For many people, the Pacific Northwest states of Washington and Oregon conjure up images of rain, pine forests, raccoons, Starbucks, the Killing (AMC version), more rain and repeat episodes of Frazier. Most people have never heard of a Washingtonian Riesling or an Oregonian Pinot Noir, let alone tried one. And yet these north-western US states have an interesting and varied wine scene and a winemaking tradition which stretches back to the mid-1800s when Italian and German settlers planted the first vines for grape cultivation.
Although the Prohibition years at the start of the 20th century destroyed the region’s early wine industry, the establishment of new vineyards by Californian producers in the 1960s spearheaded a revival in wine production which has continued to the present day.
Washington and Oregon are respectively the second and third-largest wine producing states in the US, although total wine production is a fraction of California’s. Washington produces a full range of wine styles and varieties, from bulk to premium-priced boutique wines. The main grapes used in wine production are Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah, although 80 different varieties are grown in the state.
Although Washington’s winemakers used to focus mostly on white wines, the state was hit by the “Merlot craze” which swept America in the 1990s. Some commentators suggest it was a Californian winery called Duckhorn which first started the Merlot craze back in 1978, igniting a fire which raged through the 1990s before finally being extinguished by the 2004 movie Sideways.
In Washington, the Merlot craze led to a growing interest in red wine in general. This coincided with the increased production of the "two Cabs" (Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc), which are more frost-resistant than Merlot, as well as Bordeaux blends, which involve combining Merlot with the two Cabs and other varieties such as Malbec and Petit Verdot. The past few years have also seen a growing enthusiasm among Washington winemakers for Syrah.
Washington winemakers have retained their enthusiasm for white grape varieties too, and in addition to Riesling and Chardonnay, increasingly popular white wine varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Viognier.
Across the border in neighbouring Oregon, the star of the wine industry is Pinot Noir. Oregon is widely regarded as one of the world’s premier Pinot-producing regions and wines from the Willamette Valley frequently take the top prize in international contests.
In Oregon, there are almost seven times more plantings of Pinot Noir than the state’s second most widely-planted grape variety, Pinot Gris. Sometimes described as Oregon’s “other Pinot”, Pinot Gris (also known as Pinot Grigio) is believed to originate in Burgundy and used to be nicknamed “grey monk” because of its greyish colour and its early cultivation by Cistercian monks. These days, Pinot Gris is more commonly associated with Alsace, where is it known as one the “noble grapes of Alsace” along with Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muscat.
The colours and styles of Pinot Gris vary considerably. Italian Pinot Grigio tends to be light (in body and colour), crisp and relatively high in acidity, while Alsatian Pinot Gris is usually a deeper lemon colour, more full-bodied and with floral aromas. In Oregon, Pinot Gris tends to be medium-bodied with a lemon to copper-pink appearance and aromas of pear, apple, and/or melon (see Drinking section of the website for more information).
This week the Drinking and Pairing sections of the website have been updated to focus on Pinot Gris/ Pinot Grigio and Merlot. Meanwhile, the Growing and Making sections of the website cover the grapes, wines and wine production regions of Washington and Oregon in more detail.