Exploring the Most Diverse Wine Region

 

Good news! Turns out my last post wasn’t a dream. Happy to report there really is a wine region offering a wide range of excellent varietal wines and unique, exciting blends, all at down to earth prices.

It remains one of the best kept secrets in the wine world. Until now.

Ready to explore this wine region?  Good, but first there are several fast moving rivers to cross and it is surrounded by mountains.  Some of you may have to cross the border. But there is no wall.

Several miles north of California lies the Southern Oregon Wine Region, consisting of the Rogue Valley and Applegate Valley. The area runs from Ashland in the east to Grants Pass in the west.

Today, this high elevation (1,000-2,300 foot level)  growing area contains a little over 4,000 acres and is home to about 75 wineries.

What separates this region from the rest of Oregon is that Pinot Noir is just one of, hold on, 70 different varieties cultivated here. And other facts:

  • Many of the wineries were founded after 2000. 
  • Most are small and family owned by real farmers. 
  • No corporations involved. 
  • No mass produced cookie cutter wines.
  • Most wineries have well-organized, inexpensive tastings and active wine clubs.

So, if you like diversity and new stuff, as millenials are said to do, or if you want to catch a wave of truly exciting wines, then you can start your google search today and thank me later. (Honestly, I don’t expect anyone under 30 to text a thanks.)

Sure, you might now be wondering after hearing the 70 different wine varieties fact if the winemakers are smoking something or really onto something special. 

This is Oregon, so both can be true at the same time. It may help to hear why such diversity is possible. (Hint: think mountains, rivers, elevation.)

As Dan Marca, owner of Dancin Vineyards,  says,

“Growing seasons vary dramatically in the Rogue Valley! It’s been said that this region has one of the most diverse topographies in the US, if not the world!”

 Winemakers have seized the opportunity and are taking full advantage of this diversity. Quady North, established in 2004, has 15 acres under vine and grows 12 different varieties. Most are Rhone grapes, but it also farms Cabernet and Cabernet Franc.

On its 40 acres under vine, Schmidt Family Vineyards in Applegate grows 14 varieties, and produces 6,700 cases a year. It also makes 25 different wines at astonishing good quality.

In the Rogue and Applegate Valleys, “terroir” is the real deal, not a promotional concept or talking point. In certain parts of Applegate Valley, the Rhone grapes fare well. Cowhorn Vineyards, a leader in Rhone wines has 25 acres planted. Its owner explains: 

“While our latitude is a bit lower than the Rhône, and our growing season is shorter, other qualities are similar, especially to Châteauneuf-du-Pape: river-side bench-land with little rain, hot summers, and rocky soils that don’t hold much water.”

A few miles to the east, Dancin’s estate vineyard is planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Marca provides detailed background:

Our site was created for Pinot noir and Chardonnay with its north, northeast facing aspect, 1800 foot average elevation and shade occurring beginning at 5:45pm (depending on the Block) throughout the growing season. We are finding that we can produce delicious Pinot Noir with great flavors and balance at alcohol levels in the mid to upper 12’s to the very low 13’s. Our wide diurnal swings allow for flavors and ripeness to occur during the day with acids retained during the overnight hours. We can see daytime highs to overnight lows vary by 40 degrees!” 

And he adds that the same Pinot Noir clones ripen later at his site than they do in McMinnville or Dundee.

Representing the Spanish side, Red Lily Vineyards is located along benchlands of the Applegate River and has vines located on three distinct sites.  Winemaker/owner Rachael Martin tells us her “new vineyard site planted to Tempranillo “has a predominantly northern aspect on a varying slope surrounding a knoll, and sits at an average elevation of 1500 feet.” And the third vineyard site “has a predominantly western aspect on a 12% average slope that rises to an elevation of 1630 feet.”

Label it diverse terroir, diverse topography  or whatever, the fact is that on recent visits here, I discovered fascinating Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo, Viognier and world-class Pinot Noir and GSM. The wines support the diversity story.

 I also was re-acquainted with Chardonnay that emphasized fruit over oak and butter and Pinot Noir below 14% alcohol that was elegant and complex. 

Two other points need to be raised to help better understand wines from this area. Because most of the vineyards were developed after 2,000, many wines, Rhones, Spanish, or Italian, are likely made from relatively new vines. Typically, vineyards are de

No wonder the wines are so different than what you’d expect from Old World, old vines. And old thinking.

