The Oregon Winemakers Going Rogue with Biodynamic Bubbles and Global Grapes

DanCin Vineyards / Photo Courtesy Danny Hall

Formally recognized in 1991, Oregon’s Rogue Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is south of the Umpqua Valley AVA. Both are part of the larger Southern Oregon AVA.  

Given their relative isolation and distance from the tourist-heavy Willamette Valley, Rogue wineries have been largely unencumbered by Oregon’s reputation as “the Pinot Noir state.” The region’s roughly 4,000 vineyard acres are planted to more than 50 varieties, about two-thirds of which are red. 

Near its western border, the ocean-influenced climate favors white wines. As you venture east, it’s warmer and drier than the Willamette Valley, and it’s more diverse in its varieties.  

Rogue Valley winemakers are inclined to experiment in the vineyard and the winery. They have found notable success with Mediterranean and Iberian varieties. But don’t rule out the state’s standbys: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. All three thrive in the south, and many Oregon wines that are widely available depend upon Rogue Valley grapes. 

Here are profiles of five leading Rogue Valley producers, all with distinct strengths. 

Remarkable Rosés and Rhônish Reds 

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The Quady North team / Photo Courtesy Maureen Battistella

Quady North 

Tongue firmly in cheek, Herb Quady titles himself “Fearless Leader, Chief Instigator, President for Life and Assistant Bottlewasher.” His family’s California winery is known for its array of sweet wines, but Quady set out to explore other styles when he and wife Meloney founded Quady North in 2005. 

There are two estate vineyards, named for daughters Margaux Mae and Serafina Eevee, which are planted to a dizzying range of southern French and Bordeaux varieties. Described as “Pan-Rhônish with a distinct Loire-ish influence” the Quady North portfolio impresses with its variety, innovation and value. 

Winemaker Brian Gruber believes diversity is a strength of Rogue Valley. “That means that we can do a lot of things very well, but the key is matching varietal to site and microclimate.” 

Get to Know Oregon Wine Beyond Pinot Noir

Along with region-defining varietal wines are carefully crafted blends. The Arsenal is 80% Cabernet Franc, 10% Merlot and 10% Malbec, three grapes that have Gruber particularly excited. It’s given extra bottle age, with 2014 the current release, and is a fine value. Another budget-friendly bottle is GSM, a blend of 43% Grenache, 41% Syrah, 16% Mourvèdre, and a fruit-bomb of a wine in the best sense. 

Quady North also produces three rosés: a GSM, a bottling of Grenache and one of Counoise. Each is made with grapes specifically farmed for the rosé program and emphasize aromatics, lower ripeness and bright, natural acidity. 

Separate yet integral is the Barrel 42 custom-crush operation. It serves roughly 20 customers and accounts for about 70% of the business. Quady explains that it serves an important function as an incubator and service provider.  

“Starting up a small brand is extremely difficult and expensive,” he says. “Custom-crush houses such as Barrel 42 allow these small enterprises to build themselves from the ground up.” 

From Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to Blockbuster Barbera 

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Pinot Noir Grapes / Photo Courtesy Danny Hall for DanCin Vineyards

DanCin Vineyards 

Despite its 150-year history, Rogue Valley viticulture remains highly experimental. DanCin is among the leaders. The brand burst on the scene in 2010 with five Pinot Noirs, three of which included Rogue Valley fruit, and a single Chardonnay. Back then, Rogue Pinot grapes were generally consigned to inexpensive “Oregon” blends. 

“The 2010 Adagio was our inaugural estate Pinot Noir,” says owner Dan Marca. “It’s a dance term meaning ‘first movements that lead to others.’ This wine honors Swiss immigrant Peter Britt, who planted the first vineyard in our region more than 150 years ago.” 

From there, the DanCin portfolio quickly grew. Experimentation with multiple Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones produced as many as 15 Pinot Noirs and seven Chardonnays. Those classic Oregon varieties, which currently occupy two-thirds of the estate vineyard, have been joined by a long-term commitment to Italian varieties, particularly Barbera and Sangiovese.

Marca’s heritage is Italian, and DanCin’s hometown of Medford is a sister city to Alba. So, its work with Italian varieties has been planned from the start. Drawing inspiration from the winery’s “more delicate” Burgundy program, the Italian wines are handled gently, fermented with native yeast and aged in tight-grain French oak.  

The Barbera has been a revelation. The 2017 was a massive, black-fruited, brilliantly balanced wine. A Port-style version and a rosé were bottled in 2019. But the experimentation doesn’t stop there. 

“We recently bottled a unique red blend (Pinot Noir and Barbera) named Synergy,” says Marca. “It represents the best of Burgundy and Italy.”  

Tasted pre-release, the 2018 Synergy surprised with its comfortable two-grape alliance. The Barbera, which represents 75% of the blend, dominated. The Pinot Noir, not a grape generally blended with anything, added a lightness, elegance and a vein of raspberry to the darker flavors. 

Everything in the Right Place 

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A Punchdown / Photo Courtesy David Gibb for 2Hawk

2Hawk 

Perhaps no Rogue Valley winery covers more viticultural geography than 2Hawk. Chardonnay (Burgundy), Sauvignon Blanc (Loire), Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec (Bordeaux), Viognier, Grenache (Rhône) and Tempranillo (Iberian) all succeed admirably. How is this possible? 

