Jackson Family Wines knew what it was doing when it purchased Zena Crown Vineyard in Oregon’s rich Willamette Valley. It was Jackson’s introduction to Oregon wine-making and one that would yield impressive results with a new line of pinot noirs. Zena Crown was not only their visa to very fertile vineyards in the Willamette, but it was also a visa to some of the best pinot noir.
Jackson purchased the 115-acre vineyard in 2013 and with that vintage released its first Zena Crown Vineyard label. If the Jackson name isn’t enough to inspire a serious pinot-phile to try it, Zena Crown graces the labels of several more impressive labels, including Robert Parker’s Beaux Freres, Penner-Ash, Soter, and Solena.
The vineyard is located in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA and was developed by Premier Pacific Vineyards in the early 2000s – not that long ago when you think of some of the historic properties of Napa Valley. But in the Willamette Valley, vineyard history doesn’t date much farther back than that.
Elevations of this premier south-facing slope range from 300 to 650 feet. That variation, the variety of volcanic soils, 48 unique blocks, and the use of a diverse array of clones gives these many producers the opportunity to create a variety of expressions in their pinot noirs. And that makes a comparison of the wines exciting.
Shane Moore was hand-picked to lead Jackson Family Wine’s Zena Crown Vineyard pinot noirs – 2013 was his first vintage. In an email he explained the vineyard’s uniqueness:
“The short answer is terroir: it’s the combination of all things we know nothing about. It’s a complex topic that we can never fully understand, but we can attempt to simply by looking at mesoclimate and soil.
“The Zena Crown Vineyard takes the brunt of the wind from the Van Duzer Corridor, which is in plain sight from the west side of the property and has a particularly profound influence during the summer. The west winds blowing off the Pacific pick up every evening during this time and help to create a cooler mesoclimate at the vineyard. This in turn slows down the phenological ripening of pinot noir at this site compared to other parts of the Willamette Valley, and often delays harvest well into October.
“The soils are also unique on this site. They range from very Deep Jory, to Nekia, to very old marine sedimentary. This helps to give the vineyard more depth, complexity, and a greater palette of flavors to create unique and interesting wines that are not only authentic but have a compelling reason for existing.”
Alas, like most Willamette Valley pinot noirs, these wines are made in small quantities and are expensive. The 2016 vintage was great in Oregon.
As buyers sort through the countless producers of Oregon pinot noir, recognizing the Zena Crown name on a label helps to identify quality. Here is a sampling of producers who use Zena Crown grapes:
Zena Crown Vineyard Slope Pinot Noir ($75). This is one of the more serious pinot noirs we tasted in this flight. Firm tannins with blueberry and cranberry flavors, earthy and well structured.
- Zena Crown Vineyard The Sum Pinot Noir ($75). Multiple blocks of grapes are used to create a black cherry, blackberry profile.
- Penner-Ash Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir ($72). What makes this wine unique is the sweet fruit character that coats the palate with luxury. Violet and dried fruit aromas give way to raspberry pie flavors. Winemaker Lynn Penner-Ash started working with Zena Crown fruit in 2006. She uses fruit from one block and picks from multiple passes.
- Beaux Freres Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($75). Great balance and round on the plate with raspberry and plum notes. Hints of anise and spice.
- Siduri Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($65). Concentrated with fresh black cherry and raspberry fruit.
- Alexana Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 ($70). The proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove, this big pinot noir has round and supple flavors with fine tannins and dark fruit character.
A Greek friend, Nick Capousis, recently suggested we retry retsina, a white resinated wine from Greece. In the past retsina was the one wine that we unanimously agreed was pretty much undrinkable. Older versions of this Greek restaurant staple that we had tasted several times in our long wine tasting career were akin to drinking poorly made white wine infused with pine sap.
This insipid wine made us question the quality of other Greek wines just becoming available in the U.S. in the past 20 years. Well, we are converts to appreciating contemporary Greek wine red, white and rosé and have commented often about the quality and in most cases the value of wines from this ancient country.
The one outlier was a haunting memory of retsina, which clouded our otherwise fond feelings for modern Greek winemaking. Enter Tetramythos Retsina Greece ($12), a modern version of retsina, which is biodynamically farmed, and fermented in amphorae with wild yeasts. Estate-grown roditis grapes are employed and only 40 percent of the wine is infused with the pine resin. The resulting white wine is citrusy, herbal and refreshing with just the barest hint of resin, which adds an interesting complexity to this traditional Greek wine. It is a perfect foil for Greek meze or small plate appetizers and a fun summertime quaff. Thanks, Nick!
Effort Center of Effort Pinot Noir Edna Valley 2016 ($30). Edna Valley is part of the Central Coast appellation in California, and has California’s longest growing season. Increasingly known for high quality pinot noir this offering from Effort is no exception. Effort displays plum and berry notes, great texture and length.
- Talley Estate Pinot Noir Arroyo Grande Valley 2015 ($33). Non-filtered and aged in French oak (30 percent new). It is a bold pinot noir expressing strawberry and cranberry notes with some spicy elements. A joy to drink.
- Dry Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Creek Valley 2016 ($29). This fairly priced cabernet sauvignon is representative of the wines from Dry Creek Vineyards. Classic cherry and cassis nose and flavors in an unobtrusive oak frame. An added bonus is the extensive amount of information contained on the back label which lists types of grapes utilized with percentages as well vineyard sources, oak treatment, brix at harvest and vineyard yields in tons per acre.