature variations are common. During summers, the region often experiences five to 10 days with temperatures exceeding 100°F.
Soils: Its defining characteristic, The Rocks’ unique soil consists of pebbles and cobbles of basalt (a dark volcanic rock) in a matrix of sand and silt. The soil is extremely well drained, encouraging vines to root deeply, and the dark rocks efficiently transfer heat into the soils and radiate heat to the ripening fruit. It’s the only AVA with boundaries determined by a single land form and a single soil series.
Topography: The Rocks District occupies a gently sloping alluvial fan deposited by the Walla Walla River, where it exits the foothills of the Blue Mountains and enters the broad flat floor of the Walla Walla Valley. Elevations range from 800 to 1,000 feet.
Varieties Grown: Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Malbec, Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier.
Snake River Valley
Pre-Prohibition wine history of the Snake River Valley dates back to the late 1860s when French and German immigrants grew and produced fine wine. In 1919, however, prohibition shut down the wineries. It wasn’t until 1970 that wine grapes were planted again in Snake River Valley.
Location: The Snake River Valley AVA spans southwest Idaho and significant parts of Baker and Malheur counties in Eastern Oregon. The area is a massive 8,263 square miles. Its boundaries make up the now dry, 4 million-year-old Lake Idaho, which extends 149 miles northwest to southeast, from the Oregon-Idaho state line to just west of Twin Falls, Idaho. The major Oregon cities include Ontario and Baker City.
Climate: Located inland, and in the rain shadows of the Cascade, Sierra Nevada and Owyhee mountain ranges, the Snake River Valley receives just 10 to 12 inches of annual rainfall, most of which occurs in winter. This allows vintners to perfectly manage the plants through irrigation during the region’s relatively short (142 days on average) growing season. This area is also characterized by hot days and cool nights in summer. This drastic diurnal temperature variation helps balance natural acids and sugars, making the grapes ideal for premium winemaking.
Soils: There is a great variety of soil types in the Snake River Valley, predominantly sand, mud silts, loess and volcanic detritus on top of sedimentary rock. The soil types of the Snake River Valley are so diverse that soil is not a distinguishing factor in this appellation.
Topography: Snake River Valley encompasses the now dry Lake Idaho. With elevation between 2,165 and 3,412 feet, this basin area appears sunken compared to the surrounding mountains, which exceed 7,000 feet. Multiple mountain ranges provide a barrier from Pacific Northwest marine influences. Vineyard elevations go as high as 3,000 feet — higher than any other winegrowing regions in the Northwest; though, most of the vineyards in Snake River Valley are at elevations between 1,500 and 2,500 feet.
Varieties Grown: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Canadice, Chardonnay, Cinsault, Gewürztraminer, Grenache, Lemberger, Malbec, Merlot, Mourvedre, Riesling, Syrah.