Last year, the annual Wine Media Conference took me to Southern Oregon, a wine region often overlooked for the more popular Willamette Valley (but perhaps not for much longer as Southern Oregon was just named one of the world's top five Wine Regions of the Year by Wine Enthusiast!) It is one of the more stunning regions I have visited although, sadly, when I was visiting, it was plagued by smoke drifting in from wildfires, which have become part of the calculation for winemakers and wineries in the region.
Stretching north from the California border, the region wends its way up to the southern edge of the Willamette Valley. Defined by valleys running between the Cascades on the east/desert side and the Siskiyou and Coastal ranges on the west/ocean side, as well as rivers and soaring trees, it is much warmer and drier than the rest of Oregon as the mountains block out most of the ocean influence; but, due to its altitude, mountain, and river influences, and breezes that can shoot up the valleys, it is subject to major diurnal shifts, a wine grower’s dream, slowing ripening so grapes maintain their acid and develop complex flavors. Its soils are extremely varied, enabling a wide range of grape varieties. I was lucky to visit wineries in Rogue Valley, the site of Oregon’s first official winery in 1873, underscoring a long history of grape growing and wine making in Oregon, as well as wineries in Applegate Valley, Ashland and Southern Willamette.
In addition to its physical beauty, I was especially struck by Southern Oregon's deep commitment to biodynamics and sustainability. While it remains to be seen how this region will manage through the threats of drought and fires in the years to come, the wines that I tasted, both cool climate and warm climate varieties, were innovative, fresh, full of fruit and carefully vinified – the essence of ‘Wine with Everything,’ the brand statement for Rogue Valley wines, but well applied to all of Southern Oregon. Indeed, there appears to be a wine for every food/occasion as I experienced directly during my visit.
Below is a summary of some (by no means all) of the best pairings, which I hope will also give you a peek into the diversity and character of the wines. (Click here for a refresher on the key principles of pairing food with wine).
The food and wine pairing magic began, courtesy of Travel Southern Oregon and Rogue Valley Winemakers, at the historic Ashland Springs Hotel in Ashland, famous for its Shakespeare Festival. First stop was the cheese table, where I discovered a cheese that has continued to haunt me in the best possible way and which, in its own way, became a symbol of this trip... delicious, gorgeous and smoky....
1. Rogue Creamery Cheeses and Rogue Valley Wines
Rogue Creamery was founded in Ashland in 1933, but first made global waves in 2003 when its Rogue River Blue became the first non-European blue cheese ever to win “World’s Best Cheese,” and, in 2019, the first American-made cheese to be crowned World Champion at the World Cheese Awards in Bergamo, Italy. Meanwhile, Rogue's Smoky Blue won a SIAL Innovation Award in Paris in 2006. Like all the food and wine producers we met in Oregon, Rogue Creamery is focused on sustainability - they were Oregon’s first Public Benefit Corporation (“B Corp”) in 2013.
Rogue Creamery Smoky Blue with 2017 Coventina Chardonnay
While the Rogue Valley Smoky Blue was not offered as a defined pairing, a huge wheel was available for us to hack into, which I did with glee. How to describe? Well let’s start with the zesty creaminess of the cheese, pricking the tongue with its ‘blue’ veins, showing smoke and spice and darkly nutty notes from cold-smoking on hazelnut shells. A deeply sensual tasting experience with waves of complexity, it is one of the best and most intriguing cheeses I have ever tasted. I liked it with the 2017 Chardonnay from Coventina, a boutique, organic winery in the Rogue Valley, with plenty of acid to stand up to the mouth-coating creaminess of the cheese. The Chardonnay's subtle, definitely-there smoky oak complemented the smoke in the cheese, while its bright apples, pears, peaches and hint of cream nestled in the comfy, but tarty, bed Smoky Blue made for it.
