GRANTS PASS, Oregon – The Applegate Valley in southern Oregon has a lot going on as a region to make great wines. Panoramic natural beauty, however, is not one of them.
Unlike the Columbia River Gorge, a region of Oregon with the potential for excellent wines and far more breathtaking scenery in all directions, Applegate’s compelling attributes are mostly calm and often invisible.
Located in the far southwest of Oregon, the valley follows the meandering course of the Applegate River as it flows north from across the California border to empty into the Rogue River. The Applegate Valley Wine Zone of America, or AVA, is a larger and warmer sub-region of the Rogue Valley AVA.
Despite charming pockets of greenery and pretty country roads, the area can often seem rather flat and simple, although the Siskiyou Mountains rise gently to the west. Nonetheless, contradicting the oft-repeated idea that great wine regions must have great views, the Applegate Valley is home to compelling wines.
The region’s elevation, 1,000 to 2,000 feet above sea level, allows for dramatic temperature changes between hot, dry days and cool nights, allowing for a long and balanced ripening season. The gravelly, loamy, often granitic, well-drained soils are a welcome ground for the wide variety of grape varieties grown there.
The Willamette Valley to the north dominates the perception of most of the Oregon wine industry with its exceptional Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.
But slowly, other parts of Oregon like the Applegate Valley and the Columbia River Gorge are starting to carve out their own identity as producers of surprisingly good wines.
The Willamette winemakers are some of the Applegate Valley’s biggest fans. Several Willamette producers like Day Wines and Division Wine Company round out their portfolio by purchasing grapes from the Applegate Valley. But a few excellent Applegate producers also make their own wines.
Most Applegate Valley wines are sold locally, to residents or tourists who take day trips from Ashland and Jacksonville, which draw crowds for the annual Shakespeare and music festivals.
Some producers choose not to distribute widely, such as Joe Ginet of Plaisance Ranch, who makes many different wines, including excellent Malbec, Carmenère and Mondeuse (a red grape from the Savoie region that was supplied to Mr. Ginet by parents there), although it will ship direct to customers in most states.
Others, like Quady North’s Herb Quady, which produces fine Rhône-style wines, want their wines to be more widely distributed. Many small vineyard owners, who grow “other things than Pinot Noir,” as Mr. Quady said, sell their grapes to growers in other parts of the state.
But I had not tasted Plaisance or Quady Nord until recently. Aside from the excellent Applegate wines I have had from producers at Willamette, the wines from one producer, Troon Vineyard, have impressed me so much over the past few years that I have driven seven hours of the Mendocino coast in July to visit Applegate Valley.
Troon, outside of Grants Pass, isn’t really new. It was founded in 1972 by Dick Troon, a farmer who planted cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. But Troon’s modern story began when the farm was bought in 2016 by Denise and Bryan White, Texans seeking a place in Oregon. They in turn hired Craig Camp, a veteran of the wine industry, as their general manager.
Mr. Camp first decided to convert the vineyards – Cabernet and Zin had long since been uprooted – to biodynamic and regenerative agriculture, while making the estate more biodiverse. They planted apple trees and a vegetable patch, and added chickens and sheep for grazing in the vineyard and resuscitated honey bees, a program of creating beehives like bees in the wild rather than growing honey.
Biodynamics and regenerative agriculture place particular emphasis on building and maintaining soil health while creating a thriving and diverse environment. Theoretically, at least, the farm becomes a self-regulating ecosystem in which the vines have everything they need without additions like fertilizers or herbicides to make up for what has been lost or taken away.
In practice, it is not always so clear. But Mr Camp can point to many triumphs, such as a diseased block of vermentino which he says worked well after converting to biodynamics.
Mr. Camp now sees himself as an advocate for practical biodynamic agriculture. He was once a skeptic, he said, but was only convinced by tasting wines that impressed him and later learning that they were made from grapes grown biodynamically. The improvements he saw in the microbial life of the soil in Troon convinced him even more.
Troon recently received regenerative organic certification, which, in addition to organic farming, requires him to demonstrate improvements in soil health and water management and to meet employee management and care standards. To animals.
Mr. Camp and his team are renovating Troon’s infrastructure and replanting the vineyard, mainly with grape varieties from the Rhône valley, such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Roussanne and Marsanne; the south-west of France, such as tannat, negrette and rolle (also called vermentino); as well as others from Italy and Spain.
In all, Troon has 45 acres planted with 20 varieties, some of which were added just to determine which grapes will make the best wines.
“We have to experiment,” said Nate Wall, the Troon winemaker. “We are a young AVA”
Mr. Camp says the darkness of some grapes works in Troon’s favor.
“I find that trying to sell wines like Negret is easier than Pinot Noir,” he said. “We connect with people who say, ‘Négrette? Oh, I want to try this. “
If I admire the way Troon cultivates and his empirical attitude, the proof is in the wines, always fresh, crisp and expressive. A 2020 vermentino is pure and energetic, full of citrus and herbal flavors, yet refreshing and intriguing.
A 2019 Côtes du Kubli (named after the Kubli Bench, the geographic feature Troon sits on), predominantly Syrah with 16 percent Grenache, is tangy, dry and lip-smacking. A 2019 tannat is lovely, with floral and plum flavors.
Troon ferments wines in amphorae, and makes orange, sparkling-natured and piquette wines, all of the buzzwords that, in Troon’s hands, demonstrate why people were drawn to styles in the first place.
The growing consumer interest in picking in particular has been surprising. Historically, piquette was made by adding water to the pomace – the skins, seeds, and stems left over after pressing the grapes – then resealing the mixture, resulting in a fine, sparkling, low-alcohol drink that was given to winegrowers.
In his modern incarnation, he has developed an audience.
“We made picket for the first time in 2019,” said Camp. “I thought it was for geeks, but it flew out the door.”
Troon has also been forward thinking, planting late ripening grapes like Mourvèdre which may not be ideal now but will come in handy as the climate changes.
“We are planting on the belief that the climate will continue to warm,” Camp said. “It’s a year-to-year process, if it doesn’t ripen enough it will make a grand rosé or even a pet-nat.”
While wine has been produced in the Applegate Valley since the 1850s, the industry died with Prohibition, not restarting until the 1970s. Until much more recently, this was not considered financially feasible. .
Mr. Quady has hedged his bets since the founding of Quady North in 2006. He also sells grapes; he owns a business, Applegate Vineyard Management, which does agriculture in a number of small vineyards; and he runs a bespoke crushing operation, Barrel 42, where customers can use the equipment and facility to make wine.
But he has also just built a new large winery that will combine Quady North and Barrel 42 in one building, and he is working to expand the distribution of his Quady North wines. The biggest problems right now, he says, are the threat of forest fires and the management of water resources.
Mr. Ginet de Plaisance, whose family has operated Applegate for over a century, wanted to plant a vineyard in the 1970s.
“The banks didn’t want to lend me money,” he said. “But they would if I milked cows.”
So, Mr. Ginet ran a dairy farm for 30 years until he finally convinced a bank that a vineyard would work. It was able to become a commercial winery in 2006, selling the dairy cows and complementing the wine with an organic beef business. He said he has always practiced organic and regenerative agriculture.
“All I need is water and manure,” he says. “It is so much easier to cultivate when you have healthy soil. “