Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ump & Coming, Oregon's Umpqua Valley

The Umpqua Valley is probably one of Oregon's least known wine producing regions. Oregon's reputation for wine production has developed largely around the northern climes of the Willamette Valley and it's sweet spot for the cooler climate varietals that do so well in Burgundy, most notably of course, Pinot Noir.

At the state's southern border with California a climatic zone in the Rogue and Applegate valleys sees Oregon producing an array of different wines including Rhone and Bordeaux varietals as well as a concentration on Zinfandel.

Where does that leave the Umpqua Valley? Well, somewhere in the middle. Both geographically and in terms of what it's producing when it comes to the region's wines.

The Umpqua, which includes Oregon's newest AVA, Elkton provides a range that you won't find in either the Willamette or the Southern Oregon AVAs. The climatic variability of the AVA is perhaps best illustrated by the region's two best known quality producers. At the southern tip of the AVA you'll find Abacela, with a focus on Spanish varietals and known for their Tempranillo. At the northern end you'll find Brandborg winery, and winemaker Terry Brandborg in the aforementioned Elkton.

In between, a budding wine region grows.

Anchor Points for the Growth of a Wine Region

Down towards the southern end of the Umpqua is one of Oregon's most visually compelling wineries. The newly expanded Abacela is the culmination of a love story. Earl and Hilda Jones' love affair with Spanish wine, particularly that of Rioja and Ribera del Duero. That pursuit led the Jones' from Dallas. Texas to Oregon, and what they targeted as perhaps the most perfect climate to grow Tempranillo. Earl's pursuit helped in part by perhaps the only person in the region who has had a greater impact on the local wine industry than Earl, his son Greg who's a climatologist at nearby Southern Oregon University.

Abacela has helped to put the Umpqua Valley on the map in recent years. And through the use of geological and climate mapping, Earl made a very scientific decision to land in the dry and hot southern reaches of the Umpqua, where his Tempranillo has taken root.

Up in Elkton, Terry Brandborg at Brandborg Winery is crafting high acid white wines like Riesling and Gewurtztraminer as well as Pinot Noir in the cooler and wetter climate of Elkton. The Umpqua Valley is actually home to the first Pinot Noir planted in Oregon. Richard Somer planted Pinot in 1961 some four to five years before the grape was planted in the Willamette by David Lett. Hill Crest Vineyards however is a fair bit farther south and truthfully, Elkton is probably a much more suitable location for Pinot Noir. Elkton's proximity to the Pacific means the maritime influences keep the air temperatures cool, but it also sees a very dry growing season similar to the Willamette Valley.

Terry landed in Elkton after leaving a successful career as a "garagiste" winemaker in California's Bay Area. He and his wife Sue planted 5 acres of vineyards on a parcel that surrounds their home.

These two established talents serve as reliable anchor points for a region and have demonstrated it's capability for producing fine wine. The development of the region as a whole however is still a work in progress.

Growing a Reputation

The Umpqua Valley has a bit of rugged beauty to it. For those of you mostly used to the verdant green hills of the Willamette wine country, you'll find something similar in Elkton but the rest of the valley is far more arid and all of it is scenic. A culmination of sorts in both the Cascade, Coast and Klamath mountain ranges, as well as beautiful rivers that cut through the valley.

New wineries are cropping up throughout the Valley and vineyard planting is accelerating  For many years the region has been a supplier of Pinot Noir grapes to the larger Willamette Valley wineries particularly in cooler years. This has been particularly true of much of the Pinot grown in the warmer transitional climate zone of the Umpqua where it's a fair bit warmer than Elkton. (Picture a bit more fruit forward Pinot Noir, more California stylistically than Willamette Valley.) If the fruit is good enough for some of the Willamette's big boys it certainly will be good enough for a growing number of Umpqua producers.

In between the Pinot from Elkton and the Tempranillo from the southern end of the AVA there is a good deal of quality Syrah and Grenache, the latter a real potential standout, though it can be a struggle to ripe in cooler vintages.

For the Umpqua Valley part of the challenge is building their own future, and the Southern Oregon Wine Institute, hosted at the local community college is a part of that growth. Capturing local talent and continuing to attract those looking to break out of more established regions in either California or the Willamette Valley. The program at SOWI offers viticulture and enology programs as well as wine marketing certifications. The institute comes with a world class modern production facility and allows for hands on learning and hopefully will stoke the passion of some home grown talent.

The Umpqua also has it's challenges. It's a sparsely populated area, so unlike the Willamette Valley where there is an enormous local market in the Portland metro area, the Umpqua will need to rely heavily on marketing outside of the region to both develop that reputation and frankly, to sell the wines.

It's a big region and you could argue that it's size may make tourism challenging at least a tourism that solely emphasizes wine. The region's outdoor offerings, and scenic beauty make it far more than a one trick pony. Nearby Crater Lake and world class fly fishing as well as what looked from my perspective to be fantastic road and mountain biking options.

There's work to do for the Umpqua Valley, both in terms of raising the overall wine quality and profile, as well as figuring out how to market such a wide ranging region. There are a lot of wineries that are producing hybrids like Baco Noir, some relying on them heavily. And the case being made is that they're popular in the tasting rooms, but they're not necessarily raising the profile of the region, or the winery producing them. Additionally, an emphasis on marketing and packaging could benefit the greater region, where many of the labels tend towards quaint or sentimental.  The region has potential however and people that you find easy to root for both in the wine community and the region in general.

(On a visit I took there, I was hosted by the Umpqua Valley at the C.H. Bailey House, a bed and breakfast just outside of Roseburg, I'm not the kind of guy to use the word cute to describe anything, but for this place I'd make an exception. I also subsequently washed my phone which was loaded with photos so I've pilfered these from the internet.)


The Umpqua Valley has so much more than pinot noir (where if that is your love, the Willamette Valley is the place to be) and Tempranillo. Tempranillo for many of us is a lack luster grape that produces fairly uninteresting wines. Not a huge reason to explore a wine region if Tempranillo is the offering. But the region produces some excellent Cabs, Syrah, Cabernet Francs and even Petite Sirahs that are truly top notch and resonate with the more sophisticated wine traveler. The more than 150 different soil types (the most diverse soils in the country)as well as the huge diversity of climate makes this region something very special. The nature for growing fine wine grapes is unsurpassed in the country. We are still in our infancy with regard to what we can do here and every year our most talented wine makers & winery owners such as Dyson DeMara of HillCrest, Steve of Misty Oaks and Pat Spangler of Spangler Vineyards continue to explore growing different grape varieties and making stunning stand alone varietals as well as beautiful blends. We are so much more than Tempranillo and Pinot!

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