If Saul Steinberg still were alive and commissioned to draw a map of Oregon’s wine regions, it just might feature the northern Willamette Valley broad and deep in the foreground, with the rest of the state fading in the distant background.
In 1976, that’s the way he famously pictured the United States as seen from New York’s Ninth Avenue, an amusing and enduring bit of artful license.
While vintners in the Chehalem Mountains, the Dundee Hills and other wine enclaves of the upper Willamette Valley southwest of Portland would be tickled by the Steinbergian perspective, other members of Oregon’s far-flung, colorful and diverse wine trade wouldn’t be so delighted. That includes the grape growers and winemakers of southern Oregon, a large and varied landscape better known for the apples and pears of Harry & David, steelhead fishing on the Rogue River, and Shakespearean plays in Ashland.
Nevertheless, southern Oregon, an officially designated American Viticultural Area since 2004, is home to about 100 wineries and 3,000 acres of vines spread through a vast and rugged terrain encompassing the Rogue, Umpqua, Illinois and Applegate valleys, stretching from Ashland north to Roseburg.
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“It’s a totally legit wine area,” says Herb Quady, scion of a long-established winemaking family in California’s Central Valley who a decade ago saw more potential in southern Oregon than the flatlands of Madera County for the kinds of wines he wanted to make, thus his winery Quady North.
Historically and pragmatically, the epicenter for exploring the region is the old gold camp of Jacksonville, Ore., just off Interstate 5 about 5 miles west of Medford and 17 miles northwest of Ashland, home to Quady North and numerous other wineries. The town is so serene that herds of deer mosey right into its business district well before residents retire for the night, even during outdoor concerts of the summer-long Britt Festival.
Jacksonville also is home to the nearly weeklong Southern Oregon World of Wine Festival each August, which in addition to tastings includes a wine competition. That was my introduction to the area’s wines. With fellow judges Dilek Caner, a sommelier from Texas, and Amy Christine, a sommelier with Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant of Berkeley, and who with her husband, Peter Hunken, owns the Santa Barbara winery Black Sheep Finds, we tasted 207 wines, from which we gleaned 11 gold medals.
Those 11 gold-medal wines show the wide range of varietals and styles that southern Oregon is yielding. Several were made with grapes that in the long run look to have the potential to distinguish the region – cabernet franc, tempranillo, albariño and malbec. Two went on to win best-of-show honors, the robust and refreshing Abacela 2013 Umpqua Valley Estate Grown Albariño ($20) among the white wines, and the assertive and meaty Agate Ridge Vineyard 2011 Rogue Valley Malbec ($35) among the reds.
But the gold-medal wines also included a few surprises – two pinot noirs and a pinot gris, cool-climate grapes identified more with the chillier upper Willamette Valley than warmer southern Oregon. (Pinot noir accounts for nearly half of Oregon’s wine sales, with pinot gris accounting for almost a fourth. Very little of either is planted in southern Oregon. Of the nearly 29,000 tons of pinot noir crushed in Oregon in 2012, for example, almost 24,500 tons were from the northern Willamette Valley, with only 1,436 tons from Rogue Valley and 901 tons from Umpqua Valley.)
The quality of the award-winning pinot noir and pinot gris at the World of Wine competition, however, testifies to the region’s wildly variable soils, exposures, altitudes and micro-climates. The Rogue Valley, the most southernly of Oregon’s 16 American Viticultural Areas, stretches from cool and wet Illinois Valley and Cave Junction on the west, where chardonnay, pinot noir and gewürztraminer perform well, to warm and comparatively dry Bear Creek, Ashland, Jacksonville and Medford on the east, where farmers and vintners are counting in large part on traditional Rhone Valley and Iberian varieties to raise their profile.
In that regard, however, the biggest surprise of the World of Wine competition was that wines made with grape varieties identified with the Rhone Valley didn’t perform better. Our single largest class was syrah, the varietal that southern Oregon growers and winemakers have embraced most enthusiastically. Of the 21 we judged, however, not a single one won a gold medal. While a few were characteristically fruity, gamey and spicy, most were overly ripe, awkward and soft, lacking complexity and length. Too many were marred by a heavy hand with oak barrels, an intrusion that often also disrupted the voice of other varietals.
My favorite varietals coming out of southern Oregon based on the competition were cabernet franc, tempranillo and malbec. Of the nine cabernet francs, just one got a gold medal – the gorgeous Pebblestone Cellars 2010 Rogue Valley Ellis Vineyards Block 3 Cabernet Franc ($24) – but I would have liked two of our silver-medal winners to also get gold, the briary and snappy Quady North 2011 Applegate Valley Mae’s Vineyard Cabernet Franc ($35) and the fleshy and persistent Serra Vineyards 2011 Applegate Valley Cabernet Franc ($50).
Of the 12 tempranillos we judged, just one won gold, the fresh and readily accessible Weisinger Family Winery 2011 Rogue Valley Estate Tempranillo ($27). I was keen on three others, however – the juicy, spicy and anise-accented Valley View Winery Anna Maria 2011 Applegate Valley Tempranillo ($26), the youthful, frisky and cherry-laced Red Lily Vineyards 2011 Applegate Valley Tempranillo ($35), and the similarly bright and brisk Jaxon Vineyards 2011 Rogue Valley Tempranillo ($28). (The meaty, spicy and enduring Jaxon Vineyards 2011 Rogue Valley Mistral ($26), a blend of syrah and grenache, was another silver-medal winner just a few points shy of gold.)
With its authority and equilibrium, the Jaxon Mistral shows why the area’s farmers and vintners are so enthusiastic about Rhone Valley varieties, despite their overall disappointing showing at World of Wine. (For the record, another Rhone Valley variety that did exceptionally well at the competition was the pretty and perky Abacela Winery 2013 Umpqua Valley Estate Grown Grenache Rosé, which won the sweepstakes award for “other” wines, a class that included sparkling, dessert and pink wines.)
After the competition, I spent much of a day touring wineries in the area and found syrahs that justify their confidence in the grape, none more so than the Quady North 2010 Rogue Valley Serenade Vineyard Syrah ($29), as sweet, spicy and succulent as a thick slab of smoked-and-peppered bacon.
While the southern Oregon wine trade is expanding and diversifying, it isn’t exactly new. Muleskinner and merchant Peter Britt brought the first cuttings of grapevines into Oregon from California in the 1850s, during the region’s gold boom. They were mission grapes, which Britt planted on the hills of his Jacksonville home, where his namesake summer festival now is held.
The Oregon wing of the nation’s temperance movement in the early 20th century, however, was better organized and more effective than it was in the rest of the country, and in 1914 it succeeded in enacting a ban on alcohol, six years before the rest of the United States adopted Prohibition.
Thus, apple and pear orchards succeeded vineyards, and that’s how things were until 1967, when a trial vineyard was planted at the Oregon State University Experiment Station at Central Point, just north of Medford. Vines thrived, leading to a revival of vineyards and wineries in the region starting in the early 1970s.
Despite today’s accelerating development of vineyards and wineries in southern Oregon, little of the area’s wine gets distributed beyond the region. Not only does the local population appreciate the value it offers, visitors from adjoining California and beyond, whether drawn principally to the region for its fishing, skiing, rafting, hiking, cycling or its landmark Oregon Shakespeare Festival, are returning home with a case or so.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.