Pouring Down South

By John Darling

With plenty of chat about the improving economy - and the uptrending-but-still-halting progress in consumers' wine budgets - some 30 wineries got together for the popular Southern Oregon Wineries Association Trade & Media Tasting, May 3 in Medford.

The tasting showcased a range of recent vintages from wineries in the Rogue, Umpqua, Applegate and Illinois valleys, along with salmon, cheeses and fruits.

While pouring his inimitable 2005 Old Vine Meritage and showing off his cost-saving steel keg system for restaurants, Chris Martin, the current SOWA president and owner of Troon Vineyard in the Applegate Valley, observed that consumers have benefited from the "compression of prices" during the "Great Recession," with wines under $20 presenting a good quality-to-price ratio.

"Times of rapid growth can mask defects," Martin said, noting that people are still struggling and no one is taking his flyers for the $35 wines.

The Meritage ($29), like all the reds, has had time to age in the slow economy, says Martin, and presents amazing rich, earthy notes of raspberries, leather and cherry pipe tobacco. You actually had to ask for a second tasting, which he gladly gave.

Wineries are noting a "definite upturn" in on-premise and off-premise sales, and the first quarter is showing a small uptick, says SOWA board member and ex-president Michael Donovan of RoxyAnn Winery in Medford.

There are a lot of new wineries in Southern Oregon, and investment continues steadily, though restaurants have "been hit tremendously hard," Donovan added.

Rocky Knoll's Emily Mostue, third-generation scion of the noted Carpenter Orchard and Vineyard family, poured the winery's estate 2006 Claret ($29), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. SOWA colleague Donovan detected notes of plum, black cherry, boysenberry and cassis. "Plush, supple and complex," he noted.

The 2007 Rocky Knoll Dunbar Red ($18) - named after Mostue's late philanthropist father who planted the grapes - possesses the same rich "oomph" of the red fruits and blends mostly Cab with some Merlot and enough Cab Franc.

All of the grapes were grown on the winery's Rogue Valley estate in Medford, one of the sunniest and warmest in Southern Oregon, with many vines going back 35 years - almost to the beginning of the industry in the area.

Porscha Schiller of South Stage Cellars in Jacksonville shared the winery's prize-winning 2008 Early Muscat, which took "Best of Show" and garnered gold at the World of Wine last year in Gold Hill - it also won double gold at the Finger Lakes Wine Festival in New York. Amazingly crisp and sweet but not cloying, it woke up my palate after an evening of food and other wines.

"A lot of people who say they don't like dessert wine, love this!" Schiller said.

Another popular pour, South Stage's 2007 Alchemy ($34), a silky blend of Tempranillo, Cab and the rare Carmenere, also won over judges at Finger Lakes and brought home a silver.

Tim Woodhead of Bridgeview Winery, located in the cooler Coast Range of Cave Junction, poured some easy-on-the-pocketbook wines, 2006 Black Beauty Syrah ($19.95) and 2005 Blue Moon Cab-Merlot ($9.95). The Syrah was all about the berry, while the red blend showed notes of cherries, clove, plum, raspberry and vanilla.

Bob Denman, of Slagle Creek Vineyards in the Applegate Valley, poured his 2008 Chardonnay ($17), a perfect harmony of apple and pear notes with a hint of ginger and oak, and his 2006 Claret ($21), a blend of Merlot, Cab and Cab Franc with deep tones of cherry, mocha, leather and spice. The latter won silver at the Harry & David Wine Competition.

I could go on and on about all of the great wines I had the privilege of tasting, but space allows only a few more, and these are some great buys, too:

Brendon Butler of Devitt Winery in the Applegate poured the 2007 Precipice ($16), an even blend of Merlot and Zinfandel. It was light, easy and peppery on the palate.

Diana Trinity of Foris Vineyards in Cave Junction tasted the winery's 2007 Gewürztraminer ($13.50). Dry, forward and spicy, it had an acidic finish, and it is "great with curry," Trinity noted.

Madrone Mountain Vineyard, a maker of artisanal dessert wines in the Applegate, offered the 2007 Starthistle Cuvée made from Huxelrebe grapes. The wine tasted like a spicy strawberry shortcake. 

John Darling is an Ashland writer.

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