It’s an old story. A wine region becomes established, bottle prices rise, land values follow, and young or less flush producers get pushed to the fringe.
That may be a gross exaggeration, but it’s at least a viable approximation of what happened in Burgundy, Napa Valley, and other blue-chip appellations. And it’s a blueprint for what’s beginning to transpire in Oregon.
The last two decades have witnessed a surge of interest in Pinot Noir. That, plus a generational pivot toward a leaner style of wines, has resulted in the skyrocketing popularity of the Willamette Valley. This excitement has manifested in several ways: in a slew of articles praising the high quality of the area’s output; the recent investments by multiple top-tier Burgundy producers, a list that includes Jean-Nicolas Méo, Michel Lafarge, Dominique Lafon, and Jacques Lardière; and massive land grabs by big California players such as the Jackson family and Joe Wagner.
While certainly some of this investment is due to the ready presence of water and the relative value of land compared to Napa and Burgundy, a good amount of the motivation is surely linked to rising consumer interest. But whatever is driving this momentum, the result is the same: the Willamette Valley is getting more crowded, and more expensive, by the day.
Not surprisingly, this has sent a number of producers scouting farther afield. The Columbia Gorge has received considerable attention, but viticulture remains limited, as the area only accounts for around 2% of Oregon’s wine production. Southern Oregon is far more important in terms of volume (at 22%, it is second only to Willamette), and the quality of its wines has risen sharply in the last few years. This makes it an extremely attractive perch for displaced vintners or, as Willamette-based winemaker Brianne Day puts it, for those seeking to explore “Oregon beyond Pinot Noir.”
The Southern Oregon AVA (2004) is a massive chunk of land that stretches from the bottom of the Willamette Valley down to the California state line. Like its more famous neighbor to the north, it occupies the extended valley that runs between the coastal ranges (here, known as the Siskiyou Mountains) and the inland Cascades. The appellation is divided roughly in half, with the northern section centered on the Umpqua River drainage, and the southern area built around the Rogue River and its tributaries.
Though its northernmost fingers brush against the Willamette, the climate and geology of these two overarching appellations are considerably different. Speaking generally, Southern Oregon is both hotter and drier than the Willamette, many parts are higher in elevation, and the region as a whole is more mountainous in feel. This increased elevation is directly linked to the higher temperatures, as ocean fogs and breezes are simply unable to surmount the formidable peaks of the Siskiyous and penetrate inland. The rare exceptions to this are Elkton, which gains access to the ocean air via the Umpqua River drainage, and the Illinois Valley, the coolest and westernmost edge of the Rogue.
Although ocean influence is of a minimum, breezes blow regularly throughout the region. Because of this, disease pressure is low. Rainfall is also moderate, as the Siskiyous create a substantial rain shadow. That said, so-called “Willamette rains” in October are a regular threat, which can make for stressful harvest conditions. As Craig Camp of Troon Vineyards explains, “We are located between the high desert and the ocean. Those are two very big forces. The weather of the day depends on who is winning.” On most days, however, the desert holds the advantage. Southern Oregon is generally a rather hot place, with blistering summer days that cool dramatically in the evenings, often by as much as 50 degrees.
In terms of soil, variation is the rule. The confluence of the three mountain chains and multiple rivers make for a jumble of bedrocks and topsoils. Because much of this area was once under the ocean, uplifted seabed and marine sediments are common, especially closer to the coast. Many of the higher elevation sites feature decomposed sandstone and granite, with granite outcroppings especially common in the foothills of the Cascades. As the region’s many valleys trace either ancient or active river paths, their floors are rich in gravel. Alluvial deposits are found across the region and volcanic material is sprinkled throughout, yet is nearly uniform within the small Red Hills Douglas County AVA.
The sheer complexity of Southern Oregon has made the region difficult to comprehend, for consumers as well as producers. Its less than 7,000 acres of grapes are divided between dozens of varieties, with Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Syrah, Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Riesling the most prevalent. This broad selection of grapes, and their wildly different climatic preferences, is a window into the variation contained within the Southern Oregon appellation. And these disparate varieties are not neatly subdivided. Dramatic changes in elevation and aspect make for sharp shifts in microclimate. For example, though the eastern Rogue is considered the hottest reach of Southern Oregon, Irvine & Roberts Vineyards crafts excellent, if rich, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The combination of their high elevation (2,200 feet) and northeasterly aspect gives them similar heat summation to Carneros or the Russian River Valley. Meanwhile, just down the hill and around the corner, Mediterranean varieties thrive.