Rogue Touvelle Cheddar with White Pinot Noir
I am not a big fan of White Pinot Noir which is vinified off its red skins. While this works brilliantly for Champagne, to me, as a still wine, while trendy, it forgoes much of the magic that it should be getting from those lovely, fragrant skins. That said, I was enchanted by the White Pinot Noir from Rogue Valley's Hummingbird Estate, which boasts 47 acres of vines planted on the site of a former pear orchard. Rogue Creamery Touvelle is a 'hard' cheese with a savory nuttiness and just a bit of a tang. Mild enough not to overwhelm the delicate fruit in the wine, its saltiness brought out the wine's honeyed peach and 'white' berry fruit, and enhanced the wine's structure, which complemented the Touvelle's creamy density.
Rogue Valley Blue and 2014 CowHorn Grenache
Rogue River Blue is made from wheels of cheese wrapped in biodynamic Syrah grape leaves that have been soaked in pear liqueur and aged for more than a year. Oh my! It greeted us at CowHorn, a Rhone-inspired biodynamic winery on the upper Applegate River. I loved the CowHorn 2014 Grenache with this spicy umami cheese, with its hint of dark pear and crunchy veins of blue set in luscious cream. The Grenache, relatively light on the tannins, but with a dusty earthiness, favored the umami, and, full of red currants, cherries, licorice, and a touch of violet, provided a pairing with all the power of a classic Stilton and Port, but lighter, brighter and, well, more Oregonian!
2. Saffron Risotto Fritters with 2018 Irvine and Roberts Chardonnay
I am definitely not always a New World Chardonnay gal, but I do appreciate it when it is well done and well paired, such as the 2018 Irvine and Roberts Chardonnay - from an 80 acre organically farmed Ashland vineyard that is certified sustainable by Salmon Safe and L.I.V.E. Ashland. Its zing of acid and weighty mouth, its touch of white flowers, creamy peaches, yellow apples and no-nonsense vanilla, went hand-in-hand with a perfectly fried risotto ball, laced with fruity/floral notes of saffron, picked up and amplified by a subtly spicy sauce,
3. Barking Moon Salad with Grilled Peaches and 2014 CowHorn Reserve Viognier
Just north of the California border, Cowhorn Biodynamic Vineyard and Garden (lavender, asparagus, hazelnut trees), is surrounded by mountains and soothed by the Upper Applegate River. Even with a slight veil of smoke, it is a beautiful property, owned and managed by the energetic Mimi Banks. Banks, and winemaker Sarah Thompson (previously at Troon) are dedicated to biodynamics and Rhone varieties. The lunch they served was from local Jefferson Farms Kitchen and the Barking Moon Salad with Grilled Peaches, was a standout, especially when amplified by CowHorn’s full-bodied 2014 Reserve Viognier, which retained enough acid to keep its creamy fruit cocktail of ripe peaches, nectarines, apricots, and flaked coconut bright. It paired perfectly with the ying and yang of caramelized peaches, musky goat cheese (from Mama Terra Chevre - a local organic micro-creamery), citrusy white wine dressing and peppery native greens. Sweet and sour and luscious.
4. Smoked Gazpacho and Smoked Lamb Meatballs with Troon Piquette and Smoky Sunset
Under the leadership of General Manager Craig Camp* and Winemaker Nate Hall, Troon Vineyard in Applegate Valley is a trail-blazing Biodynamic and Regenerative Organic Certified farm with an ethos of expressing what is in the vineyards, rather than what is in the winery. Troon, which was just named by Wine Enthusiast as one of the Top Five Wineries in the US, uses no oak, only native yeasts and no additives. The 100-acre farm is bio-diverse with an impressive range of compost and biodynamic preparations, as well as grapevines, apples, vegetables, honeybees, sheep, chickens, and two handsome Pyrenean Mountain Dogs. The wines reflect Troon's hands-off winemaking. While their Siskiyou Syrah, restrained, elegant, and concentrated, is straight-up gorgeous, some of the wines are probably not for the less adventurous palate. These are wines that are alive and kicking and full of character but, thankfully, not full of the noxious wine funk that can plague 'natural' wines.
