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Going Rogue: Exciting Diversity and Outright Exellence in Oregon
By Norm Roby
Dec 21, 2021
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Seeking out unusual wine regions for their great diversity seems to be high on the must-do lists for today’s sommeliers.  At least, the hard working somms, that is.  Makes sense because discovering new wines and/new regions pretty much validates their jobs.  Recently the head of sommselect.com singled out the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA for its success with Pinot Noir and Syrah among others.  He ended by praising Santa Cruz as “one of the few regions anywhere in the world hospitable to such a diverse range of varieties.”

Really?  Now that “diverse range of varieties” phrase struck a chord.  Coincidentally, over the last 2 years, I’ve been interested in the same subject.  Well, as much as I enjoy wines from Santa Cruz, there are other regions working with an amazingly wide range of varieties that make Santa Cruz seem predictable.  

Santa Clara County, for example, has all the mainstays, all of the Rhônes, and some unusual Italian varieties.  Sarah’s Vineyard and Bonny Doon offered impressive Piquepoul whites, and two others offered unexciting Vermentinos.  An even wider range of varieties was encountered during my visit to the Okanagan Valley.  Not just a few remaining hybrids, but there’s an exciting diversity here including many obscure grapes like Chasselas and Pinot Auxerrois, both made into impressive wines.

What also ties these two regions together is neither has what could be called a signature wine.  A wine that consumers automatically equate with that place, like Napa Cabs or Amador Zins.

So, this lack of a signature wine takes us to another region where winemakers actually seem to enjoy working with a diverse range of varieties: the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon.  Because it has so little in common with the Willamette Valley, winemakers get a little touchy if you refer to it as “The other Oregon” wine region.  

Yes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grown here, but so too are Cabernet and Zinfandel along with Spanish, Italian, and the full range of French grapes.  And one or two Portuguese varieties.

In the Rogue Valley, it is common to grow a dozen or more varieties within a small estate.  Established in 2004, Quady North has 15 acres under vine and grows 12 different varieties.  Most are Rhône grapes, but it also farms Cabernet and Cabernet Franc.  On its 40-acre estate vineyards, Schmidt Family Vineyards in Applegate Valley grows 14 varieties, and produces 6,700 cases a year.  It also makes 25 different wines in a given year.

Its neighbor, Wooldridge Creek, one of the oldest wineries, has 56 acres planted to twelve varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Tempranillo.  And a similar wild assortment is seen in many, many other wineries across the entire Rogue Valley.  The Weisinger Family, on the eastern edge in Ashland, is said to specialize in Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Rhône and Bordeaux varieties, as well as proprietary blends.  Not bad for a 3,000-case annual output.

But are these wineries growing a dozen or more varieties like the proverbial jack of all trades, master of none?  It seems crazy for small vineyards to grow grapes from Bordeaux and Burgundy, along with the Rhônes.  Then add a few from Spain and Italy and it seems way beyond normal.  

At Belle Fiore Winery, where 56 acres are planted to such a wide mix which includes many unusual Italian varieties, the owners have identified what they call “16 micro-blocks” based upon soil types and elevation.  Two-Hawks’ winemaker, Kiley Evans, has singled out several blocks based on soil types led by a Darow Series of wine from one predominant soil.

Not the Willamette Valley

Taking its name from the Rogue River, the Rogue Valley wine region wears that rogue title well.  Approved as an AVA in 1991, the Rogue Valley is the southernmost growing wine region of Oregon, and the Valley is 70 miles wide by 60 miles long.  The area runs from Ashland in the east through the north and south sides of Medford and stretches to Grants Pass in the west.  

Today, this high elevation (1,000-2,300-foot level) growing area is home to 100 wineries.  While most of these wineries started after 2000, the Rogue Valley is Oregon’s oldest wine region, with first vineyards planted in the 1850s.  And it is home to the State’s first operating winery opened in 1873.  

Vineyards have been expanding recently and now cover around 5,000 acres, growing no fewer than 70 varieties.  Yes, from Albariño to Zinfandel, the roster includes the obligatory Chardonnay and Cabernet and, no surprise, Pinot Noir.  But with vineyards planted at different elevations with different aspects, the Rogue is no Willamette.

Because most of today’s vineyards were developed after 2000, many wines, based on Rhône, Spanish, or Italian varieties, are likely made from relatively new vines.  Typically, vineyards are densely planted and organically grown with “sustainable” a popular theme.

Dancin is one of a handful on wineries making a Pinot Noir, but as owner Dan Marka explains, “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.

