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The differences between Washington, Oregon, and Illinois wine

By Mr. Washington Wine Guy

If you live in the Northwest and love the wines that are coming to fruition here, you just have to get to know them better. Why do Pinots grow so well in Oregon and not as well in Washington? Why is Washington such a great region for Merlots and Chards, but Oregon can't pull it off? And why is Illinois the recipient of a variety of choices?

We live where latitude and longitude prevails – and mountains, too!

Well, of course Washington is north of Oregon, so one can easily say that the major difference between Washington and Oregon wines is the state they are grown in. Too easy. Add some longitude and think a little more.

The Cascade mountain range represents a major dividing line and longitudinal difference between where the majority of grapes in Washington are grown, as opposed to where Oregon grapes are grown.

Most Washington grapes are grown east of the Cascades in a variety of areas including the Yakima and Columbia valleys, Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain.

Most of Oregon's grapes are grown west of the Cascades in the Willamette Valley and McMinnville regions.

This is important to understand for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, we're talking a major difference in climate zones – Oregon being a coastal climate type and eastern Washington being primarily a desert climate.

But an even more important way to look at this is to consider water, and how the grapes get it.

Give me some water!

Walk through a vineyard in Eastern Washington and you'll see plenty of irrigation lines. Without irrigation the grapes can't be grown. Too hot in the summer to support any ground water at a high level. As a grower in Washington, you get the luxury of monitoring and regulating the water to the vines. Sweet. But down south…

In Oregon, it's quite different. Since the Willamette Valley is an inland coastal climate, there's more water in the ground table as a result of the wetter weather the area experiences nine months of the year. There are very few irrigation lines to be found, with most growers simply relying on what nature provides. Ask an Oregon grower where their irrigation lines are and you might see a finger point to the sky.

Oh Mr. Washington Wine Guy – Where have you been?

Well, okay, there may be a few of you out there wondering where I've been. Some will recall that I used to produce a fairly popular column each month in the pages of Seattle DINING! that was both serious and comical at the same time. You learned something and hopefully you laughed a bit, too.

Then they hired a new editor, Ms. Corporate, who insisted on a higher level of editorial. Like I was doing anything lowlife in the first place… I mean really–just because I used to benchmark all my wine tastings using a Big Mac wasn't that odd, considering America's desire for salt and fat. Or was it a Big Mac™®? Yeah-that was it.

Well–it wasn't like I was out of a job. I just went away for five years–or was it seven?–and got my act together about what was going on with wine in the Northwest. Sure, there are all the pros who do weekly and monthly columns. So it took me a while to come up with information they didn't have. And now that I have it and have shared it with you, I may disappear for another five, or seven years and unearth the things I don't–and you don't-know. So don't think I won't be back–maybe just not anytime soon.

At least you can count on the Big Mac having the same flavor then, as it does now and did 7 years ago. Benchmark baby- BENCHMARK!!!!

What grows best where?

As you can imagine, this causes delineation in what grapes grow best where. But it won't seem as practical as you might imagine.

When you think about Oregon wines and which are most popular on menus at restaurants or with the critics, it's obvious that Pinot style grapes do well. This makes sense since they grow well in the inland valleys of France, which are at the same latitude as the Willamette.

Things get a bit interesting with Washington top performers. The state does well with Merlots, Cabs and Chards. Merlots come from France's Bordeaux region which is an inland valley off the Atlantic Coast. The cabs come from-–boing–-the Burgundy region. Now didn't we just determine that's where the good Oregon pinots have their roots?

There's more to it than just region…

It's in the terroir

Terroir is the land. The terrain. The soil makeup of a region determines what will do better where. In the Northwest, were there lots of glaciers that deposited various soil types is various places? You bet. Was there a volcano over here, but not over there? You bet. Terroir differences between the regions of France and the Northwest vary greatly.  When growers planted the first vines here it was anyone's guess what would do well. Vines that some thought would do well in one place failed while others thrived.

Where does Chardonnay stand?

Good question. At present it seems to be performing better in the Eastern Washington region than it did in Oregon. In fact, a number of Chardonnay vineyards in the lower Red Hills Douglas County and Rogue Valley regions were converted to Christmas tree farms after the grapes failed. But the grape has been monkeyed with and moved around so much there are strains which show hope in the Willamette including the Dijon strain.

Where's the lava?

Those with a palette who enjoy a good chalky Loire grown grape are on the lookout for a similar flair from Northwest wines and it's coming down the pike as I write. As the vines begin to work their way through the initial top layer of the soil to where the richer volcanic flavors lie--as a result of lava below from mountains Adams and Hood--those who have set up camp along the Columbia River and in the Hood River Valley will no doubt begin producing wines that carry a similar chalkiness to them. Will we taste it in our lifetime? How old are ya and how long have you got to live is the question. Perhaps in the next twenty years or so. Watch for vines from Syncline's Columbia River Estate, Hood River Vineyards and even Maryhill to yield flavors that carry the same chalky characteristics of those grapes grown in the Loire and even Spain.

What's the deal on Illinois wine?

If you know a bit about wine you're familiar with the line of two buck chuck wines which are created from excess inventories of grapes that are not claimed by the major local wineries, but would otherwise rot on the vine if there are no takers. Include any number of non-region states that produce wine in that category. A state like Illinois produces a number of wines by buying their grapes from West Coast states like California, Oregon and Washington. You didn't think they actually grow a lot of grapes there, now did ya!? Oh-–by the way-–Idaho is also becoming a big buyer of West Coast grapes.

MWWG/Summer 2010


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