Abacela Courtesy of Abacela

OVERSHADOWED BY the achievements of its big sibling to the north, Southern Oregon is a wine region in search of an identity. The territory begins in the Umpqua Valley and continues south to the California border, the familiar landscape of trees and greenery increasingly speckled with yellow and brown patches. They grow a lot of Tempranillo, but one grape doesn’t dominate as Pinot Noir does in the Willamette Valley. In fact, they produce over 70 different varietals.

At Abacela, near Roseburg, it’s harvest time. Forklifts materialize out of blindspots, hauling tubs of recently picked fruit. Wasps race around trying to grab supper. Winemaker Earl Jones talks about how he gave up his successful career as an immunology researcher to move to Oregon with his wife, Hilda, to plant Tempranillo. He talks with a southern lilt and makes self-deprecating jokes. Twenty years in, he has 76 acres, a smart-looking tasting room, and a successful wine label producing 12,000 cases per year.

“I’m still learning to be a winemaker,” he says humbly, before handing me over to Hilda for the tasting.

Abacela specializes in Spanish varietals, though not exclusively. (I soon recognize this as a motif—wineries here are thematically promiscuous.) I like the 2015 Albarino and Viognier—both are bright with a good mouth feel. There’s a Malbec boasting fresh tannins and juicy berries. Hilda is enthusiastic about the 2014 Tempranillo Fiesta, which is fruity and balanced, but not highly sophisticated. I feel bad for not liking it more. The 2013 Barrel Select is better, quite subtle for a Tempranillo, with smoky, blackberry flavors. I want to spend more time here, sipping wine in the gazebo, but I need to move on. Hilda packs me off with homemade bread and a bottle of rosé. 

Onward to DANCIN Vineyards, outside Jacksonville. Its bucolic setting, Mediterranean-style architecture, and 90-plus degree temperature seems better fit for a Tuscan hillside than Oregon—except of course, for the American accents, and a preponderance of cargo shorts. The place is bumping and everyone is eating pizza (crispy crust and excellent toppings). Dan Marca, the co-owner along with his wife Cindy (hence the name—geddit?), is demure, unfazed, and generous. He looks like he’s from central casting: Italian-American, from the East Coast with family in Sicily.

He pours Pinots, which are all remarkably good, though the Elevé 2014 is probably the stand out: fruit forward, but with minerality and a long, spicy finish. I think that’s all there is to it—that they’re Pinot specialists, but there’s more. An Italian blend, the Tribute (Barbera, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese), makes a great pizza wine, featuring dark fruit, low tannins, and a bitey acid. And then there’s the Syrah, the Chardonnay, the Pinot port....

I’ve found smallish wineries that produce a lot of different wines can be a red flag. It’s the Cheesecake Factory syndrome: Having over 250 items on the menu doesn’t make it a better restaurant. Rather than focusing on what they’re good at, the winemaker tries his/her hand at everything and the results are often mixed. DANCIN manages quality control and avoids this problem, as the wines are immensely drinkable across the board.

A broad portfolio is the common thread of all the wineries I visit (that and the nifty tasting rooms). Folin Cellars, near Rogue River, has Pinot, Cabernet Franc, Mourvédre, Grenache, and Tempranillo, along with blends. They even do my least favorite red varietal, Petite Sirah—though winemaker Rob Folin says he only makes it because it’s what his grandmother drinks. The Cabernet Franc is a bit lean, but there’s not a rotten one in the batch, and I find the Rhone-like Misceo both bold and sumptuous.

As Southern Oregon becomes increasingly popular, there is a debate on how it should present itself. I discuss this with Nora Lancaster of Kriselle Cellars, who says there’s a push to define the area as a Tempranillo producer to both emulate and distinguish itself from the Willamette Valley. At the same time, she says, “Our diversity is our strength.” I suspect Tempranillo could be a hard sell to a general market, and while all the ones I tasted were enjoyable, I’d still consider a Spanish Rioja wine the better value. The sheer number of varietals on offer can be dizzying (Kriselle’s selection runs from Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier to Sangiovese and Malbec), but this also makes for a compelling reason to visit—the sense of intrigue and discovery unmatched by other wine regions should be celebrated.