Southern Oregon’s Rivers Include Rivers of Wine
By | |

Oregon is too big and varied for one style of wine to become most closely identified with the state. Yes, in Oregon’s northern reaches Pinot Noir is established as the flagship wine of Willamette Valley and its numerous sub-appellations.

And in southern Oregon, Tempranillo long has been talked up as the region’s potential signature wine, though it has yet to make its mark consistently across the region.

The sprawling range of Oregon’s wine scene grew gradually but starkly clear last week when six judges convened over two days at Medford to evaluate 371 wines in the 2023 Oregon Wine Competition.

There was a lot of Pinot Noir, to be sure. With 72 entries, Pinot Noir alone accounted for nearly a fifth of the total number of entries, and that doesn’t include the 38 rosé wines in the competition, many of them based on Pinot Noir.

Other types responsible for helping elevate Oregon’s profile as wine country also were well represented, including Chardonnay with 24 entries and Pinot Gris and Tempranillo with 16 each.

In terms of both volume and quality, there were surprises, starting with those 38 rosés, but also including 20 Malbecs and 15 Viogniers. Syrah, with 22 entries, generated the most positive chatter among judges as they plowed through the competition’s classes.

The Oregon Wine Competition was prelude to the Oregon Wine Experience, five days of tastings, auctions and a salmon bake that starts Aug. 16 at The Vineyards at Stage Pass, a seven-acre spread just southeast of Jacksonville, where a 38,000-square-foot tent is to be erected to house events. The whole program is intended to raise funds for children’s health care provided by Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center of Medford. Last year, the Oregon Wine Experience generated $2.2 million for the program. For more information, visit Oregon Wine Experience.

For the results of the wine competition, we all will have to wait until Aug. 17, when they are to be revealed during the Oregon Wine Experience.

Just before the competition, however, judges were escorted to several wineries in the Jacksonville/Ashland/Medford area for a series of tours and tastings. None of the wines tasted during that excursion was entered in the wine competition, so we are free to talk of them:

DANCIN Vineyards next to The Vineyards at Stage Pass just outside of Jacksonville is one classy joint, with an unusually ambitious slate of tasting menus, venues, events, wines and foods (mushrooms stuffed with spicy Italian sausage and finished with a cream sauce, parmesan and a balsamic syrup look to be the choice highest in both richness and demand).

Daniel Marca, a Sacramento contractor, and his wife Cindy founded Dancin about two decades ago, committing themselves to such Italian grape varieties as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Barbera, but also confident that the Rogue Valley could produce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on a par with interpretations of the varieties coming out of the Willamette Valley.

And they are doing it, with the DANCIN 2021 Rogue Valley “En Avant” Chardonnay ($33) downright Burgundian in build and verve but also with a suggestion of the richness of crème brulee, while the DANCIN 2021 Rogue Valley “Adagio” Pinot Noir (to be released in late August, probably at around $45), as the name suggests, is all about the drive, balance and athleticism of the ballet, expressing straightforward cherry/berry fruit on a lean but sturdy frame.

Troon Vineyard & Farm southeast of Grants Pass is the place to head for anyone who wants to be introduced to all the wine world’s fashionable buzzwords – social fairness, animal welfare, and organic, biodynamic, and regenerative farming.

When it comes to forward-looking agriculture, the only certification that Troon lacks is designation as the Oregon branch of the viticulture and enology department of the University of California, Davis, the place is that much into research and education.

Dick Troon founded the vineyard and winery in 1972, but when Texans Bryan and Denise White bought the estate in 2016 its transformation into an exceptionally varied laboratory for the growing of grapes and the making of wine kicked into high gear.

Garett Long, Troon’s director of agriculture, oversees gardens of native habitat intended to attract natural pollinators, hollowed out logs of redwood strapped high in trees to attract bees, a herd of sheep, a flock of chickens, a vegetable garden, an apple orchard for a coming cider project, and a recently opened farmstand where visitors to the estate can stock up on tomatoes, onions, shallots, beets, herbs, eggs and the like.

Oh, and he tends about 50 acres of wine grapes, planted largely to varieties identified with France’s Rhone Valley, such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan, Cinsault, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.

Troon also is vested ambitiously in Vermentino and Tannat, and coming online are rarities like Négrette, Tibouren, Clairette Blanche, Picpoul Blanc, Bourbolenc and Grenache Gris.

Troon’s winemaker, Nate Wall, takes a light-handed approach to converting Long’s grapes into wine. He subscribes to established principles of “natural” winemaking, such as using organically grown grapes and fermenting juice with native yeasts, but he doesn’t necessarily eschew the use of sulfites, given that he wants his wines “pristine,” without the funk or fault with which natural wines often are tagged. His wines customarily end up with around 30 parts per million of total sulfur, less than a tenth of the maximum allowed by federal regulations for American wines.

