8 Excellent Oregon Varieties That Aren’t Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir may be Willamette Valley’s most renowned wine variety, but there’s more to Oregon than meets the mass market, and much of it is happening in the south.
From the edge of Eugene to the California border lies the Southern Oregon AVA, a thriving stretch of vineyards planted on diverse sites and soils. The designated sub-appellations here—Umpqua Valley, Applegate Valley, Rogue Valley, Elkton and Red Hills—have planted more than 60 red and white varieties (many of which are atypical for the region), creating a range of unique, delicious and affordable wines. These may very well be Oregon’s next best bet.
Northwest Spain and Portugal’s native grape, Albariño in Oregon results in a fruitier wine than a typical Rías Baixas version. The best examples also show appealing minerality and crisp, ultrafresh flavors of celery, jicama, cucumber and a dash of daikon radish. Abacela, the Umpqua winery that pioneered Tempranillo in Oregon, has perfected Albariño, keeping alcohol levels low and acidity high.
Abacela 2014 Albariño (Umpqua Valley); $20, not yet rated.
Sauvignon Blanc is a stalwart in both Bordeaux (where it’s often blended with Sémillon) and the Loire Valley, notably Sancerre. New World versions tend to either emphasize the grape’s grassy characteristic (New Zealand), entirely avoid those notes (California), or place emphasis on crisp, clean citrus fruits (Chile). In Oregon, you get the best of all three worlds: They’re herbaceous, with bright fruitiness bolstered by lip-smacking acidity.
Upper Five 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (Rogue Valley); $18, 91 points.
Melrose 2012 Sauvignon Blanc (Umpqua Valley); $16, 89 points.
Pronounced VEE-yawn-yay, this grape went from being nearly extinct in France to being grown around the world and admired for its aromatic mix of white flowers, citrus and stone fruits. Viognier is a picky grape, with a tendency to ripen either too much or not enough. It can yield wines that are oily and flabby, or bitter and green. But when done well, as the examples below, it’s a lush, compelling wine with more flesh than other aromatic white grapes, and more complexity than most unoaked Chardonnays.
Cowhorn 2013 Viognier (Applegate Valley); $35, 92 points. Editors’ Choice.
WildAire 2013 Steelhead Run Vineyard Viognier (Applegate Valley); $19, 91 points. Editors’ Choice.
Considered one of the world’s most popular wine grapes, Grenache needs heat to ripen, and it can’t survive severe winter weather. Southern Oregon has all the right ingredients: hot, fairly dry summers, long, sunny autumn days and less risk of arctic blasts. It’s a low-acid grape, and it’s often famously found in Rhône blends (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre). But when it’s grown in a region that allows it to develop high acidity, it has the exceptional purity and dazzling, bright berry fruit necessary to stand alone.
J. Scott Cellars 2013 Grenache (Rogue Valley); $29, 90 points.
Jaxon 2012 Grenache (Rogue Valley); $36, not yet rated.
A native of Spain, this grape is now planted worldwide and often counted among the greatest of all red wine varieties, notable for its ageability. Young Tempranillo wines from young vines can often be pleasant, but fairly simple. However, when ripened well and given time in new wood, it blossoms into a meatier wine, featuring details of tobacco, tanned leather and vanilla. The best examples have impressive tannic grip and power. In Southern Oregon’s high-elevation vineyards, which have warm days and much cooler nights, Tempranillo has found a welcome home.
WildAire 2012 Ellis Vineyards Tempranillo (Rogue Valley); $28, 90 points.
Hillcrest 2012 El Grande Tempranillo (Umpqua Valley); $65, not yet rated.
Although Syrah is not new to Southern Oregon, the recent rise in quality is notable. Wild, peppery notes have been muted, aggressive tannins have been tamed and there’s an increased emphasis placed on showcasing pure, sweet, fruit flavors. While not as voluptuous as California Syrahs, nor as densely concentrated as the best from Washington, the Oregon versions compensate by offering more subtle expression of Syrah’s garrigue-driven, gamy nature.
Girardet 2012 Estate Grown Syrah (Umpqua Valley); $38, 89 points.
Dancin Vineyards 2012 Danseur Syrah (Southern Oregon); $30, not yet rated.
A mainstay red grape in central and southern Italy, Montepulciano is similar to Sangiovese, but has no connection (other than its name) to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. And now it’s making its mark in Southern Oregon. The owners of Belle Fiore—a vast and impressive new Tuscan-style villa just outside of Ashland—offer a range of wines that include Mediterranean varieties like Montepulciano (they also grow Barbera). This young wine already shows the grape’s potential: well-balanced flavors of tart berry and citrus peel.
Belle Fiore 2012 Belle Arte Montepulciano (Rogue Valley); $27, not yet rated.
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