The Rogue Valley is situated directly north of California. Its landscape is restless, either rolling out to become hills or jumping up to make mountains, with the only flat land seemingly spread on either side of the I-5. This broad artery, which forms a seam up the entire West Coast, slices diagonally through the appellation. Along its route are the area’s only metropolises, most notably Ashland in the south, a hacky-sacking college town whose annual eight-month-long Shakespeare Festival draws a remarkable number of tourists. The overall atmosphere is rural, agricultural—studded by barns, trailers, horse farms, billboards for marijuana dispensaries, and the odd, isolated vineyard.
Driving up from the south, Taco Bell gives way to Taco Time, and the landscape begins to look a little less parched. And yet, this area, with its sunbaked hillsides, far more closely resembles Napa than the Willamette. That semblance extends to the vineyards, where the dominant varieties are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Tempranillo, and—only then—Pinot Noir.
The Rogue appellation is effectively composed of three contiguous valleys: Illinois, Bear Creek, and Applegate. The latter of these is the Rogue’s only official sub-AVA. The Illinois, closest to the coast, is the wettest and coldest. Here, many grapes have difficulty ripening, so the handful of vineyards are largely dedicated to aromatic white varieties and Pinot Noir. The Bear Creek drainage, warm and dry, lies in the east and averages only 18 inches of rain per year. This is the area that contains the I-5, and its vineyards tend to be more production-oriented, though a few quality exceptions exist. Irvine & Roberts and Weisinger are notable examples.
Irvine & Roberts in Bear Creek Valley (Photo credit: Oregon Wine Board)
Weisinger boasts a remarkably long history for the region. Their first vines were planted in 1978, and their inaugural wine was produced a decade later, at a time in which there were only five other wineries in the whole of the Rogue. The winery is currently under the care of the second generation, Eric Weisinger. Back in the 1970s, his father believed that the future of Southern Oregon lay with Gewürztraminer, a word he taught his son to pronounce using the mnemonic “girls are meaner.” Eric took over in the late '90s, and replaced much of the Gewürztraminer with Syrah, which he believed to be the future of Southern Oregon. In recollection, he seems to roll his eyes at himself. Gesturing to his now impressively diverse lineup of wines, he explains, “I no longer believe there’s any one grape for this area.”
These days, the winery produces nearly two dozen wines that range from Pinot Gris and Viognier to Tempranillo and Malbec. Because it is too hot in the Rogue to retain pyrazines, Eric buys his Sauvignon Blanc from the Umpqua. “Growers and producers are chasing their tails trying to find that one magic grape for this region. But that’s one of the great things about southern Oregon—that you can grow so many things here. But, from a marketing perspective, it is also one of the biggest challenges.”
Weisinger produces a considerable amount of wine, but none of it travels very far. “We sell 98% of our wine direct-to-consumer, most of it straight out of our tasting room,” explains Eric. This statistic seems remarkable for a place that is four and a half hours from the closest major city, but the busy I-5 provides an endless stream of clients. “We estimate that 60% of our tourists are from California, and probably 80% of them arrive by car.” While this is certainly good news for the Weisingers, it’s something of a lost opportunity for the region. Of the roughly 40 physical wineries and 80 brands in the Rogue, only a handful are of sufficient scale to be widely distributed. Weisinger is one of them, and yet opts out. This common practice is a major factor in the slow swell of Southern Oregon’s reputation. Herb Quady, of Quady North (the dry wine arm of the California sweet wine company), on the other hand, makes a point to both distribute his wines and to sell his Applegate fruit to wineries based in the Willamette. As his associate winemaker, Brian Gruber, points out, he sees it as good advertising.
The Quady winery is in the town of Medford, just over the ridge from the Applegate Valley AVA. That it occupies a former pear processing center is symbolic of the changes taking place in the area. The Applegate Valley was once carpeted in orchards; with that industry now in decline, wine grapes are taking over. Indeed, while the rest of the Rogue’s vine land is scattered and isolated, the Applegate is extensively planted, and resembles the Willamette with its gently rolling hills, striped by trellises. Inside the valley, there are no real towns to speak of. Occasionally, an intersection will offer a gas station, perhaps a deli. The locals seem an equal mix of crunchy and conservative, as evidenced by a sandwich shop’s positioning of second amendment posters next to their range of yerba mate teas.
