By Dan Shryock

There’s something to be said for variety. That’s especially true in Southern Oregon wine country where there’s no shortage of wine varietals to experience.

Fall is a great time to explore the AVAs of Southern Oregon and discover the Tempranillos, the Viogniers, the Malbecs and even the Pinot Noirs. There are distinct differences between wines produced from the grapes of the Applegate Valley and the Umpqua, Rogue and Illinois valleys. You can taste it. 

The one constant across the region is the connection between the wine community and its customers. This is a consumer-based industry and the 60-plus wineries here have built a reputation for making visitors feel welcome. At small wineries, you are going to see the fall harvest and most likely interact with the very people who are making the wine.

“While the Willamette Valley and Oregon, in general, boasts a sense of community, I believe Southern Oregon really epitomizes this notion,” says Hilary Berg, editor of the respected Oregon Wine Press magazine. “It’s a close-knit group. There is an overall unpretentious vibe in Southern Oregon that makes it a special place. My advice? 'Don’t go changin’. ”  

And when Hilary Berg thinks of Southern Oregon wines, she says variety and quality are the first words that come to mind.

“Southern Oregon grows many varietals, from cool-climate Pinot Noir to warm-climate Tempranillo,” she says. “In fact, many Willamette Valley winemakers source fruit, including Pinot, from Southern Oregon. The region produces a high volume of quality fruit coming from interesting sites.”

Because Southern Oregon is warmer than Northern Oregon growing regions, there are more red wines in production. Hilary quickly recites the “big reds” to be found including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Merlot, Malbec, Dolcetto, Zinfandel, Grenache and Syrah. 

There’s more … Baco Noir, Maréchal Foch, Mourvedre and Petite Sirah.

“The diversity of soil and microclimates make Southern Oregon big red tasting fascinating and fun,” she says. 

That’s a lot of red wine. What about whites?

“Southern Oregon makes a variety of whites — there’s that word again,” Hilary says. “The cooler areas of Southern Oregon produce stunning Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer; while the warmer areas grow Albariño, Pinot Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Marsanne, Rousanne, Sémillon, Petite Sirah and Viognier.

“I personally love Southern Oregon Viognier, an often viscous, creamy white with stone fruit and floral notes. Southern Oregon Albariño is also a fantastic find with its bracing acidity and typical notes of citrus, almonds, flowers and freshly mown grass. Divine.”

The Southern Oregon wineries have combined to become a growing force in the U.S. wine industry. Ten years ago, this was a relatively undiscovered region. Since then, however, the industry has doubled in size and a number of strong personalities have stepped up to promote the area and its wines. There are great wines on the market now, area winemakers say, and the future looks very bright.

“Tempranillo may be considered Southern Oregon’s champion wine,” Hilary says. “After all, Earl Jones (of Abacela winery) was the first to plant the big Spanish red in the U.S. On the other hand, Southern Oregon Viogniers are special. Then there’s Southern Oregon Malbec. Delicious. Pinot Noir is also quite good.

“As more and more wineries establish in Southern Oregon, and as the general public gets to know all of its varieties, Southern Oregon will surely gain the respect it so much deserves. I know within the industry and among Oregon consumers, the respect is already there.”

The secret to the region’s varietal success stories is the diverse collection of AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). Southern Oregon is considered a “super AVA” that allows the two primary winegrowing regions, the Rogue and Umpqua valleys, to market products together. Sub-AVAs in the Umpqua Valley include Red Hill Douglas County and Elkton. The Rogue Valley has one sub-AVA, the Applegate Valley.

“Each boasts its own soils and climate,” Hilary says. “They all feature high quality wineries with beautiful scenery and friendly staff.”

Dan Shryock is an Oregon-based journalist and travel writer. When he's not visiting Southern Oregon or sampling local wines, he can be found cycling throughout the state.