Delight is in the details — Oregon AVA terroir on the edges

Judith Papesh
Wine Education grey Dot Regions & Terroir grey Dot

Oregon AVA terroir on the edges? That means its so good, we share it with other states


Pinot, Pinot, Pinot, p-lease give it a rest, some of you may say. Time to reset the GPS and head north and east to explore the Oregon AVA terroir on the edges of Washington and Idaho. A full slate of grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Sauvignon blanc, and even Gewürztraminer all thrive. Now that’s some terroir!

On the borders

In addition to the AVAs that extend north to south on the Pacific side of the state, there are fantastic growing areas in shared AVAs with Washington and Idaho. Vastly different from the vineyards locked in a struggle with the Pacific, these eastern vineyards are in a continental climate with hot, dry summers and cold winters.

Columbia Gorge AVA

The Columbia Gorge AVA is fascinating for many reasons. Its east-west orientation, wild winds, and extreme climate variation make it, unlike any place you have seen. Split by the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon, the Columbia Gorge AVA has a transitional climate. The western end near the Cascade Mountains is cooler and wetter with a marine-influenced environment. The eastern end is a high, dry, continental desert. Along its length, vineyard elevations can vary from sea level to 2,000 feet, impacting growing season temperatures.

The Columbia River Gorge is famous for windsurfing, with steady winds averaging 10-20 miles per hour. These winds also cool and dry the vineyards. 

This climate variability makes the Columbia Gorge AVA a place where many varietals thrive. Wines are typically riper than other cooler AVAs yet have higher acidity and structure than warmer AVAs in the east.

Columbia Valley AVA

The Columbia Valley AVA is an enormous 11 million acres (4.5 million ha) of land, primarily in Washington State. More than 9,000 acres of wine grapes are planted, resulting in many wines. The Oregon portion stretches east from The Dalles to Milton-Freewater along the river. This AVA has a hot, high desert climate with cold nights that help grapes retain natural acidity. Soils combine Missoula Flood deposits and wind-blown loess, both well-drained and excellent for many different grapes.

Walla Walla Valley AVA

The Walla Walla Valley is a shared AVA with Washington that produces some of the most noteworthy wines in the world. While Oregon is home to ⅓ of the designated AVA, it is the state’s warmest AVA. Lacking a persistent wind from the Pacific to moderate temperatures, grapes fully ripened in this warm AVA. Vineyard sites, up to 2,000 feet, combined with a significant diurnal shift, ensure the grapes retain vital acidity. Ripe fruit with good acidity produces classic, structured, and long aging wines.

There is a complex geologic history here, giving rise to four primary soil types:

  • Loess deposits over Missoula flood deposits
  • Thick loess layers over basalt bedrock
  • Thin loess layers over basalt bedrock
  • Basalt cobblestone gravels

The loess and cobblestones are well-drained soils, and the cobblestones radiate warmth to the vine canopy at night. The warm growing season, different micro-climates, and excellent soils lead to fully ripe, complex, and full-bodied wines.

The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA

The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is nested inside the Walla Walla Valley AVA and is one of the most compelling wine regions in the state. Enjoying the overall warm summer and low rainfall of the broader Walla Walla AVA, the terroir head-turner is soil.

The “Rocks” AVA references the basalt cobbles and pebbles deposited as an alluvial fan between the Blue Mountains and valley floor. This AVA is the only one the United States defined by a single landform (alluvial fan) and a single soil series (Freewater). Extraordinarily rocky and well-drained, vines must root deeply to survive. The dark cobblestones radiate heat that moderates extreme overnight temperatures extending the spring and fall growing seasons. 

Wines from the “Rocks” have a perfumed bouquet with powerful, rich, ripe black fruits, tannin, and structure. Possessing an undeniable finesse and complexity, these are wines to seek.

Snake River Valley AVA

The Snake River Valley AVA is on the border of a larger growing area in Idaho. While Oregon wine production is limited, the AVA has excellent potential with high elevation vineyards, hot summer days, and cold nights. A significant diurnal shift produces wines with ripe flavors and good acidity.


Learn more about Oregon wines

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About Judith Papesh

Retired Winemaker, Winemaking Consultant, and Washington State Licensed Geologist. Bourgogne Master Level Certification, French, Italian, and Spanish Wine Scholar Certifications

In the first class to complete Washington State University (WSU) Extension Enology Certification, Judith opened her winery, crafting wines that garnered local and international acclaim before turning her attention to studying and educating about the world's wines. "Winemaking is very much an art as well as a science; it is a consuming passion that drives you during the day, keeps you up at night, and when the wine is right, simply leaves you breathless."