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Wines of Sams Valley worth exploration

Sams Valley, cut by the Rogue River and in the shadow of the Table Rocks, does not look like ideal terroir for wine grapes. It's an area of gently rolling hills where summer days are hotter than elsewhere in the region and nights are warmer. Most of the valley looks like typical Southern Oregon cattle country.

Ah, but those softly sloping pastures hide fertile soils of clay and sandy clay loam, alluvial gravel and volcanic ash. The warmer air and the clay and riverbed soils work well with grape varieties typical of France's Bordeaux and the southern Rhône Valley, and the Rioja region of Spain. Cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, grenache, syrah, tempranillo, viognier, rousanne and marsanne grapes thrive here.

Sam's Valley has four award-winning wineries: Agate Ridge Vineyard, Folin Cellars, Cliff Creek Cellars and Kriselle Cellars. For this column, we'll visit Agate Ridge Vineyard and Folin Cellars. Cliff Creek Cellars and Kriselle Cellars will be featured in the next column.

Agate Ridge Vineyard lies to the east of the Rogue River, at 1098 Nick Young Road, Eagle Point, off Highway 62. It was established in 2001 by the Kinderman family; the first vines were planted in 2002, and the cozy and comfortable tasting room is in the property's original 19th-century farmhouse.

With an elevation of 1,350 feet and a southern exposure, the winery's 30 acres are planted with 17 types of wine grapes, mostly Rhône varietals, with several small blocs of grapes suitable for blending, including Semillon and Petit Verdot.

The tasting menu features 16 wines, including some pure varietals such as sauvignon blanc, viognier, pinot gris, grenache, syrah, malbec and primitivo (a Croatian-Italian clone of zinfandel).

The wines are priced from $15 (for 2012 Pinot Gris) to $32 (for 2009 Petite Sirah) as well as blends such as the 2011 Aleash (40 percent viognier, 30 percent rousanne and 30 percent marsanne), a traditional Rhône blending that is crisp and fruity ($18).

Winemaker Brian Denner also offers unique blends, such as his 2011 Weeknight White ($10, sauvignon blanc, viognier and marsanne), a 2011 Weeknight Red ($12, primitivo, pinot noir and petit sirah), and a 2011 Ridge Rock Red ($19, primitivo, cabernet franc and merlot).

The 2011 Weeknight Red and the 2011 Weeknight White both won medals at the 2013 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in Rochester, N.Y. The 2011 Barrel Fermented Viognier won silver at the 2013 Great Northwest Wine Competition in Hood River.

Folin Cellars is located at the western edge of Sam's Valley, at 9200 Ramsey Road, Gold Hill, off Highway 234. Owned and operated by Scott, Loraine and winemaker Rob Folin, the winery's 25 acres are planted with warm-climate varietals, including viognier, tempranillo, syrah, petite sirah, mourvedre and grenache. The 2009 Folin Tempranillo earned 90 points from the Wine Spectator.

The winery's new, attractive and light-filled tasting room at the vineyard is built over the barrel caves and work space — the underground placement saves energy.

Folin Cellar's 2010 Tempranillo ($30) is very much in the traditional Spanish style — full-bodied, earthy and mellow. The 2013 Viognier ($25) was started in stainless-steel tanks and finished for four months in new oak barrels and is very fruity with just a hint of residual sugars. The 2010 Misceo ($34) is a classic southern Rhône blend of 40 percent syrah, 40 percent mourvedre and 20 percent grenache with an earthy, spicy quality that complements the fruit flavors.

The 2010 Estate Grown Syrah ($30) is a blend of the three different syrah clones planted on the estate, with 17 months of barrel aging and a year-and-a-half bottling aging. It is very fruit forward and smooth but with enough tannins to age well.

The 2010 Estate Grown Petit Sirah ($34) is more austere but still earthy and very fruit-flavored and will age well.

Agate Ridge Vineyard, Folin Cellars, Cliff Creek Cellars and Kriselle Cellars belong to the Upper Rogue Wine Trail, along with LaBrasseur Vineyard and Del Rio Vineyard. The group, along with Roxy Ann Winery, will hold a Roam the Rogue Spring Passport Tour from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 24. A $29 ticket to the self-guided tour buys a logo Riedel wine glass, and tastings and food pairings at participating wineries. Information is available at http://roamtherogue.com.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.