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Three New Elite Pinot Noirs
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Nov 22, 2016
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Zena Crown Vineyard, Eola-Amity Hills (Oregon), Pinot Noir “The Sum,” “Conifer, and “Slope,” 2013 ($75 to $100):  Three years ago, Jackson Family Wines caused quite a stir by purchasing a vineyard in Oregon -- its first foray into that state.  The company had staked a significant presence in California and already had properties or winemaking projects in France, Italy, Australia and South Africa.  The vineyard purchase in Oregon, as I recall it, was seen as a validation of what many critics and wine lovers firmly believed, that Willamette Valley’s terroir and winemaking potential are world class.

That vineyard was Zena Crown Vineyard, established in the early 2000s by Premier Pacific Vineyards and for many vintages a source of grapes for vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs from several top Oregon producers.  Now, under Jackson Family Wines, Zena Crown Vineyard is one of Oregon’s newest Pinot Noir domains.  The estate comprises 115 acres of vines in 48 vineyard blocks, on a southwest-facing slope of weathered volcanic soils, at an altitude of 300 to 650 feet.  Pinot Noir clones vary across the vineyard blocks, as do rootstocks and the specific soils in which they are planted, as well as the slope and aspect of the land.  Despite the single grape variety, the vineyard’s diversity is such that the winemakers describe the site as a chorus of multiple Pinot Noir expressions.

The first releases from the new Zena Crown Vineyard are three elite Pinot Noirs, each from separate blocks of vines, or from blends of blocks.  Each of the three wines has a unique personality. What they share is that they are all truly dry Pinot Noirs and uniformly high in quality.

Tasting the three wines, I could not actually arrive at a favorite.  Maybe I’ll go on record and say that it is the wine called “Conifer” ($75), a blend of three vineyard blocks and three clones (114, 828 and Pommard).  It has the most linear aroma of the three, a combination of tart cherry, raspberry and pine, fresh and uplifted.  The palate speaks of red fruits intermingled with spices and airy forest notes.  Truly dry, it nonetheless has great richness in the mouth and a broad, velvety texture -- but then there is the acidity, linear and precise.  The effect is that of richness balanced atop a steeple.  The lasting impression is vibrancy and purity in the presence of full ripeness of fruit.  Ironically, this wine has the highest alcohol of the three, 13 percent.

If I must rank the wines, I will but “The Sum” ($75) second.  On the label of this wine you will not find those two words, but instead a simple sigma (Σ), the mathematical sign for a sum.  As its name suggests, this Pinot Noir comes from a wider range of vineyard blocks than the other two wines, and from three clones (667, 777 & Pommard).  It has a perfumed aroma of cherry, dark plum, spice and herbal notes; forest-like hints here suggest dry leaves rather than pine.  The palate is fuller than Conifer’s, as well as softer and more flavorful, but at the core of the wine is pure, precise and concentrated fruit character.  Despite its richness and forwardness, this wine has a racy edge, some of which derives from the wine’s energetic tannins.  Whole clusters accounted for 40 percent of the fermentation.

Finally we arrive at the biggest and richest of the wines, with surprisingly the lowest alcohol percentage, only 12.7 percent.  “Slope” ($100) is a rich, lushly fruity wine with soft, caressing tannins.  Aromas and flavors suggest dark berries, leather and dried porcini mushrooms.  The texture is velvety and the finish shows grip.  I find it impressive that a wine with such ripeness of fruit expression could have such a restrained, controlled structure as this wine does. C learly it is a wine to age.  Its grapes come from two vineyard blocks that stretch from the highest point of the vineyard down to the lowest point, together forming a southward facing slope; the wine represents a single Pinot Noir clone (667). 

All of these wine aged in French oak that was mainly new, ranging from 85 percent new in Slope to 75 percent in Conifer and 71 percent in The Sum.  The quality and expression of the fruit is such that oak per se never emerged as a salient tasting impression.

Admittedly, these are pricey Pinot Noirs, but each of them represents only a couple of hundred cases, with The Sum having the largest production, at 348 cases.  What I find exciting is to consider that these are the inaugural wines from a new winemaking team and new ownership; imagine what the vineyard and winemaking team will achieve with experience!

Conifer, 93 Points
The Sum, 92 Points
Slope, 92 Points