Southern Sipping in the City

December 2009

By Karl Klooster

For the second year in a row, the Southern Oregon Winegrowers Association selected the Governor Hotel in downtown Portland as the site for its annual showcase tasting.

Some of Oregon’s classiest events choose the Governor—and with good reason. Its expansively elegant public rooms convey to an image of quality and good taste, in both the literal and figurative sense.

The proper mood having been set, 27 of the association’s member wineries brought their recent releases for evaluation by the general public on Sunday, Nov. 3, and by the trade on Monday, Nov. 4.

Every area of Southern Oregon—the Rogue, Umpqua, Illinois and Applegate valleys—was well represented. And the variety of their offerings put a punctuation point on what can spring forth from such a range of diverse microclimates and varying geology.

In fact, if a single word could describe Southern Oregon wines, it would be diversity. Trying to distill a description of what the region is capable of producing into a couple of sentences is an exercise in futility.

With such a broad spectrum of growing conditions, each one must be treated on its own merits. An all-encompassing comment might be that Southern Oregon is warmer than its neighbor to the north, but that doesn’t take into account, for example, Elkton, where Cabernet grapes don’t ripen until mid-November.

The point, however, is that they usually do. And what about vineyards east of Medford where early ripening varieties can be picked in late August, yet warmer weather varieties, which aren’t ready until mid-October, also thrive?

At the Governor Hotel on Monday, retailers, wholesalers, restaurateurs, industry professionals, educators, consumer group representatives and media types like yours truly were able to sample a copious cross-section of this diversity.

What we experienced was the coalescence of a critical mass of talented and experienced winemakers.

The prevalent varieties poured were Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir for the reds and Pinot Gris, Viognier and Chardonnay for the whites.

That is not to say these were, by any means, the only varietals. Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Blanc were also in evidence.

In fact, one of the most notable types was not a single variety at all, but rather a red blend. Bordelaise, to be exact—that is, exclusively using Bordeaux grape varieties.

Certain producers label it Claret, after the old British term for Bordeaux wine. But that designation is no longer allowed under international agreement, and those who can use the term have, much to their delight, been grandfathered in.

Overall, there were very few disappointments, many well-above average and several truly outstanding wines being poured. Among the exceptional examples, at least to this taster’s palate, were both past favorites and new contenders.

My usual method of attack at a tasting is to sample the whites first and then go around again for the reds. This time, my white focus was almost exclusively on Pinot Gris and Viognier, with a couple of other irresistible dalliances along the way.

Consistently high-performing RoxyAnn, along with Brandborg and Wild Rose, were among the Pinot Gris producers that particularly stood out.

RoxyAnn was packed with flavor, Brandborg came across clean, crisp and nicely balanced, whereas the Wild Rose, though atypically rich and viscous, was difficult to resist.

Viognier is rising as Southern Oregon’s new white star, and nothing at this tasting denied that conclusion. Wineries pouring lush, flavor-filled winners included Agate Ridge, Folin, Troon and RoxyAnn.

As for other whites, Agate Ridge has done a fine job with its bright, fresh ’07 Rousanne/Marsanne blend. An unoaked 2008 Chardonnay from Spangler exhibited round creaminess and Slagle Creek’s 108-clone Chardonnay, from almost 30-year-old vines, delighted with buttery toast and tangy fruit.

There were way too many reds at the tasting to evaluate in one afternoon, so I focused on three varieties—Syrah, Tempranillo and Petite Sirah—while leaving the Bordelaise and other red blends for another day.

Abacela’s groundbreaking Tempranillo continued to impress, while Folin Cellars also came through with a muy excelente version of the Spanish variety.

Syrah has staked out a solid and ever-improving position in the Southern Oregon repertoire, with 14 of the 27 wineries offering their latest releases of the big, bold Rhone red on this occasion.

Leading the pack were the 2004 Cliff Creek Estate and 2004 Valley View Anna Marie—yes, they’re both current releases—along with LongSword’s 2006 Reserve and Folin’s 2006 Estate.

If you’re after best value for the money, at $19.95, Bridgeview’s 2006 Black Beauty Syrah can’t be matched.

The real knock-your-socks-off surprise of the day was Petite Sirah. This underestimated grape from the southern Rhone Valley, known there as “Durif,” is a long-approved—but now nearly gone—variety for Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Efforts to bring it to prominence in California have met with only limited success despite the fact that it is planted to some extent in every major winegrowing region of the state.

Now, for whatever serendipitous combination of reasons, three Southern Oregon wineries have new releases that are nothing short of spectacular. Others will soon follow suit, including RoxyAnn and Del Rio, with both wineries’ plantings nearing maturity.

Spangler, Agate Ridge and Carpenter Hill are the wineries that have brought small quantities of Petite Sirah to market. Each exhibits intensely rich, plummy fruit with a full-yet-supple mouthfeel that entices the tastebuds, bringing you back for more. Although all three offer an engaging experience, Spangler’s 2007 The Terraces delivers a superlative package from start to finish that serves to soften the current $35 price tag.

Pat Spangler said he is quite pleased with the outcome this year but cautioned that Petite Sirah is a difficult grape to grow. “The berries have thin skins that are subject to splitting and tight clusters that contract grape root rot,” he said.

The emergence of a region coming into its own is exciting, to be sure. But equally exhilarating is the prospect that Petite Sirah is likely just the first of many pleasant enological surprises still to come.

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