Anyone who’s ever had an older brother knows what that’s like growing up. No matter what you do, he’s already done it better, or faster, or smarter…or he’s just plain going to beat you up. For Washington state and Oregon, California’s wine industry is something like that.

It’s impossible to talk about Oregon and Washington separately for long, of course. When it comes to wine, the two of them are often thought of together. They even share two wine regions — Columbia Valley and Walla Walla! Certainly they both share an adventurousness and a spirit of independence.

They do have different climates, however. Washington, being further north, is cooler; Oregon’s wine region gets more rain. The soils are different. Washington’s is sandy, volcanic and nutrient deficient; Oregon’s are nutrientdeficient red soils called Jory and Nekia. Not surprisingly, they tend to grow different grapes. Oregon has proven to be one of the world’s great Pinot Noir producers — among the others is Burgundy, France. Washington is one of the leading producers of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

What does that have to do with having an older brother? Eventually the younger siblings grow up. Maybe they get bigger, or smarter, or better, and maybe they don’t. But one thing is certain. Eventually, they grow up. Eventually, they come into their own.

Right now, Washington and Oregon are both just at the beginning of their potential. Perhaps they will never measure up to their West Coast big brother, California. But who knows? Perhaps they will! One thing is certain: the Pacific Northwest is coming into its own!

Westward Ho!: Oregon’s Pioneers

Oregon’s winemaking history dates back to pioneer days, with vines planted as least as far back as 1825. An influx of settlers and European immigrants infused vigor into the industry, so that by the 1890s, wines from Oregon were winning both awards and praise.

By the turn of the century, however, the California wine industry had eclipsed its siblings to the north, and Oregon’s winemakers reeled further under the additional blows of Prohibition and the Depression. Renaissance began with the arrival of Richard Sommer in the Umpqua Valley in 1961, followed four years later by David Lett’s arrival in the Willamette Valley. These two mavericks established a tradition of defying conventional wisdom in pursuit of the proper grape. Oregon’s wine industry was reborn — and so was its refreshingly individual attitude.

This focus on matching the grape to the terroir (climate and terrain) went hand in hand with an increasing focus on quality. The variety that set Oregon wines back on the course to greatness was Pinot Noir. Surprisingly, Oregon’s terroir is uncannily similar to that of France’s Burgundy region — and these are the only two wine regions in the world that specialize in this fragile, finicky grape. By the time Oregon Pinot Noirs achieved impressive placements at two important wine competitions against Burgundian counterparts, the Oregon wine industry had arrived!

How Green Are These Valleys: The Wine Regions of Oregon

There are six official appellations in Oregon, two of which are shared with Washington state. Here’s a snapshot of each:

The Over-Achiever: Willamette Valley. By far the largest and best-known wine region of Oregon, Willamette Valley accounts for nearly three-quarters of the state’s vineyard land. A hundred-mile strip of land running southward from Portland between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific, it features a terrain of gentle hills and red soil, and having the coolest climate in the state, it is ideal for growing the variety with which Oregon wine is most associated: Pinot Noir — a legendary cool-weather grape.

Southward Bound: Umpqua Valley, Rogue Valley and Applegate Valley. Further south down I-5 from Portland lies the city of Eugene, and south of that, three appellations offer a variety of microclimates that are sometimes challenging to match. Among the varieties produced are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot — neither of which fare well in the cooler Willamette Valley — as well as Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Tempranillo and Chardonnay, among others.

Fewer wineries have been established today in these warmer appellations than are currently thriving in Willamette Valley, but their numbers are growing. In fact, Applegate Valley, Oregon’s newest appellation, was formerly a subregion of Rogue Valley, until establishing itself as a region in its own rite. Bear Creek Valley and Illinois Valley remain subregions of Rogue Valley.