To highlight the distinctive fruitiness of grapes grown in Applegate Valley and of the estate itself, distinguished by a myriad of soil profiles, he also avoids the use of new oak barrels.

The eagerness that Long shows in embracing relatively obscure grape varieties in Troon’s vineyards is complemented by Wall’s enthusiasm for relatively unconventional tools and styles of wine in Troon’s cellar. Clay amphora, for one, are lined up alongside conventional stainless-steel tanks and oak barrels.

As to wines, his current lineup includes the floral, sturdy, spicy and sharp Troon Vineyard 2022 Applegate Valley Kubli Bench Amber ($40), a skin-contact blend of Vermentino, Viognier and Roussanne, and the orange-tinted, lavender-scented, satiny, complex and refreshingly fruity Troon Vineyard 2022 Applegate Valley “Piquette!” ($25), a blend of so many grape varieties (Mourvèdre, Vermentino, Cinsault, Tannat, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Négrette) and so many painstaking steps in development that Wall’s description of the process could pass for a doctoral dissertation at UC Davis.

The first inkling that Syrah could be gaining traction in southern Oregon came via the Troon 2020 Applegate Valley Estate Syrah (sold out), so forward in its driving suggestions of flowers, berries, bacon, leather, pepper and acid that my first thought was that it should be on the wine list of every fine restaurant in the Jacksonville/Ashland/Medford area, and maybe it is, explaining why it is sold out.

Equally as impressive for its complexity and gusto was the Troon 2020 Applegate Valley Tannat ($50), intimidating in the depth of its color but fleetingly silken on the palate. Underscored with 24 percent Malbec, the Tannat had the structure and acidity to pair perfectly with baos of lamb prepared by the winery’s visiting chef, Carl Krause, proprietor of Earnest Baking Co. of Medford, whose food truck is parked frequently at wineries throughout southern Oregon; if you spot it as you drive about, stop.

Quady North southwest of Jacksonville isn’t the only winery to account for the rising esteem of southern Oregon as fertile territory for fine wine but it is one of the first and more daring to see the area’s potential.

Herb and Meloney Quady arrived in the area 20 years ago from California, where Herb’s parents, Andrew and Laurel Quady, started to show in 1975 with Quady Winery of Madera that the sunshine, fruit and heat of the San Joaquin Valley could be smartly exploited for dessert wines of rare imagination and authority.

Herb and Meloney Quady, however, saw in southern Oregon an opportunity for dry table wines of character and vigor. Today, they pretty much focus on Rhone Valley grape varieties as their means to enhance the region’s standing for fine wine, though they also are keen on Cabernet Franc.

In the cellar, Herb Quady and associate winemaker Nichole Schulte share a small-lot, minimal-interventionist, vineyard-focused approach to their wines, drawing grapes from the estate’s own expanding vineyard and other choice plots in Applegate and Rogue valleys. Their goal is tight, technically correct wines that seize the essence of variety and the place where the fruit was grown. (Quady North wines virtually leap from shelf and bin, in part for their many attributes, but also for the freshness and boldness of their labels, the art of which, inspired by early American textiles, is done by Meloney Quady.)

To this palate, the standout wines during our visit were the Quady North 2021 Rogue Valley “GSM” ($27), based largely on Grenache, whose juicy, spicy and savory quality spoke to the “garrigue” or dry brushy character so often identified with wines of the Rhone Valley but rarely found elsewhere; the inky, aromatic, husky and gregarious Quady North 2018 Applegate Valley “Flagship Syrah” ($65), whose flamboyance and conformation called for chary tri-tip just off the grill, and don’t hold back on the chimichurri; and the exceptionally fragrant, sweetly fruity, solidly built and seamless Quady North 2019 Applegate Valley Cabernet Franc ($35).

Other wines under other brands to stand out from our tour included the floral, savory and spicy Del Rio Vineyard 2021 Rogue Valley Estate Viognier ($22), the pungent, svelte, elegant and lively Del Rio Vineyard 2021 Rogue Valley Pommard Clone Pinot Noir ($45), the forward, lean and layered Kriselle Cellars 2020 Rogue Valley Cabernet Franc ($34), and the Ryan Rose Wine 2021 Rogue Valley Malbec ($50), an interpretation true to the character of the grape as it is captured in its most esteemed appellation, Cahors. The Ryan Rose is that deeply colored, floral in fragrance, sweetly fruity in flavor, sharp in acidity and layered with subtle suggestions of pipe tobacco and fresh herbs.