Southern Exposure

By Neal D. Hulkower

Reminding us Northerners that we should not live by Pinot Noir alone, some two dozen wineries from four American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the southwest part of the state poured about 100 of their best wines at Savor Southern Oregon. 

The event, sponsored by the Southern Oregon Winery Association (SOWA), drew an estimated 400 people to Director Park in Portland on Sunday, Sept. 16. The next day, I attended the trade tasting at Portland City Grill and enjoyed a much more intimate experience during which I sampled about three dozen wines.

Venerable wineries shared the space with smaller, newer entrants into the burgeoning market.  The range of microclimates in Southern Oregon enables vignerons to produce most of the varietals grown in the Willamette Valley as well as those better suited for much warmer climates, such as the whites and reds used in France’s Bordeaux and Rhône regions.  

While Viognier is finding some success in the north, it already has a very comfortable home in the south. The styles range from lush and Chardonnay-like to elegantly restrained. The lovely flowery-fruity 2011 Cowhorn Viognier, to be released in November by the Applegate Valley Biodynamic winery, was a standout for its excellence in balance and purity.  I also was impressed with the peachy 2010 Del Rio Viognier from the Rogue Valley, reflecting the sensibilities of their French winemaker, Jean-Michel Jussiaume.  

Two white Rhône blends featuring Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne are worth seeking out.  The 2011 Quady North Pistoleta from the Rogue Valley displayed a harmonious blend of fruit and nuts on the nose and palate with ample acidity to make it food-friendly. Cowhorn’s 2011 Spiral 36 is fatter and less acidic than the straight Viognier but also richer and more complex.

Cowhorn also brought two Rhône reds, showing promising glimpses of what can be expected in a few more years as their young vines age. The 2010 Grenache 58 offered fruit and leather on the nose and pretty fruit flavors on the palate but still needs time. The 2008 Syrah 74 was untypically delicate and quite elegant.

Cabernet Franc is one of the five grapes found in Bordeaux blends and solos in the Loire. It is also successfully being grown, vinified and bottled as a single varietal across the U.S.  From the Rogue Valley, the mature 2007 Cliff Creek Cellars Cabernet Franc offered elegant aromas of green pepper and dark fruit with nicely integrated tannins and a medium-long finish. I was particularly amused by the nose of the less-mature 2009 Spangler Cabernet Franc from the Umpqua Valley, which burst forth with green pepper and capers but short on the finish.

Pioneers in planting the Spanish red grape, Tempranillo, in the U.S., Abacela, brought three distinct examples of their craft from the Umpqua Valley. The 2005 Paramour, fashioned after a Gran Reserva, was deeply dark with a still immature fruit and funk nose. While still very young, even fetal, it is brooding and foreboding, making me ponder what it might be like in 5 or 10 years. Much more welcoming was the 2007 Tempranillo Reserve, displaying attractive, approachable fruit, is nicely balanced and demure but ready to party, albeit discreetly. With coaxing, hints of fruit and flowers emerged from the still immature 2009 regular bottling of Tempranillo. 

Applegate Valley’s Red Lily Vineyard produces only Tempranillo from its estate, as well as from fruit grown in the Rogue Valley. The 2007 Red Blanket had a meaty aroma and while drinking nicely now, is still young. The more elegant and well-rounded 2007 Red Lily Tempranillo could also use more time. RoxyAnn in the Rogue Valley produced a nicely balanced, elegant but still immature 2009 Tempranillo that includes 12 percent Syrah and 11 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and offered dried fruit on the palate.

I asked several producers of Southern Oregon Pinot Noir what they considered was their comparative advantage over the Willamette Valley. Some reminded me that much of their grapes end up being blended with Pinot in the north and bottled with a simple Oregon appellation. At least one producer, Wooldridge Creek in the Applegate Valley, is now keeping all the juice and offering the wine in kegs as well as bottles. The 2010 Pinot Noir drawn from a keg was very feminine and nicely balanced. Other advantages cited were a warmer climate that ensured more consistent and slower ripening, lower alcohol, older vines and lower prices.    

The four-hour whirlwind tour of Southern Oregon wines was over way far too quickly and left me thirsty for my next exposure. 

Neal Hulkower is a professional mathematician and avid wine collector/winery volunteer living in McMinnville.

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