Grapes have been ripening in hills between Grant's Pass and Ashland for more than a hundred years. Like much of the American west, Southern Oregon was settled by waves of European immigrants who brought their passion for wine-making to the New World. With a climate similar to Southern France--hot, dry summers and the cooling influence of the ocean--grapes flourished. But what were once small, family-run vineyards producing just enough wine for the table are now growing into larger-scale commercial operations--as well as attracting Californian and French growers seeking new opportunities.
But the area is still in its infancy, wine-wise. Most wineries are still small and intimate affairs, producing artisan wines. Prices can be surprisingly high (often upwards of $25 per bottle) explained by one vintner as a necessary evil for young, start-up wineries that have high production costs and only three or four vintages under their belt.
Unlike the Willamette Valley to the far North, this region has no particular varietal to call its own. With long hot summers and considerably less rain, warm-climate grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (in addition to some lesser known varietals like Malbec, Temperanillo and Cabernet Franc) seem to flourish and are producing some interesting wines. There has been some hit and miss success as with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris--but overall, they're usually suited to cooler climates.
Wineries in this region tend to be small, informal affairs without much pomp. You're just as likely to walk into an impromptu barn or outbuilding with a few tables and chairs as a full-fledged tasting room. And that's the charm of it all. Though some wines npolished, there is a passion and a earnestness to many of them that is all but unfound in more mature wine regions.
Southern Oregon is a region that asks for open-mindedness and curiosity and rewards with surprising gems around nearly every bend in the road.