Peerless Oregon Pinot Noir

If wine consumption per head in America rose by even a relatively small amount, the world’s wine sellers would rejoice. For publication in week starting 17 July 2017.

The world wine market was worth almost USD 176,000 million in 2014, the most recent year for which global figures are available. Wine research group IWSR and Vinexpo released data showing wine sales will grow about 1.4 per cent in volume in the next couple of years.

The United States remains by far the most valuable wine market with sales worth USD 29,150 million, followed by the highly taxed United Kingdom at USD 17,340 million, France at USD 17,330 million and Italy at USD 13,760 million.

Yet wine consumption in the United States is low by world standards when measured on a per capita basis. Croatians consumed 46.9 litres per head each year, the highest in the world if we exclude the outlier of the Vatican City. The Portuguese (43.7 litres), the French (43.1) and the Serbians (42.5) were the world’s other major consumers last year.

Americans were well down the list at about 12.7 litres a head, placing them well out of the top 50 nations. If Americans were to consume as much wine per head as the Portuguese or the French the USA could not produce enough and the world’s wine markets would be dancing with joy.

Many regions of America could best be described as “beer and bourbon” towns, which shows the influence of culture on wine consumption. Despite cultural differences, some wine companies in America have a passion for making great wine. One of the most prominent is Jackson Family Wines (JFW), a family-owned and run company that crafts wines of distinct character and quality. The company focuses on sustainable viticulture practices along with responsible vineyard and natural resource management.

JFW comprises more than 50 brands, focusing on the premier wine-growing regions of California and Oregon. JFW also produces wine in Australia, Chile, France, Italy and South Africa. Chairman and proprietor Barbara Banke has spent the past two decades managing the company she co-founded with her late husband, wine icon Jess Jackson.

A tasting in London of Pinot Noir made by a range of JFW estates in Oregon showed the high quality of this variety from that state. In recent years JFW has increased its number of hectares in Oregon to almost 700 (1,725 acres). The most recent acquisition, last November, of the Willakenzie Estate brought yet another luxury Pinot vineyard into the portfolio. Previously the company acquired boutique producers Penner-Ash Cellars, Zena Crown and Gran Moraine along with exceptional single vineyard / single variety estates Siduri and La Cremain in the Willamette Valley.

Oregon is Pinot Noir country, with almost two thirds of vineyards planted to this variety. The state produces maybe one per cent of the wine in America, compared with almost 90 per cent in California, but tends to win a much higher proportion of medals and awards.

Most of the wine is consumed domestically, so why bother with the expense of bringing five winemakers and Jackson family members to London for a press and industry tasting? The answer appears to be a desire to have the quality of these wines appreciated in one of the world’s major wine markets. It’s the vinous equivalent of the lyrics of that great Frank Sinatra song: “If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere.”

Most of the recent vineyard acquisitions were made through bank loans, Barbara Banke said, which was one of the advantages of being a family-run operation in the sense that the banks know the company. Barbara’s son Christopher confirmed that the family were taking a “long-term perspective” and saw Pinot Noir as a “multi-generational wine”.

Some of the finest Pinots at the tasting came from the Zena Crown Vineyard. Winemaker Tony Rynders said Oregon was a region “in the process of arriving on the world stage”. Rynders was previously the winemaker at Domaine Serene in Oregon, widely regarded as the source of some of the best Pinots in the country. He established his own label, Tendril Wine Cellars, to focus on Pinot Noir and Zena Crown is one of his many successes. Currently about 90 per cent of the wine is sold domestically.

The lovely pinots from Willakenzie Estate are named after the sedimentary soils on the estate and are a tribute to the two main rivers in Oregon that meet near the estate. Winemaker Erik Kramer was a geologist in a previous career. While in Chicago in 1997 he was mugged. Kramer described this as “an epiphany moment” which led him to become a winemaker. He has previously made wines at Domaine Serene and Adelsheim Vineyards.

The same week the Circle of Wine Writers organised a tasting of “alternative” wines from California, hosted by Justin Knock MW. Alternative was defined as based on small production – wines from grape varieties that represent less than one per cent of California’s massive production. The state grows at least 100 varieties.

Marimar Torres, founder of Marimar Estate, offered an outstanding Albarino from the Don Miguel Vineyard in the Russian River Valley of California. Some Spanish varieties have thrived in the state in recent years, and this wine from an organic estate displays a gentle creaminess that makes it stand out from Spanish wines made with the same grape.

Another outstanding wine was a red blend of Mourvedre, Grenache and Syrah by Slacker Wines called Computer Geek 2014 that had been deliberately inoculated with brettanomyces. Known by the slang term “brett”, this is usually a wine fault but winemaker Matt Trevisan has managed to create a profound array of aromas that sing in the glass and tantalise the nose. Think equine and quinine notes mixed with cassis and morello cherries.

The tasting also included a chance to sample a wine from what is believed to be the oldest significant planting of the Cinsault grape in the world. The vines from which the 2015 Bechthold Old Vines was crafted were planted in 1886. Amazing to think these vines predated the birth of the automobile or the dedication of the Statue of Liberty.

Words: 1,015

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