The Applegate Valley sub-AVA occupies the middle ground between the unofficial Illinois and Bear Creek regions. The valley itself is longer and skinnier than the others; this shape in combination with its westward orientation makes for fast-moving breezes that blow throughout the day. The Applegate is especially cool at night, which favors acid retention, and the soils are primarily river deposits, a combination of clay, loam, and silt mixed with varying amounts of rock.
Though they focus on the Applegate, Quady tends vines throughout Southern Oregon. This has given them ample opportunity to directly compare the two regions. “Applegate Valley is more like the Northern Rhône for us. Viognier and Syrah do quite well, as it’s cooler. The Bear Creek Valley is a bit warmer, so we grow our Grenache there,” explains Brian Gruber. “The actual temperature difference is not that wide, only a few degrees, but sometimes that is all it takes for one grape to succeed better in one place than another.”
Indeed, Rhône and Mediterranean varieties seem to perform especially well in the Rogue as a whole. Within the Bordeaux camp, Malbec and Merlot shine, but later-ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon are inconsistent. “The biggest challenge to farming here is the truncated growing window, as the shoulder seasons are dominated by frost,” Barbara Steele of Cowhorn explains. Barbara is a former economist who specialized in the financial modeling of organic farms. She ended up in the Applegate after her search to find affordable land with available water in California proved fruitless. The Cowhorn estate is nestled against a mountain at the southernmost edge of the region, a particularly cool spot with roughly 25% less light than her neighbors. “We had to design our farming to maximize ripeness,” she admits.
The Cowhorn estate in the Applegate Valley AVA (Photo credit: Oregon Wine Board)
Troon, one of the region’s more historic wineries, is located at a wider spot in the valley. It was established in 1972 but today is run by two Napa Valley expats, Craig Camp (formerly of Cornerstone) and Steve Hall (formerly of Robert Biale). While their site is not quite as marginal as Cowhorn, they find the growing conditions challenging but also compelling. “Yes, it’s a truncated season, but we also have more daylight hours during the summer. Then, in October, the daylight hours drop dramatically. It’s honestly startling, but as it’s still warm, you get flavor development, while the low light makes for limited photosynthesis,” Craig Camp explains. “We end up making wines that are more European in weight, higher in acid, and with less fruit-forward aromatics.”
Barbara Steele, Craig Camp, and Steve Hall did not just come to Southern Oregon for the style of the wines—they also came chasing liberty. “I knew I wanted to exploit ‘creative farming,’” Barbara explains. “To farm biodynamically, cultivate other crops, employ porous borders for wildlife.” And while these things are not impossible in California, the low disease pressure, relative isolation, and lower land costs of Southern Oregon ease their viability. Similarly, Steve felt he had to leave behind the “Napa edifice” to grow as a winemaker. As Craig explains, “When you are paying over $20,000 a ton for Cabernet, there’s no room for creativity, no room for risk.” Both men are especially proud of the skin-contact Riesling Hall makes from a patch of old, dry-farmed vines. Knowing they couldn’t craft a classically styled Riesling to compete with those coming out of the Willamette Valley, they took the orange tack. Gleefully, the two men report that it sells like hotcakes in Portland. “If I tried to make an orange wine in Napa,” Steve chuckles, “they would have fired me.”
The drive north from the Rogue to the Umpqua is harrowing. The normally formidable I-5 narrows and contorts, cutting a crimped path around the high hills. With hazards flashing, large trucks struggle to ascend and then frantically pass each other on the way back down. The highway forms long loops through the mountains; taken at top speed, the effect is centrifugal. Inside cars, bodies and belongings sway from side to side in a protracted slow dance, an effect that would almost be soothing were it not so nauseating. At some point along the way, golden grasses transform into thick forests of Douglas firs. Tall, mighty, and forever green, they seem to announce that—at last—you have entered the real northwest.
