This past summer, I spent a wonderful week in Oregon with a handful of other writers and the fine people of the Oregon Wine Board. We started in the southwestern-most part of the state and gradually made our way up to Portland over the course of the week. We visited wineries, ate incredible food, witnessed the majestic countryside, and drank more than our fair share of wonderful wines.
Before landing at the Medford airport in Southern Oregon late one Sunday night a few months ago, I really knew nothing about Oregon wine production outside of the Willamette Valley and the fact that the state shared a couple of appellations with Washington state along the northeastern border.
Not on my radar.
That all changed that week, starting with an overview of the Southern Oregon appellation (and its five sub-appellations) bright and early on Monday morning with Michael Donovan, the Managing Director of Irvine Vineyards.
Those first few days were an awakening of sorts—Southern Oregon has many of the elements necessary to become a legitimate player in the domestic (and even international) wine scene. Quite frankly, there are many reasons that Southern Oregon could possibly become the “next big thing” in U.S. wine production.
Variety: Southern Oregon benefits from a Mediterranean climate, more similar to the areas of Spain and the South of France than to the Willamette a few hundred miles north up Interstate 5. Much of the region also benefits from higher altitudes, which results in a higher diurnal swing in temperatures (very warm during the day and much cooler at night), helping to preserve acidity levels in the fruit. What does all of this mean? Well, in a nutshell, wine growers in the region have near limitless options of what to plant. There are over 70 different varieties of wine grapes grown in Southern Oregon and although Pinot Noir represents about 40% of the acreage under vine, more wineries are experimenting with their plantings. Many different varieties, not just the ubiquitous Cabernets and Chardonnays, from all over the world are now in Southern Oregon: Iberian (Tempranillo, Albariño, Garnacha), French (Syrah, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Viognier), and Italian (Vermentino, Sangiovese) draw green lines up and down the hillsides.
Beauty: Many wine regions can claim to be beautiful, but Southern Oregon is stunning. It is more reminiscent of Northern California than the Pacific Northwest, with rolling brown hills, dotted with evergreens. Off in the distance are several mountain ranges (the Klamath Mountains to the west, the Cascades to the East and the Siskiyou Mountains to the south) that frame the sky, setting up incredible vistas. Although I did not ride while I was there, the area is a cyclist’s dream—long winding roads with challenging climbs (if you are into that type of thing), and long stretches of little to no traffic.
Wine: Over the course of our few days in the appellation, we tasted dozens of wines and I can say this without equivocation: there are some incredible wines being made to the south of the more famed wine region in Oregon, and many of them are incredible values. That first day we tasted wonderful wines from Irvine, RoxyAnn, Weisinger, Brandborg, Dancin, and Schmidt Family (among others). Some of the wines that really stood out for me:
2015 Irvine Rosé of Pinot Noir: Retail $23. All 777 Clone. An “intended” rosé (grown with the intention of becoming a rosé—not bled off from another red wine). Classic strawberry and rhubarb. On the palate, lovely. Bright, tart, and focused. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2013 Weisiniger Pinot Noir: Retain $35. Rich red fruit on the nose. With vanilla and heft. On the palate tons of fruit but great balance. Just short of a whoa. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2015 DanCin Capriccio Chardonnay: Retail $29. Just recently bottled when we tasted the wine, this clearly needs time but it is lovely. Really great fruit with wonderful tartness and weight. Very, very nice. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2014 DanCin Pas de Chat Pinot Noir Southern Oregon: Retail $34. Just bottled, but a fantastic mélange of cherry and blackberry. A tiny bit of heat on the nose, but holy cow, this is fantastic. It is the perfect combination of Southern Oregon heat and Oregon soul. Ok. Whoa. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
2013 Spangler Claret: Retail $29. All six Bordeaux varieties less Carmenere. Deep red fruit with a bit of greenness and some smokiness. Just a bit. Claret as a term is no longer allowed in the U.S. except it was grandfathered for Spangler since they have been using it for years. When they first started making the wine, because of the movie Sideways, no one wanted Merlot, so they blended it into a “Claret” and what a blend it is. Rich red fruit, far from overbearing, with multiple levels of flavor. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
Up next: Some of the challenges that the region faces, that might prevent or delay its emergence as a premier wine region.