The Oregon that isn't Pinot Noir
Oregon is a young wine region, dating back to the 1960s. In that short time, it's become defined by Pinot Noir. The grape accounts for over 60% of plantings, mainly in the long, narrow Willamette Valley that stretches south of Portland. Given the high quality of its Pinot Noir, it's no wonder that the association between Oregon and Pinot is so strong. But Oregon is a large state, sharing some of its AVAs with neighbouring Washington and Idaho in desert-like conditions in contrast to the rainy Willamette Valley. And then there's Southern Oregon, just north from California, with a continental climate not dissimilar from the northern Rhône.
I decided to make the drive up from Napa to find out about the wines being made in Southern Oregon, without quite realising the terrain one has to cover. After hours of driving straight along the flat I-5, the highway rises into the Cascades, a mountain range with active volcanoes that stretches all the way to Washington. It's beautiful, but snow was falling heavily with temperatures dropping to -3˚C in the middle of the afternoon.
Once across the border, the highway falls quickly down into valleys where snow was still drifting down on vines planted in obscure corners far away from any major city. The hills are beautiful, covered with trees and snow; the valleys remote, with wineries hidden away. This is the US at its quirkiest and most local.
The first thing to be said about Rogue Valley is that it has a great name. The second thing is that it's a dramatically beautiful region, surrounded by snowy hillsides covered in evergreens (logging has been Oregon's main industry since the nineteenth century). It's a popular tourist destination, not so much for its wine as for its Shakespeare festival. Nevertheless, it's quite remote and the wineries are scattered far apart in the countryside, especially in the Applegate Valley sub-region.
Many fruits are grown here, and grape vines are still a recent addition to the landscape and economy. But although few people outside of Oregon know about the wines from the area, the wineries have already established a reputation with tourists as well as locals. Some focus is needed, on how to promote the industry as well as which grape varieties work best.
Despite the snow during my visit, apparently anything can grow here in the dry summers, even Petit Verdot. The best wines are from Rhône varieties, both black and white, where there's a fresh acidity to complement the ripe fruits and full body. But this is a young wine region still learning about what works and what doesn't: there's also good Merlot and the Gewürztraminer I tried from Wooldridge was as good an example of that difficult grape variety as I've had in some time.
A couple of hours further north is Umpqua Valley, another region with a great name. Despite being further north, it's a bit warmer than Rogue Valley (it wasn't snowing for a start, just raining), with a climate more Spanish than French. The main draw for my visit was Abacela, a winery established in 1995 by a dermatologist from Florida. His love for Spanish wine caused him to ask why no one in the US made wine from Tempranillo as good as that found in Spain (a fact which largely still holds true across the US and the rest of the world). With the help of his son, a climatologist, they spent three years looking for the perfect site within the US for Tempranillo.
Tempranillo is a tricky grape: it ripens early so needs a difficult climate to make it ripen more slowly. In Rioja, Tempranillo is grown at altitude with a maritime influence, while in Ribera del Duero it can be grown at 850m elevation to escape the hot temperatures. The choice of a site in Umpqua Valley was an inspired one: a continental climate with varied aspect, elevation, and temperature where Tempranillo gets rich, ripe aromas without ripening too quickly.
Abacela's Barrel Reserve Tempranillo 2013 is an extraordinary wine. It has the concentration and structure of Ribero del Duero, without the aggressive tannins, and is easily the best Tempranillo I have tasted from outside Spain. It makes clear how important site selection is for Tempranillo: you can't just plant it for the sake of it. Abacela also make very good Albariño and Garnacha, making Umpqua Valley a little piece of Spain.
It's hard to imagine the small wineries of Southern Oregon making enough of an impact to dislodge perceptions of Oregon as a Pinot Noir state: to do so will take a long, long time. But there's some really good wine being made there, at very affordable prices. It may not be an easy region to get to, but the beautiful landscape and the wine are worth the effort.