A recent trip to Southern Oregon brought me to visit quite a few of the plentiful wineries exploding in the Umpqua River Valley. I tasted quite a few great wines, but wanted to pass on three wineries to our readers who are really doing things the right way. Not only making great wine, but practicing sustainable farming and taking great care of the earth that supplies them with their grapes. Definitely worth a trip to visit. Or pick up a bottle from your favorite wine retailer, or ask them to procure one for you if they don't yet carry it.
I hold on for dear life as Earl Jones’ tractor careers along the steep grade of his Umpqua vineyards, and he explains to me why he and his wife decided to set up a winery in this little known corner of Southern Oregon:
He was sipping a phenomenal little Ribera del Duero (Spanish wine made from the Tempranillo grape) while eating chorizo cooked in a hormo—Spanish slow cooked stove –while in Spain on travels, when he suddenly became incredulous. “It is criminal for America to not produce a great Tempranillo!” he thought to himself, and thus the search was on.
It took almost ten years from that moment to the first planting of grape vines, but after researching sites throughout the US, he found a little spot of very hilly land in the Umpqua Valley that mimicked qualities of some of Spain’s top Tempranillo producing regions. He and Hilda set up about ten acres and slowly over the years, the winery has expanded and production now includes Tempranillo, Malbec, Garnacha, Dolcetto and Syrah for reds, and Albarino and Viognier for whites. They also make a lovely port style wine out of traditional Portuguese varietals like Tinto Roriz, Bastardo (my favorite name for a grape!), Tinta Cao and Touriga Nacional.
Earl and his wife’s backgrounds were in medicine, not winemaking. So the start of this new venture led them to both learn a lot about the geology and growing conditions of their little microclimate. The vineyard land sits on a fault line of the Juan de Fuca plate in between the Klamath and Oregon Coast Range mountains, and causes intense variety of soil types and steep hillsides. Blue schist and volcanic soils mix with jasper on the incredibly steep terrain. The challenge of growing grapes in such conditions has created the need for innovation as well as the replacement of many tillers on the tractor! Because dry farming is not possible on such a rocky site, they take extreme measures to conserve water use. They have developed a modified sprayed irrigation system that diversifies the water to the perimeters of the vine roots in order to spread the depth and increase tenacity of the vines in such rocky soil. He experiments with different clones of the Tempranillo variety, looking for those that will grow with the most ease to make great wines on the site, and plans for a clonal test vineyard are already underway alongside the plans for the newly expanding winery.
The viticultural practices are sustainable, though not certified, and Abacela joined LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology liveinc.org) this year. He works with the neighboring Wildlife Safari to obtain “zoo doo” as compost in trade for the pomace from the winery which is used in the elephant bedding materials.
Between the Fault Line and Chaotic Vineyards, Hilda works with orchard experts to help retain some of the property's extremely old apple and pear trees. This natural preserve within the vineyards also acts much like a biodynamic wineries “wild space” allowing various birds and wildlife to create homes and diversify the ecosystem.
Tasting Notes of some of my favorites:
Albarino 2009 – dominant peach flavors are enhanced by early removal of the North slopes leaves to allow full ripeness of the grapes. Great acidity and subtler mineral notes. Versatile white, especially with seafood—crab!
Garnacha 2008 – overwhelming fruit on the nose with lighter color and bright acids. Lighter bodied red for early in meal—seafood.
Tempranillo Reserve 2005 – really dark color, incredibly complex nose. Spice and chewy cherry and fruit leather with a velvety mid palate. Roast and braised meats, charcuterie and pork.
This winery has undergone several iterations, beginning in 1961 with Richard Sommer, pioneer of the Oregon wine industry. Not only was it the first estate winery in Oregon, but it produced the very first Pinot Noir! Having then undergone some less than favorable forms over the 80s and 90s, Hillcrest has now emerged as one of the top producers of boutique wine in the region. Dyson Demara and his wife Susan come from California wine backgrounds, and produce only about 1400 cases of wine annually. Their motto is “the trick is there are no tricks” and they believe in small production with limited handling of the fruit.