The Umpqua Valley AVA is vast and varied, but cultivation is limited. Of its nearly 700,000 acres, less than 3,000 are under vine, mostly clustered around the town of Roseburg. The number of wineries is also spare, and it is a well-known but little-discussed fact that much of the area’s fruit is shipped north to pad Willamette Valley blends. Though it is difficult to generalize about such a broad span of land, the Umpqua can be thought of as a kind of middle ground between the Willamette (to which it is higher, warmer, and drier) and the Rogue (to which it is lower, cooler, and greener). Granite is rare here; instead, the main soil types are marine and stream sediments, with volcanic rock concentrated in the east. Reflective of the somewhat cooler climate, the dominant variety of the region is Pinot Noir, with Pinot Gris, Tempranillo, Syrah, Merlot, and Chardonnay present in diminishing amounts.
The Umpqua region is of critical importance to the story of Oregon wine, as it was here, and not in the Willamette, that the state's first Pinot Noir vines were planted. Richard Sommer was the visionary behind this move, and his winery, Hillcrest Vineyards, remains the state's oldest operating winery. But today, the flagship winery of the Umpqua is Abacela. Though it was only established in the mid-1990s, the winery and its founder, Earl Jones, are true pioneers of the region. Earl was the first to plant and bottle many varieties in Oregon, a list that includes Tempranillo, Tannat, Albariño, and Grenache. He has imported vine material directly from Europe, thereby increasing the available clones, and has shared this budwood with a number of wineries. The almost immediate success of his Tempranillo brought attention not only to the variety, which is now widely planted across the state, but to the Umpqua Valley. Earl was also the author of the Southern Oregon AVA, an appellation that unifies the Rogue and the Umpqua into a single whole—his attempt at simplifying the messaging and marketing for these two oft-overlooked regions.
When Earl Jones was working as a medical resident in San Francisco, his love of wine was only outsized by his debts. With little excess cash to spend, he learned to pass over Bordeaux and Burgundy in favor of the relatively affordable wines from Spain. He developed a special affection for Tempranillo, and soon drank his way “up the tree, right up to Vega Sicilia.” Decades later, after a long career as a physician and professor, Earl brought his passions full-circle and decided to build an American winery dedicated to his favorite Iberian grape. Knowing that he couldn’t bring Spanish soil to the US, he focused instead on matching climate. He gathered weather data from Tempranillo regions both fine (Ribera del Duero, Toro) and coarse (Valencia, La Mancha); determined what he believed to be the ideal combination of heat summation, length of growing season, and diurnal swing; and began systematically searching the United States for the closest approximation.
“My first thought was New Mexico, but there was too much frost risk and the heat was the wrong shape. California’s growing season is too long for Tempranillo, which can make for baked fruit, so I ruled that out. I liked the climate in Boise and Walla Walla, but both carried too much risk of severe winter cold, and Tempranillo is sensitive. Then I turned to Oregon. Willamette was simply too cold, but Umpqua had those blistering summer days that Tempranillo likes, as well as the cool nights. Of course, the Rogue has all that as well, but the elevation there is too extreme, and the annual risk of frost shortens the growing season to an unsuitable length.”
Earl purchased his slice of the Umpqua in 1992, ordered Tempranillo from UC Davis (much to the amusement of the nurserymen, who openly laughed), and produced his first commercial vintage in 1997. The high quality of the wines sparked a mini-revolution in the state, and Tempranillo plantings have been steadily rising ever since. Abacela, which makes four different versions of Tempranillo, also makes a point to distribute the wines beyond the local market and to participate in national and international competitions. This has certainly helped spread the word about Oregon Tempranillo, and is probably part of the reason why the Umpqua is the (albeit slightly) better known of the two sections of Southern Oregon.
Terry Brandborg is another California escapee. After a few years of home-winemaking in his Bay Area garage, he produced his first commercial vintage in 1986. From that day until 2001, Terry crafted a range of California wines, mostly Pinot Noir and Riesling, sourced from as far away as Bien Nacido and the Anderson Valley. When he and his wife, Sue, decided that they wanted to own and farm their own vineyard, their lives changed course. “We searched California from top to bottom, but never found anything right in terms of price and appeal.” In 2000, they decided to check out Oregon. While making their way to the Willamette, they stopped at Abacela for what they thought would be a casual tasting. There, they met Earl Jones, who listened intently to their story. “He said, ‘I’m here for the Iberian varieties. But if you’re into cool climate stuff, you ought to check out Elkton. That area’s making some great aromatic whites.’” It took a year for Terry and Sue to get there, but by 2002, they had purchased a property, built a winery and tasting room, and moved their entire operation north.
