About the Pacific Northwest Wine Region
Washington and Oregon round out the West Coast of the United States more than just geographically. They are amazing wine producing states, each in their own right. What sets them apart from many other New World wine producing areas is their ability to straddle the stylistic fence.
Oregon and Washington both benefit from the warm stable weather of the West Coast. It is this warm weather that results in the lively ripe fruit of New World wines. However, their more northerly latitude gives them the benefit of cool nights to retain the refreshing acidity that Old World wines are more known for.
Certainly when one thinks about Oregon wine the first thing that comes to mind is Pinot Noir. That is with very good reason. Pinot Noir accounts for a whopping 53% of all wine grapes (red or white) planted in Oregon!
Quality Pinot Noir from Oregon was put on the map in much the same way as quality wines from California. California had the Spurrier blind tasting where Stags’ Leap Cabernet and Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay beat out all the French competition in Paris.
Oregon became famous when David Lett from Eyrie Vineyards entered his 1975 Pinot Noir in Joseph Drouhin’s 1979 blind tasting competition (referenced in the movie Bottle Shock). Although his wine did not win outright, he did finish second (behind Drouhin’s epic 1959 Chambolle-Musigny) and beat out scores of Grand Cru wines including a legendary Drouhin 1961 Clos-de-Bèze.
Oregon Wine Regions
Red Hill Douglas County
Northern Oregon (shared w/ WA)
Walla Walla Valley
Snake River Valley (w/ Idaho)
Washington’s wine history does not go back as far as California’s, but as the second largest wine producing state in the US, Washington had a tremendous increase in its quality curve. Wine grapes weren’t really grown here until a while after Prohibition was repealed. In fact, it was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that gave Washington a chance at viticulture. The Columbia River Irrigation Project turned what were vast tracks of desert into fertile, agriculture-sustaining farmland. Even then it took another 30 years for vitus vinefera (the species of grape used for wine making) to gain substantial plantings that supported commercial wineries. The first guys on the block were the American Wine Growers. They are now known as Chateau Ste. Michelle.
Washington is more like California than Oregon when it comes to the varieties grown here. There is a lot more diversity than the seemingly “mono-grapistic” Oregon. Surprisingly enough, even a decade ago almost 70% of all varietals planted here were white! But don’t count the red grapes out. Since then, they have taken the majority to the tune of 60% of all plantings.
Even though Washington is in the northern US and sits on the border of Canada, it is most definitely a warm wine-growing region. This is especially true in the eastern AVAs. Overall, Eastern Washington is what’s known as a High Steppe Desert. Very warm, dry days are followed by a large temperature drop, resulting in very cool nights.
Most of the high quality wines are grown in Eastern Washington, where it is warmer. Columbia Valley is the major wine producing area in Eastern Washington (as well as the whole state). It is massive and includes six sub-regions – one of those even has three sub-regions of its own! The regions that are west of the Cascade Mountains are not as protected from the cool maritime winds coming off the Pacific Ocean. They are Puget Sound, and Columbia Gorge.
Washington Wine Regions
Walla Walla Valley
Horse Heaven Hills
Pacific Northwest Grape Varietals
High-quality American Chardonnay is not exclusively grown in California. Many sommeliers prefer the Chardonnays grown in the Pacific Northwest because there are more than a few California examples that exhibit enough oak to cover up the subtlety of the fruit and terroir of the grape. (For a better feel of stylistic differences that Chardonnay is capable of, try our Chardonnay, Chablis or White Burgundy flight.)
Oregon Chardonnays possess delicate aromas of bosc pears, chamomile tea and honeysuckle, alongside baked apples and lemon custard flavors. They are brimming with ripe fruit and balanced by juicy acidity.
The high-steppe desert climate allows the grapes to reach the full ripeness of fruit that the New World is known for, while retaining the lively acidity and tannin that you might associate with Old World wines. Washington Chardonnays are a great example, showing seductively ripe fruit on a full-textured frame and lively acidity that will dazzle your palate. These wines can rival some of the great white Burgundies at a fraction of the cost.