At a spectacular vineyard dinner, grilled and smoked up by Ember and Vine's Sean Martin and Mary Cressler, there were many delightful pairings to choose from, but my favorite was Troon's Piquette with Smoked Tomato Gazpacho and Smoked Anderson Valley Lamb Meatballs with Orange Glaze. The Piquette is an unusual wine which startles at first, then grows on you and ultimately delights. It is a 'frugal farmer fizz' according to Troon, a type of recycled natural wine that has been made for hundreds of years - the ultimate peasant wine. Troon takes the leftover skins from white and rose wines, adds water, macerates the skins, presses them and then, just after fermentation starts, bottles the wine with a crown cap, allowing fermentation to finish in the bottle: hence its invigorating fizz. The acid in the gazpacho synched well with Piquette's sizzle, bringing out rose hips and lavender, as well as sour cherries, raspberries, peach skin, and a touch of apple cider. In spite of its fizz, the wine had the heft to shoulder the smoke in the lamb meatballs, while the bittersweet citrus in the mandarin glaze teased out a bit of marmalade in the Piquette. A delightful smoky treat as we watched the fierce colors of the setting sun through a haze of distant smoke.
*For more on Troon and its regenerative mission, read Camp's article, a finalist in the 2022 Jancis Robinson wine writing competition.
5. Vichyssoise with 2Hawk Sauvignon Blanc
Named after the two hawks that have flown over the vineyard, a former pear orchard, since it was planted, 2Hawk Vineyard & Winery is part of the Rogue Valley AVA in the Bear Creek sub-basin, the Rogue River’s largest tributary. It is owned by Ross and Jen Allen and, along with winemaker Kiley Evans, they are dedicated to sensible sustainability and innovation in the vineyard, in the winery, and in the tasting room.
My favorite pairing at the lunch they hosted was a no fuss one: Vichyssoise and 2019 2Hawk Sauvignon Blanc. On the tasting menu, the soup was matched with their opulent 2017 Darrow Viognier, very nice but super floral. I preferred the way the aromatic, lemony, peachy Sauvignon Blanc sassed up the soup’s four ingredients - potatoes, leeks, cream and chives - its bracing acid softened by the cream, while the wine's slight grassiness harmonized with the leeks and chives. Nothing fancy. A simple pairing, but sometimes those are the ones that soar.
6. Local Red Snapper Sandwich, House White & the Willamette River
On a conference break, my fellow wine writer, Terry Nozick (aka Truth'nWine), and I wandered along the gentle Willamette River into Eugene in search of lunch and found Fisherman’s Market, operated by fisherman Ryan Rogers who offers a 'boat to table' meal experience, with ocean fresh fish. We opted for the local fried snapper sandwich, topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion, and spicy 'bang- bang' sauce, all served on a fresh-baked bun with criss-cut fries. The snapper was fresh and flaky in its crunchy, salty batter, the bun was soft, but with just enough give, the bang bang gave it a nice kick, and the fries were perfection. Accompanied by the house white wine in a plastic cup, it was a masterful pairing! Acid, Fat, Salt and Ocean Brine. Perfection.
7. Fresh Berry Pie, Vanilla Ice Cream, Brigadoon Off Dry Riesling ... and a Covered Bridge
South Willamette Valley is the bottom bit of the Willamette Valley, about 50 miles south of Portland and, while Pinot Noir is king there as it is in the rest of Willamette, winemakers do not limit themselves to it, with Chardonnay, Riesling, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and other grape varieties grown and bottled by both urban (Eugene) and rural wineries, many of which are small batch. We were treated to lunch in Cottage Grove, considered the gateway to Willamette Valley, on the only remaining covered railroad bridge west of the Mississippi. Cottage Grove is where Buster Keaton filmed the spectacular train crash in 1926’s The General (a year after the covered bridge was built).
