WORLD OF WINE: Oregon wine mavens successfully address challenges

Welcome to 2018!

The wine world embraces it with the hope that fewer disasters will be experienced this year than what took place in 2017. While the well-publicized wine region fires in California have had a devastating impact, long-term concern is beginning to focus on what is happening to the climate: not just in California, but across global wine growing regions as well.

Human nature pushes the normal limits set by natural systems, leading us to grow wine grapes from Australia into Wisconsin, Canada and even England these days. As little as a couple of decades ago, such activities would have been considered ludicrous. Nowadays, it’s just a question of which grape varieties will grow sustainably in particular locations.

Welcome to beautiful, picturesque Oregon, whose ambitious vintners have established an international reputation for quality wine, ranking it fourth in wine production in America right behind California, Washington and New York.

Like most wineries in America following the Prohibition, the wine industry in Oregon struggled until it came into being in 1965, being divided into wine-growing American Viticultural Areas (AVA regions), one of which is Willamette Valley AVA.  

With an area of 5,200 square miles, it is the largest AVA within the state, with more than 300 wineries. The Willamette Valley has a cool, moist climate, producing a pinot noir that is well recognized worldwide for its excellence.

Just southwest of Eugene, Ore., near the southern end of the Willamette Valley, Iris Vineyards produces some world-class, award-winning wines grown from the Chalice Vineyard: pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay.

These three wine grape varietals couldn’t be in a more favorable location for quality wine grape production. Warm summer days in the lower 90s and significantly cooler nights lock in the right balance of acid and sugars for a quality grape harvest.

The 2014 vintage of the pinot noir is everything one would hope all pinot noirs would be: rich in taste, perfect acidity level, moderate but crisp tannins and a smooth, totally enjoyable finish, begging your palate to look for more. It goes well as a stand-alone taster, with a vegetarian dish and even with grilled salmon.

The same accolades can be said of the 2015 pinot gris and 2014 chardonnay from the Iris Vineyard in Willamette Valley. They also exceed the taste expectations one would have for either of these varietals, and the reason is basically simple. The Oregon laws of percentage required of a varietal to be in a bottle to be labeled a chardonnay, pinot noir, or pinot gris, has to be 90 percent or more. (U.S. law mandates just a 75 percent minimum of that varietal to be in the bottle to carry such a label.)

The Oregon vintner knows that growing grapes on the ” climatic edge” will produce wines of superior quality. With climate changes taking place, Willamette growers are successfully meeting the challenge.

Ron Smith, a retired NDSU Extension

horticulturist, writes weekly about his love of wine and its history. Readers can reach him at