(May 2017) The wineries of Southern Oregon have always held a special place in my heart because I have been visiting them for two decades. Ever since most of my relatives left California in the early 1990’s to move to Medford, I have made many trips to the area. Each time we have visited the charming towns of Jacksonville, Ashland, and, of course, the wineries of the Rogue and Applegate Valleys.
In the beginning there were not that many wineries, but today there are more than 120 in Southern Oregon. The landscape is delightful with rolling hills, streams, and great swaths of green verdant vineyards. The wineries themselves are small, and housed in charming old houses, barns, or other unique structures. There are innovative wine tourism options, such as wine and rafting or wine and hiking. Each valley makes a fun day trip for wine tourists, but also makes for a great week long vacation if you want to visit all of the major appellations (AVAs).
A Tasting of Southern Oregon Wine in Portland
Because it was too far to drive to Southern, Oregon – a good five-hour drive south of Portland, a contingent of the Southern Oregon wineries kindly came to meet us in Portland at a conference facility called Flexspace.
A panel of four winemakers and Doug Frost, MW/MS as moderator explained what makes Southern Oregon so unique and allowed us to taste 16 delicious wines.
Key Facts about the Southern Oregon Wine Region
We learned there are 6 AVAs in Southern Oregon, with the oldest established in 1984 and the most recent in 2013. They are as follows:
- Umpqua Valley AVA (1984) – coolest region
- Rogue Valley AVA (1991) – warmer region
- Applegate AVA (2001) – warmer region
- Red Hill Douglas County AVA (2005)
- Southern Oregon AVA (2005) –encompassing all the other AVAs
- Elkton Oregon AVA (2013) – small AVA within Umpqua Valley
With a warmer climate than the Willamette Valley, many Southern Oregon wineries have the opportunity to ripen varieties such as tempranillo, malbec, and Rhone whites like viognier, roussane and marsanne. At the same time, they still plant cooler climate varieties such as gewürztraminer and pinot noir, because as many vintners there will tell you – “Tourists known that Oregon is known for pinot noir, so they ask for it. Because of this, we grow it.”
But the pinot noir from Southern Oregon is different than that of the Willamette Valley – which is to be expected. It is generally more concentrated with larger tannins and riper flavors. For me personally, they are more reminiscent of wines from the Cote de Beaune villages of St. Aubin, St. Romain and sometimes, Pommard. Whereas, Willamette has the elegance and crisp acidity of some of the Cote de Nuits wines.
Altogether Southern Oregon wineries farm over 6000 acres of vineyards, producing 70% red and 30% white grapes. The largest production is pinot noir at 40%, syrah at 6%, and tempranillo at 5%.
The Dilemma of Too Much Diversity
Because they produce more than 70 different types of grape varieties, Southern Oregon vintners profess that they are masters of diversity. “We don’t have a signature varietal….We believe in diversity….We don’t want to be fenced in.”
However, one of the members of our group challenged the panel on this position. “But if don’t have something that you’re known for, how will you attract attention?” asked one MW. “Just because you advertise a signature grape or two, doesn’t mean you can’t make other types of wine as well. For example, Napa Valley makes zinfandel and chardonnay, as well as cabernet sauvignon, but they attract the most attention and highest prices for cabernet sauvignon. What is it that Southern Oregon does very well?”
Favorite Wines of the Tasting
In order to answer this question, the simplest process for a new wine region is to keep track of which types of wines win the most awards and receive the highest ratings. At the end of our tasting of 16 wines, the panel asked the MWs to provide feedback. Interestingly the wines that received the most positive feedback were Rhone varietals: syrah and viognier. Following are some of my top scoring wines:
- 2015 Kriselle Viognier
- 2015 Quady North Viognier
- 2013 Quady North Mae’s Vineyard Syrah
- 2013 Cowhorn Reserve Syrah
- 2013 Abacela Reserve Tempranillo – this was one of my favorites, but many others thought it had too much oak
The dilemma of a signature grape is an interesting one. On the one hand, it helps a region to be known for something and attract more tourists. But if the signature grape is not selling well on the market, then it is difficult to make a living producing wine. With syrah and viognier not doing so well in the US market, it is much more tempting to produce Oregon pinot noir, which sells quite well!
Perhaps Southern Oregon should focus on pinot noir, and celebrate how different it is than the pinot noir made in the Willamette. Then also continue to make the complex syrahs, tempranillos, and white Rhones that also taste very delicious, as well as the tempranillos, albarinos, gewurtraminers, etc.