The spread, which included savory quiches, salads and fruit pies from local producers, and quality wines from small local wineries, Brigadoon, Iris Vineyards, and Bluebird Hill, had plenty of pairing enchantment, with the covered bridge setting creating it is own kind of magic. But, for my sweet tooth, the standout pairing was the fresh berry pie from Coast Fork Brewing and vanilla ice cream from Lochmead Dairy, sweetly paired with Brigadoon’s 2019 off dry Riesling.
Brigadoon’s 15-acre estate is located 20 miles NW of Eugene in the coastal foothills of the Willamette Valley. The family-owned winery (Chris and Sheree Shown and winemaker son Matt Shown), like so many wineries in South Willamette, is committed to organic vineyard practices and sustainability. Shown makes both a dry and an off dry Riesling, but it was the off dry that got my lips smacking and happy with its high acid and luscious 18g/l of residual sugar for balance. Displaying a touch of lime zest, concentrated ripe peaches, nectarines, and a spray of orange blossoms, it paired like a dream with the flaky, crust-perfect pie, made from local black and red berries, that oozed their deep blue juice into the generous scoop of velvety vanilla ice cream. The wealth of fruit in the wine, along with its sugar and acid, balanced the tartness of the berries, the rich buttery crust and the dollop of frozen cream. This pairing epitomized my oft-made point about the sensual joys of well-made Riesling when matched with the right food.
Food and Wine Pairing (sort of) Fails...
The wines were lovely, the food was lovely ...their marriage, not so much. (This is just my opinion, my ultimate pairing philosophy is 'if you love it, it works!')
1. Brownie Tartlets, Tahitian Vanilla, Fleur de Sel and Roxy Ann 2018 Claret.
The Claret from Roxy Ann winery is a blend with some quite tannic grapes - 40% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc and 14% Malbec. It is a lovely symphony of blackcurrants, red cherries and spice; but, even though the tannins showed softness, sugar in food makes wines taste drier, more bitter and less fruity, and this charming dessert did just that to the wine, in spite of its touch of fleur del sel, which was not enough to make this a food pairing win.
2. Scharffen Berger Bittersweet Chocolate Bar and Weisinger 2018 Tempranillo. Why Not?
Scharffen Berger is based in Ashland and I am truly, madly, deeply in love with their dark and divine chocolates. Their bittersweet dark chocolate bar displays fruit and earthiness but, to my palate it still had too much sugar for the wine over-emphasizing the tannins and not allowing the sprightly sour cherry fruit and spice in Weisinger's beautifully-crafted Tempranillo to shine through. Would love the chocolate with an LBV port and the Tempranillo with some corn tacos de carnitas!
3. Voo Doo Doughnuts and King Estate Brut Cuvee Sparkling wine
Okay, who doesn't love a tour guide who greets you at 9 am with sparkling wine and fresh-baked doughnuts!! And what a great wake up call the 2016 Sparkling Brut Cuvee from South Willamette's King Estate, the largest Biodynamic® vineyard in North America, was with its delicate hint of red berries, its yellow apples, lemon zest, biscuit, toast and persistent creamy bubbles. But, what happens when this is matched with a sweet food? The acid soars and the fruit sinks (check out my food and wine pairing blog for my rant on wedding cake and champagne). Some salty, oily hash browns maybe? I drank my sparkling wine first, gave my palate a rest and then paired the wickedly yummy Voo Doo doughnuts, a Portland-based doughnut-lovers cult, with the cup of coffee I still desperately needed.
Because, sometimes, the very best pairings have nary a thing to do with wine....
Slam Dunk! Jelly Voo Doo Doughnut, Nossa Familia Coffee... and
downtown Eugene, Oregon
As I always say, when it comes to food and wine pairing, whatever floats your boat is the wave you should ride, but if you would like to learn some principles behind successful food and wine pairing, click here for Food and Wine Pairing: Six Basic Principles to Build Confidence.
Have fun experimenting!