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Getting to Know Oregon’s Top-Rated Wines

Critics love the breadth and depth of wines from the state — here's why

Janice Williams By April 8, 2022
Willamette Valley landscape with Oregon wine bottles in forefront
Sunset over the mid-Willamette Valley in Western Oregon. Photo by Hugh K Telleria/Shutterstock.

There’s a statistic that Oregon wine pros love to share: Although the state only produces about 1% of the country’s wine, Oregon wine garners 20% of the 90-plus point scores.

That figure stems from the combined numbers of Oregon wines featured on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 lists in 2015 and 2016, according to the Oregon Wine Board’s website. While it may be out of date, it’s still true that Oregon wines are constantly receiving high scores.

Yet many Oregon wines remain unknown to consumers, for reasons ranging from small production to difficulties with distribution.

For those in the know, however, Oregon is a treasure trove of outstanding wines, with the critical acclaim to prove it.

Top scores for top wines

Six wines from Oregon producers landed a spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2021, including Alexana Vineyards’ 2018 Revana Vineyard Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, which came in at number 14. Bottles from Arterberry Maresh, Evening Land Vineyards, Zena Crown Vineyard, and Chehalem Winery also appeared on the list. 

Most of the scores Oregon wines receive from notable critics like James Suckling, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Jeb Dunnick, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator are north of 90 points, which indicates that they are of outstanding quality. Patricia Green Cellars received 100 points from Wine Enthusiast with its 2016 Estate Vineyard Bonshaw Pinot Noir back in 2018. However, not many others in Oregon have nabbed a perfect score. 

“We’re the third-largest wine state in terms of the number of wineries, and we’re constantly releasing high-quality wines from all over the state. And yet it always feels like we’re the redheaded stepchild of U.S. wine,” says Carrie Wynkoop, founder of Cellar 503, a wine club that exposes drinkers to unique, high quality, and affordable wines from small producers and family-owned wineries in Oregon.

Limited distribution may play a role in the lack of awareness of Oregon’s high-quality wine. 

“Not much of our wine is distributed outside of Oregon or the Pacific Northwest,” says Paul Beck, a wine educator and founder of Willamette Wine Concierge. “Average case production is only 5,000 cases. So getting those out to different states is exceptionally hard. When you’re trying to get into mid-tier states like Illinois, North Carolina, Michigan, and other places, you have to actually go to wine shops that really know Oregon wine and will focus on it. You’re not going to find these bottles in grocery stores.”

Though moving at tortoise speed, the reach of Oregon wine is spreading. A 2020 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report said that sales of Oregon wine in the rest of the U.S. increased by 9.1%. However, Pinot Noir seems to be the leading variety gaining placement on shelves outside the state.

“I want people to understand the breadth and depth of Oregon wine and that there is stellar, high-quality wine made all over the state. And it’s not just Pinot Noir,” says Wynkoop.

“I want people to understand the breadth and depth of Oregon wine and that there is stellar, high-quality wine made all over the state. And it’s not just Pinot Noir,” says Wynkoop.

All about the Pinot

Wine production in Oregon has grown tremendously since pioneer winemakers John Wood and Ron Honeyman received bonded winery status and opened the state’s oldest winery, Honeywood Winery, following the end of Prohibition in 1933. Now Oregon is home to more than 900 wineries and nearly 100 grape varieties. 

Pinot Noir steals most of the spotlight. And rightfully so — with a cool climate comparable to Burgundy, Oregon is well suited for thin-skinned grapes. 

“Oregon is a premier region for winemaking for many reasons, but mostly because of the incredible diversity throughout the state, from the cool climate of the Willamette Valley to the rugged cliffs of the gorge. The winemaking possibilities are endless,” says Briana Seeley, sales and marketing director at Argyle Winery

Pinot Noir — first planted in the state by Hillcrest Vineyard in 1961, according to “The World Atlas of Wine” — thrives in Oregon’s longer growing season, encapsulated by cool and mostly mild winters, wet springs, and a diurnal shift from warm summer days to cool nights. The Willamette Valley, where most of Oregon’s wine production occurs, is just 60 miles from the Pacific Ocean, creating a cooling effect across the valley in all seasons.