Dancin’s vineyards are in the mid-section of the Rogue Valley, just outside Jacksonville.  Far to the west is the the Applegate Valley AVA, which was established in 2000 as a sub-region within the Rogue.  With over 700 acres under vine, the Applegate Valley “has a warm-summer Mediterranean climate, like much of coastal California.  However, it has four very distinct seasons, a relatively short growing season, and fog is not a factor.  Winter is cold, with occasional snow.  That allows the vines to go into full hibernation.  Half of the area’s annual 20-30” of precipitation arrives in winter.”

Because the growing season is on the short side and features cold nights and wide diurnal swings, the Applegate Valley AVA is best-suited to grapes that ripen quickly or are pleasing at low levels of ripeness.  Here, veteran viticulturist Herb Quady, who manages many vineyards in addition to his own for Quady North, is a strong advocate of Rhône varieties.  He is joined by the founders of Cowhorn Vineyard who planted 25 acres to the Rhônes.  He explained his choice this way:  “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.”

But even in this corner, the Rogue Valley is not the exclusive Rhône Zone.  A few miles away from Cowhorn, Red Lily Vineyards has emphasized Tempranillo planted along benchlands of the Applegate River and has vines located on three distinct sites.  Winemaker/owner Rachael Martin tells us her “newest 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 another vineyard site “has a predominantly western aspect on a 12% average slope that rises to an elevation of 1630 feet.”  She makes Tempranillo in three styles, including a Rosé.

As specialists, Dancin and Red Lily are rare in this region where it is more common to grow a dozen or more varieties within an estate.  

However they go about it, winemakers are making most wines in small batches based upon some unique condition, be it soil, micro-climate, clone, or block by block.  But since consumers naturally like to have reliable information and advice, the question of what the Rogue Valley’s signature wine is needs to be addressed.  Not long ago, W. Blake Gray, writing for winesearcher.com, made a case for Malbec as the region’s best.  He included wines from the Umpqua Valley but highlighted the Malbecs from Weisinger Family and 2-Hawk.  

Though I share his enthusiasm for those Malbecs, his argument failed to convince that Malbec is the prime variety.  Initially, I thought the star was Syrah, but then I tasted a stunning Grenache from 2-Hawk, a beautiful Viognier from Quady North, Cabernet Franc from several wineries, and more recently Tempranillo from Peter William Vineyard and others.  See the reviews in the WRO archives (From the “Wine Reviews” page, click on “Wine Search).

In fact, one could easily argue that the standout Rogue Valley wine is Cabernet Franc.  While admittedly being on the Cab Franc bandwagon, I draw support from the excellent, medium-bodied versions made in Applegate by Quady North, Schmidt Family, and Wooldridge Cellars, and then head south east to Ashland and add Cab Francs from Belle Fiore and Weisinger Family.  Here’s a tip: when released in the Spring of ‘22, Weisinger’s 2019 Cabernet Franc will rank as one of the best made in the West Coast.  

Tempranillo, the third most widely planted variety in the world, has not yet established a beachhead anywhere in the USA.  In light of its obvious excellence in Spain, that’s odd.  But that is about to change.

Above all else notes Dr. Peter Adesman, owner of Peter William Vineyard, it is the wide diurnal swings along with the well-drained soils and compact growing season that make Tempranillo a perfect fit for the Rogue Valley.  Others also feel strongly about it as Tempranillo is now made by well over 50% of Rogue Valley wineries.  Before covid, the Oregon Tempranillo Alliance with over two dozen members, was formed to promote the grape and win.  Today, close to 100 wineries offer one in their tasting room.  

But the biggest push (and a great source of practical information) comes from a neighbor to the north, Abacela Vineyards in the Umpqua Valley.  In 1997, Abacela made its first Tempranillo from vineyards it laid out a few years earlier.  This is acknowledged to be the first varietal Tempranillo ever produced in the Pacific Northwest.  Owners Earl and Hilda Jones researched clones, rootstocks and did an exhaustive soils analysis…all for Tempranillo.  They were true pioneers and the reason for the current interest in Tempranillo.  In an early report about plant material, they mention that, “The University of California Davis sold them their entire supply of two additional clones since there was no interest in California for this variety.”  Some 25 years after that first Tempranillo, there’s plenty of interest in Southern Oregon.

So, in 2022 it will be exciting to continue following Tempranillo grown in Southern Oregon.  There are 10 Rogue Valley wineries that are key producers for showing the potential of the variety in the region:

Peter William Vineyard
Coventina Vineyards
Red Lily
2 Hawk Vineyard & Winery
Weisinger Family
Kriselle Vineyards
Valley View Vineyards
Schmidt Family Vineyards
Pebblestone Cellars

…as well as two from Umpqua Valley: Abacela Vineyard and Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards.  Stay tuned for exciting news in the year ahead.

More wine columns:     Norm Roby
Connect with Norm on Twitter:   @RobyWine67