All About AVAs: American Viticultural Areas in Oregon

Robert Mathias

8 April 2024

Introduction to Oregon

Oregon is one of the fastest developing areas for top quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay anywhere in the world. Since 2005, the number of vineyards has almost doubled. No other region has such a high concentration of Burgundians outside of Burgundy, with more and more foreign investment pouring in.

It was David Lett who first planted Pinot Noir in the Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, back in 1965. This signalled the start of a new era of quality focused production and cool climate variety specialism. The Oregon wine trade also benefited from long-sighted land use laws in the 1960s and 1970s which limited the development of residential buildings in agricultural areas.

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Oregon’s Willamette Valley

Oregon’s first AVA (American Viticultural Area) was the Willamette Valley which was designated in 1983. It has become the most important wine producing area in the state, now representing 69% of the vineyard area. Located just 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean protected by the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Coastal Range mountains to the west, it provides the ideal climate for growing cool climate varieties. At more than a hundred miles long from north to south, there are important differences in growing area and terroir within the valley.

Thus, over time, the Willamette Valley has been divided into a further eleven AVAs, or sub-regions. As Pinot Noir and Chardonnay specialists, and with significant Burgundian influence, parallels are inevitably drawn between the Côte d’Or and the Willamette Valley. While there are more differences than there are similarities between the two regions, the question remains – what role do the current AVAs play in understanding the region’s wines for both producers and consumers, and how could this develop over time?

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Willamette Valley

The Role of AVAs in Oregon

AVAs, just like appellations in traditional regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy, can be formed as much by political and economic impulses as they are by the land’s propensity to produce distinct wines. Nicolas Quillé MW of Archery Summit in the Dundee Hills has explained that soil is not in fact usually the defining factor when AVAs are formed. More often than not, it is a few like-minded producers who group together to raise the profile of their wines both in terms of quality recognition and potential monetary value. Indeed, Mimi Casteel of Hope Well Wines, holds a similar point of view, viewing the AVA system as a useful tool for producers to help market their wines.

At the moment, AVAs are more a reflection of human and agro-political forces than they are a reflection of specific soil types. With more money coming into the region, these forces are likely to intensify and as the region develops economically and increases in recognition and expertise, it is natural that more and more attention is paid to defining specific regions and places. The current AVAs represent a starting point in understanding the way humans farm this land, and it will be time that will ultimately prove the strength of particular plots or designations.

While there are some AVAs, such as Ribbon Ridge and the Dundee Hills which due to their smaller size have a more homogenous soil profile, there are other AVAs which contain many diverse aspects, soils, and elevations. It can therefore be almost impossible to generalise about what an AVA represents.

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Getting into the detail

The volcanic basalt soils which have made the Willamette Valley famous have different degrees of weathering depending on location and elevation. The historic lava flows did not form neat rectangles which mean the soils can change dramatically within appellations (and even within vineyards). While comparisons with Burgundy are made frequently as this is the frame of reference for top-quality Pinot, the soils could not be more different. Felipe Ramirez, winemaker of Rose & Arrow, speaks of the volcanic basalt terroir of the Willamette valley as a “system” which contributes energy and warmth to the wines.

By contrast, the limestone soils of the Côte d’Or form a growing environment for the vines that tends to cooler, more humid conditions. Felipe speaks of the need in Oregon to find ways to maintain the finesse and elegance in the wine in a system that can easily amplify warmth. Thus, at Rose & Arrow, Felipe works with sites at higher elevation, normally without westerly exposure and with a pruning system that keeps enough shade on the bunches. In the winery, the aim is again to preserve freshness and delicacy from a terroir that can amplify every action. Thus, extraction is made by infusion and new oak use is kept to no more than 20% even for the top wines. Rose & Arrow make wines from various different AVAs in the Willamette Valley, but their focus is only on farming isolated polygons of basalt – something that the current AVA designations cannot transmit. Therefore, while they do use the AVA designation on the back label, for the moment at least these designations are too generic to be of much use.

With five new AVAs created since 2019, it is clear this is a fast-developing topic - it is an immensely exciting time to be making wine in Oregon. As more focus is given to site specific wines in the future, there will be greater discussion and further division of existing regions. With so many new projects being created, and new vineyards being planted, it feels like the initial understanding of the AVA system is now being stretched.

