Full Pull Southern Hinterlands of the Pacific Northwest

Hello friends. Several of the most thrilling PacNW wines I’ve sampled over the past few years have come from the waaaaaay southern hinterlands of our region. Like parts of the PacNW that are within spitting distance of California. I’m talking about the Rogue Valley AVA, and its sub-appellation, the Applegate Valley AVA.

These wines always get me to thinking about the relationship between geography and destiny. Like if the Rogue Valley was more like the Walla Walla Valley or the Willamette Valley or the Napa Valley, or anyplace reasonably close to a major population center, I wonder whether these wines would be less under-the-radar gems and more the stuff of closed mailing lists, breathless anticipation of new releases, cult wineries, etc etc.

Today we have a pair of wines firmly rooted in the southern reaches of our home region, both of which have dazzled me recently.

2015 Leah Jorgensen Cellars Tour Rain

I have loved everything I’ve tasted from Leah Jorgensen Cellars so far and have been itching for an opportunity to write about Leah’s wines. It is rare to see a winery hit the scene with such a fully-formed sense of house style. But there it is, right there on the winery website – Making pretty wines in the Pacific Northwest… 100% inspiré par les vins de Loire! – and there it is in bottle. Every single bottle I’ve had has been a) pretty; and b) clearly inspired by the Loire Valley. Leah cut her teeth in the trade repping Joe Dressner’s portfolio for Louis Dressner Imports, and I’m not sure I can think of better experience to hone a Loire-focused palate.

This idea of “Loiregon” has been quietly gaining momentum in recent years, a bit of pushback against the Oregon=Burgundy Pinotocracy. That momentum became somewhat less quiet last year Jon Bonné wrote a terrific article entitled “Is Oregon Wine’s True Soulmate the Loire Valley?”

There’s certainly an argument to be made, and Leah’s wines are part of the vanguard making it. One such wine is her “Tour Rain,” more Loire-related wordplay, this time a riff on the lovely, thirst-quenching Touraine Rouge of the Loire Valley. It is a 60/40 blend of Cabernet Franc and Gamay Noir, a blend you’d otherwise never see outside the confines of the Loire Valley. The Gamay comes from a cool site called Havlin Vineyard in the windy Van Duzer corridor, the Franc from the southern end of the Applegate Valley, a site called Mae’s Vineyard, owned and farmed by Herb Quady of Quady North fame. All of it was aged entirely in neutral French oak.

It clocks in at 13.4% listed alc and comes roaring up out of the glass with a nose so expressive, outgoing, and pure it could almost move a jaded wine retailer to tears. Violets, minerals, huckleberry fruit, Cab Francian braising greens. All there in spades. My first palate note: “outrageous purity.” Sense a theme? There is a real palate-staining intensity here, despite the moderate alc, and so much freshness to the fruit that you almost expect the berries to crunch. That fruit is beautifully balanced by crushed rock notes and peppery greens, the whole package offering complexity and grace.

One more quick anecdote to underscore my fondness for this winery. So, two kids at home, one just turned 3, the other 1. We don’t get many dinners out. And a recent dinner out had us scrambling out the door, so much so that I didn’t have time to grab a bottle of wine and had to put my faith in the restaurant’s list, always a dicey proposition in greater Kitsap County. We got to the restaurant, I quickly scanned the wine list, and my worst fears were confirmed with a desultory group of bottles… right up until I spotted a well-priced Leah Jorgensen wine. Again, my instinct was to shed a tear of relief and happiness. Because of course the wine was excellent, totally complementary to every bite of food we ordered, and a complete pleasure-bringer, from first sip to last. Lovers of PacNW wines: you owe it to yourself to check out Leah Jorgensen Cellars. This is a star in the making.

2013 Cowhorn Syrah 21

We offered the 2012 vintage of this last year, and it was a surprise hit. I’m thrilled that we have access to another vintage.

To put into context how remote Barbara and Bill Steele’s Cowhorn is, it is closer to San Francisco (six hours) than Seattle (seven hours). Even if you get to Portland, you still need to go another four and a half hours to make it to Cowhorn. It’s out there.

The winery first flashed onto my radar when David Schildknecht wrote about Cowhorn in back-to-back years covering Oregon for Wine Advocate. Here he is in 2013: Bill and Barbara Steele’s Applegate Valley vineyard has been known for some years as Southern Oregon’s viticultural star (even if I personally came late to discovering them). But it’s clear to me from the recent releases tasted with them in July – not to mention from re-tasting their 2010 Syrah 58 – that their renditions of Rhone varieties need no longer shy from comparison with any in the world, even those whose authors are named Alban, Baron or Clape. Given quality this amazing – combined with a climate undeniably daunting, not to mention the assiduous pursuit of biodynamic viticulture – the prices that Steeles are asking are almost alarmingly low. If the potential achievable with Rhone cepages interests you – but perhaps just as much, if you have become jaded by the wealth of outstanding examples from multiple continents – do not put off any longer experiencing Cowhorn’s wines!

That is a whole lot of strong praise from a critic not prone to it, and especially not prone to it for new world wines (I know many a Washington winery relieved that Schildknecht’s tenure covering our home state only lasted a single year). So yeah, I was intrigued, but until recently, it was difficult to source the wines in any meaningful quantity here in Washington. Fortunately, we now have a solid importer/distributor bringing the wines in, and we’re on a multi-year run of more regular access.

Much of the Steele’s 16-acre (Demeter-certified biodynamic) vineyard is planted on top of small stones from an ancient riverbed (where the Applegate used to flow, thousands of years ago). The climate in their little corner of Oregon also closely resembles the Northern Rhone, which is why they planted a lot of Syrah (also Grenache and a number of Rhone Whites). This Syrah comes from two vineyard blocks (1 and 5), harvested on October 23. It was fermented with native yeasts and then spent nine months in 40% new French oak. It clocks in at 13.4% and begins with a nose of earthy/smoky peat moss, ferrous mineral, and boysenberry. There’s an attractive fecund quality to the nose, like walking into a happy greenhouse. The palate is more tightly wound than I remember the 2012 but just as lovely, with pinpoint balance of fruit and earth elements.

I already mentioned one exacting critic (Schildknecht) who is pretty much a Cowhorn fanboy. Now that Neal Martin is covering Oregon, we have another tough critic with an old-world palate. Surprise, surprise: he too has deep admiration for this winery. Martin is a tough grader; I’d recommend focusing less on the number than on the text of the review:

Wine Advocate (Neal Martin): [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD] 92+pts.

First come first served up to 24 bottles total, and the wines should arrive in a week or two, at which point they will be ready for pickup or shipping during the next temperature-appropriate shipping window.

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