If you aren’t familiar with the Rogue Valley name you can take comfort in the fact that the wineries in the area finally formed a promotional Vintners Association in 2018.

Here’s a Quick Tour of the Wineries:

Dancin Vineyards, Rogue Valley

Amazing across the board. Six Pinots, all lovely. The 2016 Pinot Noir Septette, made from several clones is a real sleeper, possibly the finest made in Oregon. Three Chardonnays, all balanced and delivering layers of flavors. One Syrah for wine club members…outstanding.

Great Views

Full restaurant with inside, outside seating

www.dancinvineyards.com

Schmidt Family Vineyards, Applegate Valley

In the middle of nowhere, here are beautiful gardens, wood-fired pizza and a mind-boggling range of wines. All wines are solid.  Standouts include “Amuse” (75% Viognier, 25% Chardonnay), “Cal’s Blend” (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Syrah), and deep, ripe Syrah. But excellent Albarino and Tempranillo can’t be overlooked.

Exceptional gardens, picnic area, plenty of space for special events.

Good restaurant

www.sfvineyards.com

Awen Winecraft, Applegate Valley

Founded in 2016 and sourcing grapes from both valleys, Awen caught my attention with its 2017 Chardonnay. It combines apple and citrus fruit and yeastiness to present itself as Chardonnay without the built-in butter and spicy oak. Bright fruit, crisp finish, Chardonnay that taste like Chardonnay.

On my list of must try wines is its Grenache Blanc wines, a variety the owners, transplants from IT work in Silicon Valley, are backing in a big way.

Simple Machine

Started in 2010 by Brian Denner who brought tons of experience from Paso Robles and elsewhere. Simple Machine adheres to a non-intervention winemaking approach which includes crushing red grapes by foot, and bottling wine unfined, unfiltered.  It seems to work, based on his lovely 2017 Simple Machine “Leverage,” Rogue Valley, $28. (50%-Marsanne, 50% Roussanne), 90 cases produced.

 Makes me want to go through the entire line of small batch Rhones.

Tasting room in Talent, a real place on the map. Oregon’s got Talent!

 Red Lily Vineyards, Jacksonville

Focusing on Spanish varieties, winemaker Rachael Martin hits the bullseye with Tempranillo made in 3 styles. The “Red Blanket” with a splash of Cabernet delivers lots of character for $22.  But all 3 are classy Tempranillos.

Picnic grounds near the peaceful river. small plates. Fun wine flights

www.redlilyvineyards.com

Long Walk Vineyard, Ashland

A newcomer to the scene that opened a mountain top tasting house in 2018. Main emphasis on Rhone varieties and a range of Rose wines. The bright 2016 Mourvedre Rose is a great summer sipper. Another standout is the 2016 “Orchard Red,” a smooth, spice-filled raspberry tinged blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Cinsault.

www.longwalkvineyard.com

Quady North, Jacksonville 

Young generation of Quady Port settled in to focus on Rhones and Cabs. The Viogniers and GSM are the leaders. The 2016 Viognier “Steel-Ox” Applegate was a favorite at $24. Solid 2016 GMS, Rogue Valley.

Tasting room in central Jacksonville is no frills.

www.quadynorth.com

Cowhorn Vineyards, Applegate Valley

With biodynamic and Demeter approved farming, Cowhorn has attracted some well-deserved media attention for its Rhone wines. Only home grown grapes are used and vines are densely planted at 2,600 vines per acre.  A little pricey for the area, but good to high quality. Of those tasted, the 2015 Sentience (100% Syrah) was loaded with fruit and peppery notes and lovely rich texture. The 2018 ”Sprial 36”, the flagship white Rhone blend, is delicate, beautifully textured and sells for $28.

 

Planning My Next Visit

High on my “must visit” list are the following wineries:

Pebblestone Cellars, Talent: insiders rave about the Viognier

Plaisance Vineyard, Williams: makes 20 wines. Gotta check out the Petit Verdot

Grizzly Peak Winery, Ashland: Only wine tasted, the white Rhone, was very good.

Irvine & Roberts Vineyard, Ashland: The Pinot Meunier, the unsung grape of Champagne, could be surprising.

 

 

 

 

 

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