Elkton is something of an anomalous region in Southern Oregon. It occupies the northwest corner of the Umpqua Valley, close to where the river meets the ocean. Because the Umpqua heads west and drains through a gap in the mountains, Pacific weather is able to reach particularly far inland. Here, the soils are mostly marine sediments, rain is considerable (55 to 60 inches compared to inland Umpqua’s annual 25 to 30), and fog is a regular occurrence. As this is the only segment of Southern Oregon to experience daily fog, its reach was the basis for the appellation’s borders, as determined by Terry Brandborg in conjunction with Greg Jones, a professional geologist and Earl’s son.
“When Earl got the Southern Oregon AVA passed, he turned to me and said, ‘I don’t expect this will help you much,’” Terry recalls. None of the elements that bind the other sections of Southern Oregon—the high daytime temperatures, the elevation, the dry conditions—apply here. The place even looks distinct, reminding Terry of the Anderson Valley. Only, not Anderson Valley today but Anderson Valley in the 1960s. “Elkton only has around 170 people—and 150 acres of grapes. This area used to be the biggest shipper of lumber in the country until the whole Spotted Owl thing, and a lot of the land is still tied up in trees and cattle,” Terry explains. Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer have been grown in the area since 1972, but Brandborg is the first broadly distributed brand. “We are the only truly coastal region within the entire Umpqua Valley,” says Terry. “Our identity is unique.”
This tiny AVA was granted in large part to recognize the uniquely uniform concentration of red-stained volcanic Jory soil that defines the region. It is a high elevation site that ranges from 800 to 1,200 feet above sea level and is predominately planted to Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Viticulture dates back to 1876, but today, vines only cover 460 acres of land. The appellation does not currently contain any wineries.
“Back when my dad was making wine, I don’t think there was a professionally trained winemaker in all of Southern Oregon,” Eric Weisinger admits. “Everyone was just trying to emulate Bordeaux, picking early, like, 22 Brix.” Later on, when the winery was newly under his care, he amped up both the ripeness and the new oak. “But I’m backing off that now,” he says. Today, the wines at Weisinger display remarkable finesse, and Eric seems to do both elegant whites and burly reds equally well—an admirable feat.
Concurrent to Eric’s evolution as a winemaker, outsiders with impressive resumes began trickling in to the Rogue and the Umpqua. Vince Vidrine of Irvine & Roberts came straight from Domaine Serene in the Willamette, and Cowhorn, Troon, Quady, and Brandborg are being run by Californians. All of these outside eyes seemed to broaden the collective perspective of the region, and quality jumped appreciably. When discussing the change in management at Troon, Barbara Steele comments, “That Craig Camp’s got chops. He’s bringing a Napa-level intensity to the Applegate.”
Meanwhile, southern grapes continue to make their way to Willamette, but their reception is starting to change. Instead of being blended away, an increasing amount of the fruit is being purchased by a new wave of producers that want to celebrate its origin. Stacey Gibson, sommelier for Park Avenue Wines in Portland, believes that it’s often these “northern” producers that are introducing city sommeliers to the wines of Southern Oregon. She also feels that the wines have an important role to play in urban wine lists. “Jackalope Cabernet Franc, Abacela Tempranillo, Cowhorn Syrah, Day Tannat—These are hand-sells but are perfect when people don’t want Pinot Noir but still want to drink local.”
Brianne Day of Day Wines is based in Dundee and has been purchasing fruit from Herb Quady since 2013; Applegate fruit now accounts for 30 to 40% of her production. She works with a slew of oddball varieties that range from Vermentino and Malvasia Bianca to Tannat. When asked if she thought any particular one shined, she deflected, “I don’t know that the region’s figured itself out yet, and that’s part of the attraction to me. The Willamette has solved all of its mysteries. And I like unsolved things.” I suggested that the fruit might be less expensive, but she quickly corrected me. “It was cheaper the first few years, but now there’s such a fruit glut in Willamette that the prices are about the same.” That said, land is considerably less dear. “If I was ever to own a vineyard, I would be priced out of Willamette. I would look to buy in either Applegate or the Gorge.”