Border Crossing: Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley. Although these two valleys in the eastern part of Oregon are shared appellations with Washington state, they are Oregon’s smallest and least significant wine regions (by contrast, Columbia Valley is the major appellation of Washington). Oregon’s share of Columbia Valley serves up a number of varieties — and even orchard fruits like pear — whereas Oregon’s tiny Walla Walla Valley specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Either/Oregon: Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris

The pioneering (some might even call it rebellious) approach of Oregon winemakers to their craft has resulted in some disastrous errors — but even more stunning successes. More than 40 varieties are produced in Oregon currently. As with most wines, before making a purchase, it’s wise to be familiar with the best wineries of the region — and their best wines. In general, though, the terroir of the state is best suited to the production of two particular winegrapes: Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.

The Premier Grape: Pinot Noir. For many winemakers, this troublesome grape is a bête noir. But in the hands of Oregon winemakers, it is the pride of the state — accounting for half of all vineyard plantings. As in Burgundy, winemakers have a passion for the grape and handle the fragile variety gently. Close attention is paid to harvest levels, the age of the vines, minimalist winemaking techniques and long aging in oak barrels. The variety does not lend itself well to blending with other varieties except occasionally in sparkling wine. Oregon winemakers do sometimes blend Pinot Noir grapes from different lots and vineyards, however — with great success.

So sensitive is the variety to terroir that it is impossible to predict flavors and aromas. In general, the best Pinot Noirs have an earthy character, exhibiting fruit-forward red and black berries, and aromas and flavors of mushrooms, pine, lilacs, cherries, plums and spices. Capable of cellaring for up to eight years, Oregon Pinot Noir becomes more complex as it ages, with intensifying flavors of mushroom and spices, joined by leather and tobacco.

Oregon’s Pinot Noirs are classified by three unofficial categories: regular, reserve and vineyard-designated. While prices rise with each category, that does not necessarily indicate an improvement in quality. Oregon’s best examples of Pinot Noir generally derive from Willamette Valley.

Other Reds of Note. Oregon’s only other red winegrapes of major significance are also associated with France: the Syrah grape of the Rhône Valley, and the great grape of Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon. For the latter, look for the warmer, more southerly appellations, such as Umpqua Valley.

The “Other White”: Pinot Gris. In a country where Chardonnay has captured by far the lion’s share of market share, another white wine has captured the heart of Oregon winemakers — and their top production spot. Although it accounts for only 15% of the state’s total plantings — a figure that pales in comparison to its redskinned twin — Pinot Gris is by far Oregon’s favorite white varietal. In fact, scientific study has found that Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are genetically identical, with a long-ago mutation of color the only difference that tells them apart. A cool-weather grape, just as Pinot Noir is, Pinot Gris also thrives well in Alsace and northern Italy. It was first planted in Oregon in 1966; by the mid-1990s, production here was increasing annually — and producers still couldn’t keep pace with demand! By 2000, it overtook Chardonnay as Oregon’s most important white-wine grape, and it remains the state’s fastestgrowing variety today.

Much of the appeal of Pinot Gris lies in its freshness and versatility. Best when consumed young, this medium-bodied, almost coppery-colored wine offers creamy flavors of pear, melon, nuts and baked apples and a racy acidity that makes it a stunning companion for an amazing variety of foods.

Other Whites of Note. Early in Oregon’s wine renaissance, grape growers focused more on terroir than on the wines that would actually sell. German varieties were among the most popular, including Gewürztraminer, Riesling and the little-known Müller-Thurgau and Sylvaner, as well as Italy’s Muscat grape. Although winemakers in the state still maintain their entrepreneurial spirit, they have shifted more toward grapes with more proven marketing potential, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Pinot Blanc. Riesling remains a widely planted variety, and dessert and sparkling wines are also made here.

Washington: The State of the State

The timeline of Washington state’s wine industry closely mirrors that of its West Coast counterparts, California and Oregon. The planting of winegrapes dates to the plantings of 1825, and French, German and Italian immigrants expanded on these efforts during the 1860s and 1870s. Unlike its Pacific partners, Washington was fortunate to escape the plague of the deadly louse phylloxera. But like California and Oregon, Washington was devastated by Prohibition during the 1920s; the industry was not to rebound until the 1960s, when the first commercial plantings occurred.

