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Move Over, Willamette: Southern Oregon Pinot Noir Is Taking the Stage

Hey, Willamette Valley, prepare to make room on your Pinot Noir stage for Southern Oregon. They are ready for their close-up.

The Southern Oregon American Viticultural Area (AVA) encompasses Applegate Valley, Elkton Oregon, Red Hill Douglas County, Rogue Valley and Umpqua Valley. The AVA’s two million total acres stretch from south of Eugene to within wine-spitting distance of the California border.

Those who picture the Southern Oregon AVA as a warm-climate region filled with fly fishing, Tempranillo and Syrah would be surprised to discover that Pinot Noir is the region’s most widely planted grape, accounting for over 40% of the planted acreage, according to the 2022 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report.

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While there are unproven claims that frontier photographer Peter Britt planted Pinot Noir in the Rogue Valley in the late 1880s, the grape’s provable Southern Oregon history begins in the Umpqua Valley. That’s where Richard Sommer founded HillCrest Vineyard more than 60 years ago. In 1959, just a few years after graduating with an agronomy degree from the University of California, Davis, Sommer transported Pinot Noir cuttings from Louis M. Martini’s Stanly Ranch property in Napa to Roseburg, Oregon. Dyson DeMara, who along with his wife, Susan, acquired HillCrest Vineyard from Sommer in 2003, reports that after a year of “rooting out” at a nearby location, Sommer planted his Pinot Noir vines, along with other varieties, at the HillCrest Vineyard site in 1961.

Pinot Noir grapes
Pinot Noir grapes / Image Courtesy of Deer Creek Vineyard

“Latitude,” DeMara says, “brought Richard here to do world-class Pinot Noir and Riesling. He knew this latitude brought you cooler temperatures the month of harvest. The long ‘coast’ to the finish you get here in the Umpqua allows you to develop and then trap flavors and perfume.”

Given the long history, why aren’t we more familiar with Pinot Noir made at the other end of Interstate 5? Volume is one significant reason. Although Pinot Noir makes up a significant portion of planting, the latest Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report shows the Rogue and Umpqua Valleys produced 14,490 tons of Pinot Noir fruit in 2022, compared to the Willamette Valley’s 61,928 tons. In addition, not all of Southern Oregon’s Pinot Noir production makes it into bottles sporting one of the region’s AVA designations.

Calling it the “dual nature” of the region’s wine industry, Herb Quady, partner and winemaker at Quady North Winery in Jacksonville, says, “Most of Southern Oregon’s vineyards are small, planted to a mix of varieties, and either make wine under their own brands, or sell fruit to small wineries. However, a small number of vineyards are very large, are planted mostly to Pinot Noir and their fruit goes into the large brands headquartered in the Willamette Valley and California.” And any wines finished outside of the Southern Oregon AVA are labeled under the general Oregon AVA.

So, while great Pinot Noirs are made in the southern part of Oregon (and labeled as such), you have to work to track them down. Those wines are typically made by the wineries and vineyard owners who matched their vines to locations where Pinot Noir can thrive. You might be surprised how often that doesn’t happen.

You May Also Like: What Makes Pinot Noir Pinot Noir?

Hill Crest Winery
Hill Crest Winery / Image Courtesy of Oregon Wine Board / Photography by John Valls

The Southern Oregon AVA offers a wide variety of soils and microclimates for vineyard owners to select from, so it is important to choose wisely. When I buy Pinot Noirs from Southern Oregon, I look for factors that help produce wines with elegance, moderate alcohol levels and elevated acidity.

For example, Irvine & Roberts estate vineyard is located in Ashland at 2,000– 2,200 feet above sea level with a north and east aspect. Co-owner Dionne Irvine says that combination “leaves us with a cool site within a warmer region. Matching varietal correctly to site allows one to make wines of a place, transparent, showing off our unique site in a way that no one can match.”

I also look for wines in areas where the vineyards are cooled by maritime breezes. One of those locations is the Illinois Valley, a spot with significant Pinot Noir potential. That’s where I located Deer Creek Vineyards, owned by Audra and Kenan Hester. Their estate vineyard is located 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean as the crow flies, without any geographical obstructions between them and those cool winds. Thus, their specific location is typically 10–15 degrees cooler than the rest of the Rogue Valley, with near-constant airflows and diurnal temperature shifts as high as 63 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Kenan Hester, “The way the fruit ripens here is much more similar to Mendocino or the Willamette Valley.”

If you’re ready to explore another part of Oregon to get your next Pinot Noir fix, below we’re rounded up a few more of the bottles you’ll find off the beaten path—the ones I share with friends. None of them appear in Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide. For now.

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Southern Oregon Pinot Noirs to Try

HillCrest Vineyard 2017 50th Anniversary Pinot Noir (Umpqua Valley)

This anniversary wine features the same label design that Richard Sommer used for his first commercial Pinot Noir release in 1967. The juice inside the commemorative bottle is well worth seeking out.

Intense aromas of boysenberries, orange zest, loamy soil and crème brûlée lead to flavors like blackcap raspberries, Bergamot tea, rosemary and toasted walnuts. This is a rich, balanced Pinot Noir with tingly acidity matched by an impressive tannic structure.

$75 HillCrest Vineyard

Deer Creek Vineyards 2019 Estate Grown Pinot Noir (Rogue Valley)

Deer Creek’s estate vineyard is in the Rogue Valley AVA, tucked away in the heavily forested Illinois Valley. This is a producer to keep an eye on.

A pronounced sweet wild raspberry aroma joined by notes of lavender and caramel makes for an excellent introduction. Frisky acidity and velvety tannins frame the wine’s raspberry, black tea and toasted pecan flavors. There’s also a saline note here reminiscent of those Pacific Ocean breezes that cool this vineyard.

$54 Deer Creek Vineyard

Crew Work 2018 Hundredth Valley Vineyard Pinot Noir (Elkton Oregon)

The Elkton Oregon AVA is one of my favorite places in Southern Oregon to hunt for Pinot Noirs with elevated acidity and a sense of elegance. This winery is one of my prized discoveries of the past few years.

Crew Work’s Pinot Noir leads with a dazzling onetwo aromatic punch of Bing cherries and chamomile, flanked by a bit of meadowfoam honey. The wine’s cherry, tart raspberry and lemon zest flavors curl around a live wire of acidity, with muscular tannins providing a backbeat.

$40 Elkton Wine Company

Lexème Wines 2019 Pinot Noir (Elkton Oregon)

This stunning Elkton Oregon AVA wine is made by Monja Hudson-Desmeules, who earned her enology and viticulture engineering degree in Switzerland at the University of Applied Sciences of Changins.

I love how the wine’s loamy soil aroma is intertwined with fresh nectarine and blackberry scents. Pie cherry and tart raspberry flavors hold court on the wine’s tangy palate, joined by a small amount of ginger soy sauce. The tannins are velvety, with lively acidity still kicking its heels.

$30 Lexème

Irvine & Roberts Vineyards 2021 Convergence Pinot Noir (Rogue Valley)

This Rogue Valley AVA treat is made with fruit from vines growing in the hills above Ashland at an elevation of over 2,000 feet above sea level.

The Convergence’s raspberry and cherry fruit aromas are accented by traces of chalk and pine needles. The wine feels light and fresh on the palate, with bright red fruit flavors mixed with bits of hibiscus flower tea and thyme.

$50 Irvine & Roberts Vineyards

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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