But that diversity that Day references, the creative freedom that Steve Hall treasures, it has a dark side. The limitless possibility of a blank slate can easily give way to the chaos of a kitchen sink, if no restrictions are in place. I tasted at a handful of wineries, and almost all of them produced an overwhelming number of wines. Not only did the portfolios lack focus, quality was typically uneven. The overall impression was that the wineries were attempting to create something for everyone, which is nearly impossible to do at a uniformly high level. In this regard, a little self-editing would go a long way, both in the winery and in the vineyard. But, as Barbara Steele pointed out, Southern Oregon is still very much a work in progress. “Like many regions, the pioneers come in and plant mostly by market considerations. It’s the second and third generations that are able to plant appropriately.” In the meantime, a little cherry-picking is in order. Luckily for tradespeople and consumers alike, quality options abound.
My tastings through Southern Oregon were nowhere near comprehensive, and surely many great wines were missed. Nonetheless, here are some brief descriptions of the more successful wines I sampled.
Weisinger’s 2017 rosé of Grenache was the best rosé I tried. It was pale copper in color, bright and crisp on the palate, with a salty finish and just a touch of orange-rind bitterness. The Viognier and Gewürztraminer (both 2015) were also excellent, as both examples possessed the necessary precision to forestall the grapes’ more blousy tendencies. The Gewürztraminer was very close to dry (7 grams residual sugar), and its fruit profile recalled tangerines and white peaches. The Viognier was characteristically floral and was richer than the Gewürztraminer, likely due to the higher alcohol (14%) and the six months of barrel aging on the lees it received. Of their many reds, the 2015 Tempranillo, Merlot, and Malbec were the stars. The Tempranillo was round and brazen, with a deep purple hue and smoky finish. The Malbec was bright and snappy, with a soft center of black and blueberries. The Merlot was my favorite, constructed in a very classic style that recalled a good entry-level Pomerol. It had a subtly gamey, floral nose, good structure, and a chalky finish. Sadly, Weisinger is discontinuing this wine as it is too difficult to sell.
The highlights of the Irvine & Roberts portfolio are their Pinot Noirs, of which they produce several. The entry-level 2015 Rogue Valley Pinot Noir is made from their youngest vines. This feels like a warmer-climate Pinot Noir, but though the fruit is big, rich, and dark, the wine retains enough freshness to avoid feeling heavy. The individual clone bottlings were fun, and in keeping with the known profile of their scions. The 2016 777 Block was pure black cherry juice, with a lush texture and creamy tannins. The 2015 115 Block was much brighter, offering a big hit of acid, redder fruits, and superior energy. The 2016 Pinot Meunier (a still red wine) was also enjoyable. It was particularly savory, with a nose of blood and crushed flowers, a coating palate, and a finish evocative of spiced citrus.
The tasting at Cowhorn was one of the more memorable, likely because their portfolio of wines seemed to have a thesis: Rhône varieties. The 2017 Spiral 36 (a blend of Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne) was exceptional. It boasted all the warm and generous layers typical of white Rhône grapes but with an added snap from the vineyard’s cool microclimate. They also produce several Syrah bottlings. The 2014 Sentience was a light-hearted wine—big, juicy, primary, and purple, while the 2014 Syrah 8 (named for the number of frost hours in the year) was deeper, less high-toned, more brooding. The 2015 Grenache 53 was also gorgeous. Light on its feet and elegant in build, it offered a subtle nose of turned earth, wild strawberries, and leather.
Troon’s 2017 estate Vermentino was pretty and fresh, with a nose of golden apples, cardamom, coriander, and sea air. The 2017 Cuvée Rolle, Vermentino co-fermented with 10% Marsanne, was even better. It was deeper, more floral, with greater concentration and a long, salty finish. The 2017 Kubli Bench Blanc (a co-ferment of Marsanne and Viognier) is rich but lively, with a floral, slightly smoky nose and a pleasantly bitter finish. Their 2017 Whole Grape Ferment Riesling was fun, easy to drink, and characterful. This wine was only lightly orange, with color like weak tea. The palate was tangy and dusty, replete with savory tones and a dusty finish. Of the reds, I preferred the 2016 Cuvée Cot Malbec and the 2017 Zinfandel. The Malbec was juicy and bouncy, offering a mouth of tart blue fruits, black pepper, and silky tannins. The use of oak was judicious, and the overall wine was quite charming. The Zinfandel was also very vibrant. Lighter in body than the Malbec, it offered a nose of raspberry, cranberry, and dried leaves. The palate showed almost no tannin but showcased lots of firm acid. At 14.5%, it was the highest alcohol wine in the bunch, and yet felt very contained in the mouth.