Their wines are all terroir (place) driven, and the vines are some of the oldest in Oregon—still from the original Sommer plantings back in the 1960s. They are all dry farmed using sustainable practices and year-round cover crops, and yield about one and a half tons and acre. Dyson’s wines parody in name some of the top wine regions he admires and endeavors to pay honor to.
Tasting Notes of some of my favorites:
Right Bank 2006 – a play on the Cheval Blanc wine of Bordeaux’s right bank. Absolutely gorgeous. Cab Franc driven nose, with pure cassis and clear purple fruit on the mid palate and finish. Pair with lamb!
Old Vine Zinfandel 2006 – 20% dried fruit added back to the fermentation. Mimicking an Amarone-style wine from Italy. Dark, intensely jammy nose but not cloying at all on the finish. Really berry driven but not insipid. Tougher food match, but great HUGE wine. BBQ!
Nonich 2006 – a play on the region Chinon, known for herbaceous and food friendly Cab Franc driven wines. Incredibly fresh fennel on the nose with hints of thai basil and rosemary. Warm herbal notes over a bright bing cherry body and really clean finish. Yum with grass fed beef.
Syrah (San Roc) 2006 -- a play on the region of Cornas in the Rhone known for some of the most tannic brutish versions of Syrah in the world. Foot treading on all the skins and a scorcher of a vintage led to this GIANT Syrah. Sinewy textures from grape stems included in fermentation added more depth and weight. This is a bruiser of a wine with chocolaty deep leather and chew. BIG red for all types of winter stews and hearty dishes
Riesling Ambrozia 2009 – completely Germanic in style, this wine could be used alternatively as perfume as well as wine! Philosophically complex nose with hints of kerosene and tons of lemon peel and apricot. Bone dry with great acid. Mosel style and SO lovely. Pair with flavors of summer herbs and game meat terrines.
This may be the only winery in the United States to claim an Hungarian influence! John Olson has been making the wines here for three seasons, and he’s the one new winery every winemaker in the Umpqua seems to have an eye on. He also may be making the only domestic Bull’s Blood in the United States. Famed in Hungary, this wine is a blend of Kekfrankos (also known by the monikers Blaufrankish and Lemberger) and Kadarka. Kadarka is one of the few red wine grapes where the pulp is actually red as well as the skin, and this makes wines made from the wine an incredibly blood-like red.
The notorious story of Bull’s Blood and the Siege of Eger goes like this: Suleiman the Magnificent was leading the unbeatable Ottoman army into Hungary. The small and underprepared Hungarian army was fed a grand meal including copious amounts of the local Kedarka-based wine to calm their nerves before what was to be their inevitable defeat at the hands of the Turkish forces. After much consumption, the dark red wines had fully stained the beards of the Hungarian soldiers. The Turks, seeing these seemingly “blood stained” beards rumored amongst themselves that the Hungarians must be feasting on the blood of bulls to strengthen themselves before battle. Fear and panic spread through the Turkish army, and with their morale defeated, the Hungarians emerged victorious even in such an unmatched encounter. The wines have retained the nickname “Bull's Blood” ever since.
John’s winery is small—with literally every spare space growing vines. To get to the winery, you actually have to drive between two narrow rows of vines! The fermentation tanks and all the equipment for processing is outdoors, with the gorgeous view of the Umpqua River lazily meandering by. John believes the outdoor winemaking adds to the sense of terroir (place) in his wines, although he confesses that come November, the outdoor winemaking facilities are less than ideal. He’s meticulous about what is near and around his wines—he won’t even let visiting tourists smoke on the property! All the vineyards are dry farmed and use no pesticides, and all the grapes are hand harvested.
Tasting Notes on some of my favorites:
Dolcetto 2006 – Nice spicy notes and pretty grippy acid. Brambly raspberry fruit and medium weight. Great with bbq or braised meats
Syrah 2006 – Dark, chewy leather and dark fruit. Intense and brooding color and long finish with slightly granular dusty notes.
Bull's Blood 2006 -- Intense, dark rustic red with hints of orange peel and spice on the mid palate. Really fun wine to experiment making traditional paprikash!