More meandering through Sams Valley
Sams Valley encompasses a broad stretch of softly rolling hill country where the Rogue River emerges from the Cascade Mountains. Almost at the valley's center, on McDonough Road just after the pavement ends and gravel begins, the vineyards of Cliff Creek Cellars come into view.
Shortly beyond that point, at 1015 McDonough Road, the rather imposing wrought-iron gates of the winery announce that, yes, you've found it.
Those gates are the most elaborate part of this cozy, friendly, family-run winery with remarkably good wines.
Cliff Creek Cellars began in the early 1990s when the Garvin family purchased the property and planted 70 acres of grapes. The vineyard's 1,400-foot elevation, southwesterly exposure and volcanic ash soil make it ideal for warmer-climate varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah and sangiovese.
Cliff Creek's winemaker is Joe Dobbes, a well-respected Willamette Valley winemaker who does "custom crush" for a number of Oregon wineries. (It's called a "custom crush" when a winemaker-for-hire works closely with a winery or a grape grower to produce a wine with characteristics that are unique to the label.)
Dobbes and the Garvins age Cliff Creek wines for 19 to 24 months in predominantly French oak barrels and then allow the wines to age a couple of additional years after bottling before release. Current tasting-room wines feature a 2008 cabernet franc ($28), a 2007 syrah ($25) and the 2007 claret ($25).
The winery's flagship wine is the claret, a classic Bordeaux-style blend of 43 percent cabernet franc, 39 percent cabernet sauvignon and 18 percent merlot. The wine has nuances of smoke and cloves in the glass, and it tastes earthy as well as richly fruity, with enough acidity for it to pair well with beef and lamb. The 2007 claret took a silver medal at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Competition.
The 2006 claret ($30) is still available at the tasting room. It won a platinum medal at the 2012 Mainly Meritage International Wine Competition (featuring all Bordeaux-style wines and blends) in California. The 2006 syrah ($30), which earned 88 points from the Wine Spectator and a platinum medal at the 2012 San Diego International Wine Competition, is also still available.
Cliff Creek also produces a younger, less expensive red blend, the 2011 Red Red Wine ($12.99), (55 percent merlot and 45 percent cabernet sauvignon) and the 2012 MRV ($22), (a blend of 25 percent marsanne, 25 percent rousanne and 50 percent viognier).
At the south end of Sams Valley is Kriselle Cellars, located at 12956 Modoc Road, off Table Rock Road. Scott and Krisell Steingraber (the winery is named for Krisell, with an "e" added for easier pronunciation) bought the property in 2003. Scott is the winemaker. A retired civil engineer from Northern California, he started making small batches of wine from grapes purchased from the Napa and Sonoma valleys and then took extension courses at University of California Davis to perfect his art.
The Steingrabers planted 25 acres of grapes on the south-facing slopes. The soil is a mix of round river rock and alluvial silt from the nearby Rogue River. With the day's heat and night's chill softened by the river's proximity, the soil and the micro-climate is perfect for Bordeaux varietals — cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec — along with other warm climate varieties such as sangiovese, tempranillo, viognier and sauvignon blanc.
The 2011 sauvignon blanc ($21) won a gold medal at the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. It provides a balance of many notes of sweet citrus with a hint of the minerals in the soil and a soft mouth feel.
The 2012 viognier ($20) is more austere. Crisp and dry with a bit more acidity, it has a taste of ripe pear and the sweetness of guava.
The 2011 sangiovese ($28), which also won a gold medal at the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle competition, is a medium-bodied red with lots of fruit and a bit of spice. The winery recommends pairing it with Italian food.
The 2011 Di'Tani ($25), the winery's proprietary blend, has cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and a bit of tempranillo. (Di'Tani is the Takelma Indian name for the Table Rocks.) It is subtle, complex with many fruit notes and a bit of spice. The wine won a silver medal at the 2014 San Francisco competition.
The 2011 malbec ($28) has a deep, inky, purple color, is filled with the flavor of sweet and ripe fruit and, while drinkable now, its tannin and acidity indicate it could be cellar-aged for a while.
The 2011 cabernet sauvignon ($32) shows flavors of cherry, sweet plum and blackberry. It is a smoother wine than the Malbec but its levels of tannin and acidity indicate that this is another wine that will age well in the bottle.
Kriselle's tasting room, built on a hilltop overlooking the vineyards and the Table Rocks, is reminiscent of a Northwest lodge. The high, vaulted ceilings and walls of windows fill the room with light, and there is a spacious, shaded patio.
Cliff Creek Cellars and Kriselle Cellars, along with Agate Ridge Vineyard, Folin Cellars, Del Rio Vineyard, LaBrasseur Winery and Roxy Ann Winery are joining for a Roam the Rogue Spring Passport Tour on May 24. For information about the self-guided tour, see http://roamtherogue.com.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.