Abacela focuses on Tempranillo but opens its arms to all manner of Iberian varieties. The 2017 Grenache Rosé was simple but tasty, made from dedicated grapes that were whole-cluster pressed. The 2014 Tempranillo South East Block Reserve was the meatiest Abacela Tempranillo I tried. This was a savory, spicy wine, raised only in French oak, with modest acid and chewy tannins. The Tannat (2015) was especially lovely. This was a dark and fleshy wine, with a fine line of acid moving through the palate, tamed tannins, and great concentration and intensity. An older vintage of Albariño, 2013, was another delight. This wine was just starting to take on some petrol notes with age, which melded nicely with the otherwise lemon/lime/floral tones. An electric, enticing wine.
At Quady, I only tried unfinished wine from barrel. Overall, the quality was high, with Syrah standing out as their top variety. A 2015 Ovum Off the Grid Riesling, ordered in a Portland restaurant, was oily and floral. Had I not known its varietal identity, I might have assumed it was Viognier. Still, an interesting wine from the Illinois Valley of the Rogue. Brianne Day’s offerings cover a broad spectrum of wine and wine types. Her 2017 Mamacita pét-nat of Vermentino, Early Muscat, and Orange Muscat was a joy to drink. Only lightly sparkling, this fruity and floral wine was redolent of peaches and tangerines. The 2014 TNT Tannat was firm and upright, if a bit simple, with dark flavors of cooked blackberries and bramble. And her 2017 Babycheeks, a rosé of Tannat and Malbec, was full of berry fruit and watermelon.
The Brandborg wines, from the Elkton region, were a wonderful discovery. I was especially fond of their Riesling and Gewürztraminer (both 2015). The Riesling was only lightly sweet, with a proper nose of wet stone, white flowers, and lime skin. The palate was bracing and racy, with only a whisper of sugar. The Gewürztraminer was also impressive, though less taut than the Riesling. This was a modestly contained example of the variety, with rich fruity flesh of nectarine, roses, and lychee. Of their Pinot Noirs, the 2015 Hundredth Valley Vineyard was the best, with shy cherry fruit, a lifted nose, and firm acidic structure on the palate.
Thanks to Christina DeArment and especially MW Bree Boskov of the Oregon Wine Board for assistance in researching this article.
What a wonderful write-up on a region so near and dear to my heart!So thrilled that what Vince is doing at Irvine and Roberts is being noticed by the community. I would easily challenge their Pinot Noir against some of the best in both Willamette and Burgundy.I think the biggest hurdle for this region is producing enough wine to market itself as real quality regions. Irvine and Roberts, Cowhorn... they dont have a lot of acres under vine. So while they produce phenomenal wines at great value I fear they cant reach enough consumers outside state lines. Another issue with the region has to do with the recent legalization of recreational marijuana. A great deal of viable farmland is being bought up to grow. I would like to see what impact this has on any ideas of expanding in vineyard size? I know land prices there have skyrocketed in the last 5 years.
Thanks for taking the time to reply.
Yes, sub-AVAs can be confusing to consumers even for well-known regions like Napa Valley. So they can definitely be informational noise in up-and-coming regions. I think the producers are well aware of this. Just look at the broader AVA Southern Oregon. It was created AFTER the majority of the subregions, which is opposite to the usual trajectory.
Thanks Kelli! I had the opportunity to be at TEXSOM this past summer and attended a seminar by Liz Thach MW about Southern Oregon. We tasted some exciting wines and your article really pulls back the curtain even more on this promising region. One question; Are you ever concerned with the growing number of AVA's in areas and how it can overwhelm the consumer and backfire? I ask because I have a 600 SKU bottle wine list which attracts well informed consumers but Sub AVA's are usually only mentioned by others in the trade. Thanks for always delivering informative articles delivered in manner that is always enjoyable to read.