“Pinot Noir from here is higher acid, so the wine is more food-friendly. They’re lighter in body. They’re a tad bit lower in alcohol content. Flavor is so unique from fruit-driven characteristics to floral to herbal and savory. You’re getting this wide variety of flavors to taste and enjoy. And they’re affordable,” says Beck.

Oregon wines with the highest scores and ranking on national lists tend to be Pinot Noir. However, there are other grapes grown in the state deserving of high praise, Wynkoop notes. 

Other wines to look for

“We have a huge and growing preponderance of Gamay in this state. It is similar to Pinot but a little bit fruitier. Locals love our Pinot Gris, and we’re really developing our own Oregon style of Chardonnay and sparkling wines. But what’s really interesting and worth paying attention to are the Rhône varietals we do here,” says Wynkoop. 

Varieties like Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne are gaining popularity with locals, while winemakers in Southern Oregon have taken an interest in producing Spanish varieties like Tempranillo and Albariño.

“Oregon winemakers are really excelling at high acid, light wines,” says Wynkoop.

It’s unlikely Pinot Noir’s position as Oregon’s top grape variety will change. However, as the region continues to grow, wine professionals are certain interest and awareness of other wines will increase too.

“There is a world of possibility here, and Oregon wine is still at a point of discovery,” says Seeley. “The future of our wine is continuing to make wines of consistent quality while staying curious and open to what more there is to learn.”

High-scoring bottles to try:

bottle of Walter Scott Seven Springs Vineyard Chardonnay

Walter Scott Seven Springs Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 (~$67)

Winemakers at Walter Scott have produced outstanding wines since launching in 2008. The Chardonnay is a fan favorite with a 93-point score by Wine Enthusiast and Wine Advocate thanks to its complex citrus and stone fruit aromas and flavors backed by a sprinkle of salt in the refreshing finish.

bottle of Bergström Wines Silice Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019

Bergström Wines Silice Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 (~$83)

This ruby red Pinot Noir from the Chehalem Mountains region of Oregon’s Willamette Valley was awarded a 95-point score by Wine Advocate. The wine is aromatic with spicy potpourri fragrances, and the palate is drenched in ripe red berry nuances, while fresh acidity and barely-there tannins provide some balance.

bottle of Zena Crown Vineyard Conifer Pinot Noir

Zena Crown Vineyard Conifer Pinot Noir 2017 (~$90)

Another age-worthy wine from the Eola-Amity Hills AVA — this Pinot Noir has received a 95-point score from Wine Spectator for its impressive structure and body. The wine is fragrant with fresh pine tree and black pepper aromas, while the palate booms with raspberry, earth, and dried flower flavors complemented by supple tannins.

bottle of Beaux Freres Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge, The Beaux Frères Vineyard

Beaux Frères The Beaux Frères Vineyard Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir 2018 (~$101)

This Pinot Noir landed the number nine spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 of 2020, and it remained a favorite of critics, earning a score of 98 points. The wine is sleek and sophisticated, with candied cherry and cranberry bursting aromas. On the palate, red and blue fruits get a lift from fresh fennel notes, while fine tannins give it some structure. The finish is pleasantly mouthwatering.

bottle of Antica Terra Botanica Pinot Noir 2017

Antica Terra Botanica Pinot Noir 2017 (~$126)

With a 96-point score awarded by James Suckling, this wine from the rocky hillside of Eola-Amity Hills sings with savory, earthy, spicy nuances. Complex aromas and flavors range from violets to wild herbs, forest floor, and black cherry. The wine is balanced with acidity and features a string of saline minerality on the back end. Tannins are supremely firm, making this one a good bottle for short aging.