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Willamette Valley AVAs

AVAs within the Willamette Valley

Chehalem Mountains

Est. 2006
Vines planted – 1076ha

Dundee Hills

Est. 2005
Vines planted

Eola-Amity Hills – 900ha

Est. 2006
Vines planted – 1238ha


Est. 2005
Vines planted – 304ha

Ribbon Ridge

Est. 2005
Vines planted – 263ha


Est. 2005
Vines planted – 1052ha

Van Duzer Corridor

Est. 2019
Vines planted – 405ha

Laurelwood District

Est. 2020
Vines planted – 395ha

Tualatin Hills

Est. 2020
Vines planted – 408ha

Lower Long Tom

Est. 2021
Vines planted – 233ha

Mt Pisgah, Polk County

Est. 2022
Vines planted – 277ha

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Some AVAs can be more predictable than others, while some have a great deal of variation of soils, climate, and elevation. Conditions at the end of the Van Duzer Corridor around the Eola-Amity Hills and McMinnville are cooler, due to the proximity and cooling influence of the Pacific.

However, within the Eola-Amity Hills for example, while the main soil type is volcanic basalt, to the eastern side of the AVA there is a higher concentration of sedimentary soils and alluvial deposits. These more sedimentary soils of the east are generally more westerly exposed. By contrast, the westerly basaltic soils tend to have a more easterly exposure. This results in remarkably different wines since the vineyards with westerly exposure will feel the warmth of the long afternoon sun resulting in riper, slightly bigger wines...

By contrast, the easterly exposed vines feel the cool Pacific breeze more intensely.

Sashi Moorman of Evening Land, who owns the Seven Springs vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills looks for wines built on tension and salinity. The vineyard wakes with the morning sun and cool Pacific breezes which ensures a high level of freshness in the wines. On the other hand, Yamhill-Carlton AVA which is an AVA more sheltered from the Pacific breezes by the Coastal Range, with a marine sedimentary soil, tends to produce slightly riper and broader style than the cooler McMinnville or Eola-Amity Hills AVAs.

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The AVA System: The Quality Pyramid

The AVA system does help to set out a clear quality pyramid for producers and consumers which can help set expectations of quality. The broadest being Oregon (although this is normally if entry-level quality), then the Willamette Valley, before sub-regions of the valley, and single vineyards within the sub-regions. Naturally, the more limited wines defined by sub-region offer a more specific sense of place, and at the top of the pyramid are single vineyard offerings which have become some of the most sought-after wines of the area. Due to the small scale of many wineries – 70% of wineries in Oregon produce fewer than 5000 cases a year – the entry point of Willamette Valley wines is already quite premium at around $20-30 dollars a bottle. While this helps set out a range structure for many producers, there is a lot of variation between producers depending on their objective, their access to land or fruit, and also between sub-regions.

There is a degree of chicken and egg to more site specific designations. Each AVA needs its champion producers around which more support is galvanised. The quality pyramid is becoming more established, and as demand for specific producers, specific AVAs, and specific vineyards continues to grow it is likely that further specificity in sub-region designations will follow.

However, greater delineation of sub-regions is not the only answer. Mimi Casteel believes that viticultural practices will have to adapt to changes in climate, and to reflect their own sense of place most clearly. As in Burgundy, viticultural practices can help define and impact a region’s future on the fine wine stage. With so much quality on offer, and the premiers crus and grands crus, to briefly borrow from the Burgundian lexicon, of the region still being discovered and mapped, the future of Oregon is very exciting for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay lovers alike.

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Recommended Producers

Rose & Arrow


Lingua Franca

Domain Douhin Oregon


Nicholas Jay

Eyrie Vineyards

Domaine Serene

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Robert’s Top Picks

2021 Evening Land (Seven Springs), Summum Chardonnay, Eola-Amity Hills: buy here

2018 Nicolas Jay, L'Ensemble Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley: buy here

2020 Rose & Arrow, Hopewell Hills, Eola-Amity Hills: buy here

2021 Cristom, Mt. Jefferson Cuvee Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley: buy here

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