Though most people think “pinot noir” when asked to name an Oregon grape varietal, in the hotter and sunnier southern half of the state, wineries are producing powerful tempranillos, malbecs and other big reds. They are also grappling with the issue of whether or not they should proclaim a signature grape or two – much like their northern wine neighbors in the Willamette Valley have done with chardonnay and pinot noir.
The AVA’s of Southern Oregon
Southern Oregon (www.sorwa.org) is home to 70 – 80 wineries, including virtual wineries. Part of the issue is that the region includes 3 diverse AVA’s which produce 26 different grape varietals, ranging from gewürztraminer and riesling in the slightly cooler Umpqua Valley AVA near the town of Roseburg and massive syrahs and malbecs in the warmer Rogue and Applegate Valley AVA’s near Medford. There is also a possibility of a fourth AVA in the cooler Illinois Valley near Grant’s Pass.
The Pros and Cons of Identifying Regional Signature Grapes
When I visited Southern Oregon last week to participate in the judging of over 180 wines in their World of Wine Festival, I encountered much controversy over identifying a signature grape. “We enjoy being diverse,” said one winemaker. “We don’t want to be known for just producing one or two key varietals. We don’t want to be ‘fenced’ in.”
However, others disagreed. “I think we need some signature grapes to help differentiate ourselves as a region.” And “We make some massive red wines, and are getting some good press on our tempranillo. I think tempranillo should be one of our signature grapes.”
From a wine judging perspective, tempranillo does have a good shot at becoming a signature grape for this region. Not only did it win “Best of Show Red” this year, but in previous years as well. The tempranillos we tasted were massive with huge chalky tannins, dark fruit, complex spice notes, and a very long finish. Definitely not the medium-bodied fruity “crianzas” coming out of Spain, but a different wine altogether. And with summer temperatures hovering near 100 for up to three weeks at a time, it makes sense that Southern Oregon is able to ripen Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petite Syrah, and Malbec to such impressive lengths.
In terms of white wines, Rhone varietals are doing well with some excellent blends of viognier, roussanne, and marsanne. At the same time, an albarino won the “Best of Show White” this year, causing some people to wonder out loud: “Perhaps we should focus on Spanish varietals as our signature grapes.” Interestingly, both of the Best of Show wines came from the same small producer, Schmidt Family Vineyards (http://sfvineyards.com/) located in the Applegate Valley.
From a wine marketing strategy, it is recommended that wine regions focus on what they do well, and therefore should select one to three signature grapes. This is usually heavily dictated by terroir and what Mother Nature will allow them to grow well. The benefits are the region becomes known for producing exceptional wines in a specific category, versus a wide variety of wines that may just be average or mediocre – the danger of following a muddled strategy. However, once wine critics, sommeliers, and tourists start flocking to a region to sample its famous signature varietals, there is no reason that a smart and creative winemaker can’t also pull out some unique varietals and wow them with something different.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Liz Thach, MW is the Korbel Scholar and a wine business professor at Sonoma State University in California. She can be reached at Liz@lizthach.com.