Until that time, much of the state’s production was characterized by inexpensive quaffing wines, and sweet wine and fortified wines. In 1965, however, the focus of the state’s winemakers shifted more toward quality. The Associated Vintners was organized, allowing winemakers who had little experience or guidance to share ideas, techniques and best practices. By the 1970s, Washington’s wine industry was galloping toward the future, with a new winery beginning operation every few weeks and wine shipments heading to all 50 states plus more than 40 countries around the world. The most popular varieties were Pinot Noir, Grenache, Gewürztraminer and Johannisberg Riesling. In 1984, two state wineries were dedicated to the production of premium wines. By the early 21st century, Washington was the fastest-growing wine region in the country: production had more than doubled within a decade, and plenty of territory remains for explosive growth.

Today, Washington has emerged as one of the world’s great premium wine regions, comparable in size, quality and philosophy to New Zealand and California’s Napa Valley. It is also the first American wine region to have been named “Wine Region of the Year.”

The ABCs of Washington (not D.C.)

By far the majority of Washington’s more than 29,000 acres of vineyards are located in the eastern part of the state — a warmer, drier region than the area west of the Cascade Mountains. This eastern territory encompasses four of these five federally recognized viticultural appellations:

Hail, Columbia Valley — The Gem of the Pacific Ocean. One of the two appellations shared with neighboring Oregon, Columbia Valley is by far the biggest appellation of Washington, as well as its leading producer of grapes — some 60% of the state’s harvest. Established in 1984, it covers fully one third of the state’s land mass, encompassing 11 million acres from the state’s northern border all the way south to Oregon. As often occurs in premium winegrowing regions, it contains three AVAs within its borders: Walla Walla Valley, Yakima Valley and Red Mountain — which is itself is contained within Yakima Valley.

Within this vast array of microclimates are planted a number of different varieties. the most significant being Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling.

The First in the State: Yakima Valley. Established in 1983, Yakima Valley is Washington’s first official appeallation — an area of some 11,000 acres planted mostly with Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with Riesling and Syrah also on the rise. Some of the leading wineries in the state were established close together here in the heart of Washington’s wine industry. In all, about onethird of all the state’s vineyards are located here, where irrigation is plentiful, fed by the Yakima River and the Roz and Sunnyside canals.

Think Red Mountain When You Think Red Wine. An appellation in its own right since 2001, Red Mountain is like a Russian Matryoshka doll — situated within Yakima Valley, which is entirely within Columbia Valley. Fewer than ten wineries are located within its 4,040 acres, yet it is renowned as one of the state’s best sources for award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, it hosts many of Washington’s red-grape vineyards, with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Sangiovese the other major varieties planted here.

More than Just So-So: Walla Walla Valley. Like Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (est. 1984) is a shared appellation with Oregon — although, also like Columbia Valley, it’s Oregon holdings are virtually insignificant compared with those of Washington state. However, it is tiny when compared with Columbia Valley.

Nevertheless, within its 1,500 acres of vineyards are located more than 40 wineries producing some of the state’s best wines. Among the top varieties produced here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah. Other popular grapes include Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese.

Think Puget Sound for Washington Whites. The only Washington state appellation located west of the Cascade Mountains, Puget Sound benefits from the mild climate that surrounds the Sound itself. Here, wine growers benefit from a summer that is even sunnier and drier than that of many European winegrowing regions. Early-ripening varieties are favored by the region’s 35 or so wineries, including the white-wine grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Madeleine Angevine, Müller Thurgau and Siegerrebe, as well as the red-wine grape Pinot Noir.