A simple way to think of it is as follows: California is the Clydesdale of Chardonnays – full of power and raw strength. The Pacific Northwest is your thoroughbred for its elegance and balance.
Pinot Noir (Oregon)
An unwritten rule in wine says: “The more specific the site, the better the wine.” It is never truer than with Pinot Noir. The long warm summers make Oregon’s Willamette Valley ideally suited to this noble, but very fickle grape. The Pinots here show remarkable elegance and are brimming with sour cherries, sweet mushrooms and warm spices like cinnamon and cumin.
Willamette Valley is a baby when compared to the longstanding traditions of Burgundy. But this exciting newcomer region has managed to compete with (and often beat) the great wines of its more established older sibling in a very short period of time. These wines are destined to become some of the best in the world. Oh wait – some already are!
If you’ve seen the movie Sideways, you know that Merlot has gotten a bad rap. While there are many lackluster Merlots around, these are typically afterthoughts of producers, who are only interested in making Cabernet Sauvignon. They would end up with a few barrels of Merlot made to blend into their Cabernets, toss them into a bottle and slap on a label without a thought to their individual quality. It’s akin to dining at a great restaurant and being served yesterday’s leftovers. Not exactly a recipe for great Merlot, is it?
Washington on the contrary produces many Merlots from wine makers whose goal it is to make great Merlot. Its wines are velvety soft and they explode on the palate with chocolate-covered plums, warm baking spices and ripe tannins. It’s a shame Miles from Sideways never discovered their beauty. Luckily, you won’t make the same mistake.
Like Pinot Noir, Cabernet requires a long growing season to come to full ripeness. Can you think of a better area than one with little rainfall? Late rains have spoiled more Cabernet vintages than anything else. Eastern Washington doesn’t have that issue though. The Cascade Mountains keep it all in Seattle.
The long season allows Cabernet to slowly ripen without sacrificing delicacy. These black currant, cedary wines will seduce your senses and leave you pondering: “Isn’t California supposed to make great Cabernet, too?”
Food Pairings with Pacific Northwest Wines
The below focuses on the four predominant grapes of the Pacific Northwest (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot). Below is a brief explanation of each grape, followed by food pairing recommendations.
Chardonnay exhibits notes of apples, lemon, pineapple, melon, vanilla, butterscotch, slightly burned toast, butter, figs, honey and nuts. Most of them are medium to full-bodied and they match bold flavors and rich sauces in weight.
Leaner Chardonnay with citrusy notes:
Roast citrus chicken
Shellfish, simply prepared
Delicate fish, simply prepared
Roast chicken and mild game
Lighter mushroom dishes
Fuller bodied, richer styles:
Dover Sole Meunier
Butter Poached Lobster
Fuller bodied vegetarian dishes
Pinot Noir Pairings
Pinot Noir is characterized by notes of black cherries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, prunes, toasty spice, bacon fat, cola and earthy mushrooms. Fruit-forward examples contrast well with salty preparations. Old World styles are best with heartier, earthier cuisine.
Mushrooms of any sort
Salmon (try Teriyaki)
Richly sauced pasta dishes
Beef stews and braises
Cabernet Sauvignon Pairings
Cabernet Sauvignon expresses itself with notes of black currants, black cherries, blackberries, green or black olives, mint and mushrooms. In its youth, firm tannins are paired well with grilled meats having a high fat content. In the mouth, this combination is magnetic! As it ages and sheds some of its tannic edge, more delicate meats should be considered in order to let the wine shine.
Steaks (tri tip, New York, Rib Eye, flank steak etc.) with demi-glace sauces
Lamb with rosemary, mustard, your favorite herbs
Grilled or smoked foods
Merlot is characterized by notes of blackberries, currants, black olives, plum, chocolate, red cherries, anise, cocoa and bell peppers. Softer in texture and tannins, they lend themselves to comfort foods of all types.