Winemaker Kiley Evans answers cautiously. His advice to those who seek to plant a vineyard in Rogue Valley would be to start with Syrah, Malbec, Tempranillo and Grenache.  

“Those red varieties are what I have found express authentic varietal character and vintage variation as well as consistently ripening even in cooler vintages like 2010 and 2011,” he says.  

Evans says that they also produce well if planted appropriately, and they command economically sustainable prices for growers. 

“We are a young AVA and vineyard, and exploration of the potential is our mission and why we are here.”— Craig Camp, winegrower, Troon Vineyard

Less surefire, though often successful, are Bordeaux varieties, especially Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Looking at the big picture, Evans says that “the valley is so geologically diverse that a credible argument can be made for a large number of other varieties such as Mourvèdre, Pinot Noir, Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.”  

Among white grape options, Evans favors Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, but also gives a nod to Albariño, Chardonnay, Grenache BlancGruner VeltlinerMarsanne and Roussanne, provided they’re planted in the right place. 

“I realized a long time ago that regardless of variety, grapevines really like a continental, almost desert-like climate with wide diurnal temperature swings,” he says. “We are fortunate that we have a climate that has the heat to generate vigorous growth, intense sunshine to generate photosynthate [sugar] and ripe berry skins, and cool nights during the critical ripening period to preserve acidity and aromatic complexity. We’ve seen practically every commercial grape variety be successfully grown and critically acclaimed in the valley.” 

By this measure, the Rogue Valley is the opposite of the Willamette Valley, where a few grapes led by Pinot Noir have essentially defined Oregon wines for decades. As Rogue Valley winemakers sort through their embarrassment of enological riches and explore what does best where, Oregon’s global reputation will grow past just great Pinot Noir, which should benefit all. 

Biodynamic Bubbles from the Kubli Bench 

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Cow Horns at Troon Vineyard / Photo Courtesy Craig Camp for Troon Vineyard

Troon Vineyard 

Troon’s history dates to the 1970s, but a recent ownership change has breathed new life into the wines and vines. Now farmed biodynamically, the estate vineyard occupies the Kubli Bench in the Applegate Valley sub-AVA.  

Winegrower Craig Camp offers this overview of the terroir: 

“The Kubli Bench is about five miles long and three miles wide at its widest point. It is an ancient bench of the Applegate River, defined by a steep elevation of 20 or more feet as it sits above the flood plain. It has a distinct mesoclimate that is clearly seen in the winter. When the surrounding area is covered with fog, the Kubli Bench is under sunny skies.” 

The Siskiyou Mountains provide a stunning background to the vineyard, whose unique soils include decomposed granite in addition to river and ocean sediments. There are dramatic day-night temperature shifts of 50˚F or more degrees during summer.  

Slightly cooler and wetter than more eastern parts of the Rogue Valley AVA, the harvest here lingers into October. Fruit can hang longer to achieve flavor and phenolic ripeness without dramatically increasing sugar and alcohol levels, and still maintain robust acidity. 

Oregon's Cutting-Edge Winemakers

Among the more unusual recent releases from Troon are Piquette!, a lightly fizzy wine made by refermenting pomace, and two pétillant-naturels, one from Tannat and the other a 50/50 cofermented blend of Sangiovese and Montepulciano. 

Such experimentation, says Camp, is natural for a new and growing region.  

“We are a young AVA and vineyard, and exploration of the potential is our mission and why we are here,” he says. “We hope what we learn will create a roadmap for the Applegate wineries of the future.” 

Look for Rhône-style white blends and a rich Vermentino from the estate. There’s also a pair of bright and fruity Syrahs and a potent, cofermented blend of Tannat and Malbec, dubbed Cuvée Pyrénées. Another unusual success is the Amphorae Amber, an orange wine also made with Vermentino grapes. 

High Value Alpine Wines 

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Pao and Gerber of Foris Vineyards / Photo Courtesy Foris Vineyards

Foris Wine  

The Rogue Valley AVA incorporates three adjacent river valleys: Applegate, Illinois and Bear Creek, all of which possess tributaries to the Rogue River. In the southwest corner is the Illinois Valley, where the Foris winery and vineyards are located, just a few miles from the California border.  

Isolated and deeply influenced by coastal mountains and ocean breezes, this heavily forested region is cooler and wetter than the rest of the Rogue Valley AVA. Therefore, it has a different varietal focus. 

Foris’s founding Home Vineyard is the southernmost vineyard in the Pacific Northwest. Established in 1986 by Ted Gerber, it has been a bastion of value-oriented, Alsatian-influenced white wines ever since. 

Cedar Ranch is another Foris site where the white varieties attain expressive freshness and crisp acidity. A third site, Maple Ranch, sits on a bench at the back of the valley and is the prime location for the winery’s Pinot Noirs. 

Stephanie Pao took over winemaking in the spring of 2017. She studied at University of California, Davis, and worked at wineries in California and Washington, as well as Bethel Heights and Lemelson in Oregon. She credits the high altitude and well-draining, gravelly soils as important contributors to its wine styles. 

Look for crisp and immaculate dry Gewürztraminers, Pinot Blancs, Pinot Gris and Rieslings, all priced around $15. There’s also an elegant yet complex rosé of Pinot Noir, and red Pinots that recall some from alpine regions in Italy and France. Foris has earned more Best Buy designations from Wine Enthusiast than any other estate winery in Oregon. 

Published on August 27, 2021
Topics: Oregon Wine