(Continued from Part 1)
The Willamette Valley is best known for Pinot Noir but Southern Oregon is still seeking what will be their signature grape or wine. They currently grow at least 70-80 different grapes and the region's climate and soils allow them to grow nearly any grape that exists. About 70% of the grapes they grow are red, with some of their top planted grapes including Pinot Noir (about 20%), Syrah (about 11%), Merlot (about 11%), Pinot Gris (about 10%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (10%).
Two of the more exciting grapes making their mark in this region are Viognier and Tempranillo, which a couple winemakers told me should be the signature grapes of Southern Oregon. However, those two grapes currently constitute only 3% and 4% of plantings, respectively, so they still have a long ways to come before becoming signature grapes. Plantings of different grapes continue, and currently Rhone grapes are starting to become more popular. One problem is that though the wine makers often chat and cooperate on an individual level, there really isn't a large, industry based group which would meet to discuss regional issues, such as what might best be a signature grape.
Though Southern Oregon is generally considered a warm-climate region, it possesses about 70 microclimates, and includes cool-climate areas. It occupies a similar latitude as sections of northern Spain, including parts of Ribera del Duero and Rioja, which probably is a reason why Tempranillo does so well here. The region also has four distinct viticultural zones, including Northern Umpqua Valley, Umpqua Valley, Rogue Valley and Illinois Valley. Much of the region has large diurnal to nocturnal temperature changes, which is good for certain grapes. Those grapes don't metabolize acid as quickly, as the cold temperatures help to shut down that process. Vintage variation is also significant in this region, and an important factor that winemakers must address each year. It is something that consumers need to realize as well, that vintage will play a far greater role in Southern Oregon than it usually does in California.
Greg Jones, a professor and climatologist at Southern Oregon University, has been a valuable asset to the wineries of Southern Oregon. In 2009, he was listed as one of Decanter's most influential wine persons and that honor is well deserved. He has consulted all around the world, including a terroir assessment of the Douro in Portugal. In Oregon, he helped to create the Southern Oregon AVA and conducted extensive grower surveys from 1998-2001. Then, in 2003, he established a presence at 29 Southern Oregon wineries to monitor climate, phenology, yield, fruit sampling, and much more. These surveys and studies have greatly benefited the region, providing much valuable information for the wineries, allowing them to better understand their terroir. His invaluable assistance has been instrumental in the growth of the Southern Oregon wine industry. His family is also involved in the region, owning the Abacela Winery. More wine regions need someone as passionate, dedicated and intelligent as Greg Jones.
Oregon has a long history of sustainable agriculture and is even the center for Demeter USA, the Biodynamic certification organization. About 47% of Oregon's vineyards are certified sustainable, and that number is growing, which you can also compare to the only 12% of California vineyards. Supporting Oregon wineries is thus good for the environment too. About 5% of Oregon wineries are certified Biodynamic, though only one winery in Southern Oregon, Cowhorn Vineyards, is so certified. It seems likely that other Southern Oregon wineries will eventually move to Biodynamic as it is a growing, albeit slowly, trend in Oregon. A concern for the environment extends to most, if not all, of the wineries in Southern Oregon.
One obstacle to making Southern Oregon wines more popular is that wine tourism is not fully supported by the region. The primary problem lies with restrictive laws which severely limit what wineries can construct on their property. As these wineries and vineyards are considered by law to be farmland, it is extremely difficult for them to add a restaurant or inn to their property. These laws probably hurt the region far more than they help, by limiting wine tourism which would bring more income to the area. Look at most wine region destinations around the world, and restaurants and hotels/inns at the wineries contribute to their popularity. It can even be a safety issue, where tourists who taste wines at several wineries, and could possibly be intoxicated, would be able to dine at a restaurant, or get a room at the winery rather than drive elsewhere to seek them.
In general, Oregon wineries focus on producing higher end wines, costing $20 and over. As such, a significant number of consumers find Oregon wines to be too expensive for every day consumption. For Southern Oregon, which currently lacks the fame or singular identity of the Willamette Valley, it thus becomes much harder to penetrate the market. Fortunately, at least a few producers in the Southern Oregon region are starting to address that issue by producing wines that cost less than $15, catering to maybe the largest consumer market. For example, the Valley View Rogue Red, pictured above, is a red blend that sells for around $10 a bottle. Hopefully, we shall see more value priced wines from Southern Oregon, as well as the rest of Oregon too.