Everything old is new again.
There is a trend among the quality wine-grape growers and winemakers of Southern Oregon to return to traditional methods that are ecologically sound and socially responsible, in addition to being economically viable.
How does this translate to better wine? The move to organic, sustainable and biodynamic cultivation and winemaking produces higher-quality fruit and wines that better express the distinctiveness of the grape variety and its "terroir" — the specific plot where grapes are grown.
Locally, Quail Run Vineyards, Trium Wines, Troon, Wooldridge Creek, Upper Five Vineyard and Cowhorn Vineyard, along with Abacela in the Umpqua Valley, are among the growers and winemakers that have adopted sustainable or biodynamic methods.
"This area, Southern Oregon, is unique and special," says Bill Steele of Cowhorn. "We have a diversity of microclimates. Wineries separated by only a ridge line can produce the same grape variety with different flavors."
The U.S. government regulates the term "organic." Organically grown grapes are cultivated without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Organic wines are made from organically grown grapes without the addition of synthetic sulfites or cultured yeast in the fermentation process. Not all organically grown grapes, however, are made into organic wines.
Organic, sustainable and biodynamic methods all work off the concept that a vineyard is a site-specific ecosystem. These methods rely heavily on soil, water and energy analysis in the planting of a particular varietal in a particular vineyard. They involve a complex growing technique of spacing, trellising and pruning accompanied by balancing weed control with optimizing oxygen and organic matter in the soil. The wine is made with a minimum of acid or sugar adjustment.
Biodynamic farming differs from organic or sustainable farming. It is a holistic system that places importance on all of a farm's elements: air, water, soil, rocks, daytime, nighttime and animals. A strictly biodynamic approach also emphasizes "the rhythms of nature" including the effect of the phases of the moon on planting and growth and homeopathic treatments for soil, compost and plants. Not all growers using biodynamic techniques adhere to the complete biodynamics program.
"Our goal is to produce the finest quality wines with the least amount of intervention, to bring out the grape's essential flavors more clearly," says Steele.
Bill and Barbara Steele bought their Applegate Valley acreage in 2002 specifically to adopt the biodynamic technique of farming. They started with a multiyear testing of the soil on the property and determined that the area for wine grapes was similar to the soil and climate in France's Rhone Valley. It was similar, in fact, to the conditions at the celebrated Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine commune. The Steeles planted that region's grapes: syrah, grenache, marsanne, roussanne and viognier. They were remarkably successful. The prestigious "Robert Parker's Wine Advocate" awarded ratings of over 91 points to seven of their wines in August 2012, and five of their wines received ratings of over 92 points in November 2013.
Bill Steele was among the speakers at a workshop on "Biodynamic, Organic and Sustainable Viticulture/Enology," sponsored by the Rogue Valley Winegrowers Association and Oregon State University Extension was held Nov. 13 at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point to get the word out to other local growers and winemakers.
Other speakers at the workshop included Glenn McGourty, a wine-growing and plant-science adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Mendocino County, and Ryan Collins, Research Chair of LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), an Oregon nonprofit that has been active since 1999 in promoting interest in agricultural techniques that are the least toxic and environmentally damaging throughout Oregon and Washington.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.