Washington’s Sub-Appellations, In General. Washington’s appellations are continuing to evolve, as new microclimates are explored. The high-plateau subregions of Wahluke Slope, Royal Slope and Cold Creek have been found to provide excellent growing conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, among others. The Columbia, Yakima and Snake Rivers meet at Lower Snake River and Columbia Basin, a source of quality Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and others. Located on southerly-facing slopes above the Columbia River, Canoe Ridge offers up Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Ironically, the steep slopes of Alder Ridge and Zephyr Ridge are among the warmer sites for plantings; Merlot and Syrah are among the varieties found here. Finally, the warmer, south-facing slopes of Southwest Washington are known primarily for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

How Red Are Their Berries: The Wines of Washington State

Among the more than 20 varieties vinified in Washington, reds have the edge, with 52% of production. Among the most popular red varieties are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet France and Sangiovese. Favored whites include Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Viognier and Chenin Blanc. You’ll also find fans of unconventional grapes here, such as Madeleine Angevine, which is known primarily as an English variety, and Lemberger, associated with Germany and Austria.

It was during the 1990s that Washington was discovered to have the ideal terroir for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, the state is considered among the top producers of these two wines nationally, due the lush texture, powerful structure, and concentrated berry flavors of the wines. Washington also produces wines from raspberry, Bartlett pear, loganberry and other fruits, as well as sparkling wines.

Merely Magnificent: Washington Merlot. One of the state’s major wines, Merlot was almost universally a wine used for blending until the 1970s. It was released commercially in Washington in 1976 and has since risen to become the state’s star varietal. Full-bodied, moderately tannic, and beautifully balanced, Washington Merlot offers sweet cherry and berry flavors, with aromas of mint, cigar box, nutmeg and cardamom.

A Home Fit for the King of Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon. Washington provides an ideal home for the great noble grape of Bordeaux. Used alone or blended with Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc, it provides structure and depth, with aromas and flavors of black currants, cherry, berry, chocolate, leather, mint, herbs and bell pepper. It is also a wine that ages beautifully in the bottle.

Syrah: Washington’s Answer to the Rhône. A new discovery for Washington vintners, Syrah has been coming on strong in recent years. Its complex, intensely concentrated flavors and aromas of blackberries, black currants, coffee and leather promise that this will be a variety to watch from this region.

The Other Cabernet: Cabernet Franc. Often overlooked as “merely” a blending grape, Cabernet Franc is coming into its own in Washington, where its plantings have multiplied more than six times in recent years. Usually blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, it provides structure and firm tannins, as well as toothsome flavors of coffee and blueberry.

A/K/A “Blue Franc”: Lemberger. Almost unknown outside of Austria and Germany, Lemberger is a spiritual sister of California’s Zinfandel: spicy, rich and hearty, and redolent of oak.

Other Reds of Note. Washington also includes Sangiovese, Grenache, Zinfandel, Nebbiolo, Malbec and Pinot Noir in its portfolio of red wines.

As Washington State as Apples: Chardonnay. Washington state distinguishes itself in the Chardonnay sweepstakes through the fresh-apple character of its delicate, crisp flavors. The use of oak is subtle in the state’s most widely planted variety, and malolactic fermentation is sometimes employed to give the wines a buttery, vanilla quality.

A Little Germany in America: Washington Riesling. One of the grapes planted by Washington’s first winemakers, this German white continues to be popular here today. Expect floral and mineral notes in the nose, and apricot-peach flavors. The common style today is dry and off-dry, though sweet wines continue to be made from this variety.

Bodacious and Herbaceous: Sauvignon Blanc. Sometimes bottled under the label Fumé Blanc, this white-wine variety is becoming more popular for its herbaceous character, lively acidity, and clean, tangy, fresh taste of pineapple with a hint of oak.

Other Whites of Note. The major white grape of France’s Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc, also thrives in Washington, where it makes a delicate floral wine. A German variety, Gewürztraminer, is able to withstand Washington’s cold winters and produces an off-dry or slightly sweet wine with allspice and tropical flavors. Washington excels in the production of Semillon, whose lightness and low acidity make it a perfect blending companion, particularly for Sauvignon Blanc and even Chardonnay. Madeleine Angevine provides an unusual, floral white wine, and the sweet but simple Muscat Canelli offers another offbeat choice. Viognier, Pinot Gris, Müller Thurgau and Aligote are also produced in Washington state.

View our selection of wines from Washington

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