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Spotlight on Oregon at Jackson Family Wines

Published:  27 June, 2017

Jackson Family Wines (JFW) has built its reputation based on its presence in California, where it owns over 5,666 hectares (14,000 acres), spread across key subzones Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Monterey and Mendocino.

Expansion has taken the company across the winemaking world to vineyards in Europe, South Africa, Chile and Australia.

So their first footsteps into Oregon, California’s northern cousin, is a relatively new venture for the company.

JFW, which is distributed via Fells in the UK, began in Oregon in 2012 when JFW added Gran Moraine vineyard in the Willamette Valley to their portfolio, re-naming the wine after the vineyard itself.

“We thought the vineyard deserved its own branding,” said son of late founder Jess Jackson and co-proprietor Christopher Jackson.

Zena Crown was to follow soon after, and today, the company has a handful of wineries and 162ha (400 acres) of land.

“We had the opportunity to buy two of the best vineyards in Oregon, so we acquired them knowing they were already great,” Jackson said at JFW’s Oregon tasting in London yesterday, where his family’s company were keen to introduce the UK to this new chapter on US soil.

Known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Oregon is home to the Willamette Valley, a wide geographical area which currently boasts 500 wineries overlooking the Cascade Mountains.

It is this area in particular, with its high elevation - Gran Moraine vineyard has a 300-foot drop from top of vineyard to the top - and long growing season that attracted JFW.

“In the Willamette Valley, elevation is between 200 and 800 feet, soils are sedimentary and volcanic and a very long growing season means you get a level of ripeness that leads to incredible purity and intensity. They’re elegant but with quality that can last for 20 or 30 years or more,” Jackson explained.

It is Chardonnay in particular, that forms the crux of a long-term plan to put down roots in the area.

JFW intends to build on this heritage which began in California, and is chasing the potential to make “pure expressions” of Chardonnay offered by Oregon’s terroir.

To this end, they have assembled a team of winemakers who between them have decades of experience making wine in the appellation, including Lynn Penner-Ash, the Oregon’s first hired female winemaker, Eugenia Keegan at Gran Moraine and Erik Kramer at Willakenzie – named after the soil type.

Another is Adam Lee, winemaker at Siduri Wines – named after the Babylonian goddess of wine – which became part of JFW in 2015.

Lee is a major proponent of the region’s most famous red grape, Pinot Noir, in which JFW is also heavily investing.

Lee alone made 27 different Pinot Noirs last year.

And of the 35,000 cases in total that he oversaw in 2016, 300 cases were Pinot Gris.

The rest were Pinot Noir.

Willamette’s Pinot Noir is some of the best in the world, Chris Jackson insisted.

But making it in the valley is not without its challenges.

This is partly because of the temperamental nature of the grape, and partly because of the region itself.

“Oregon is more challenging in some ways as it has lots of vintage variation,” Lee told Harpers. “My goal is to make wine that reflects the place and the vintage, and sometimes that can mean not doing single vintage that year, which we’ve done in the past and put it in lower price brackets.

“The last three years have been superb, which is unusual. 2014, 2015 and 2016 were all great which has never happened in the history of the region before. We’ve had two good years before, but not three in a row.”

Lee and his wife have been making wine at the Siduri vineyard since 1994.

Before that, they came to Oregon via California and before that, Texas, where Lee grew up.

Some Texas flair still remains at the Siduri base, where his fermentation tanks are named after Dallas football players.

“The tallest one is called Too Tall Jones after the player Ed “Too Tall” Jones, because like him, its huge. We’ve had three different players come and have pictures taken with their tanks,” he enthused.

Away from the Texan and Californian sun, Oregon’s climate is noticeably cooler.

It is also poses challenges when it comes to bringing out the specificity of the soil.

“In the coming years, my objective will be to maintain the character of the year,” said Lee. “In a great year, everything tastes great. But there are still challenges, because often they might not be distinctive. The challenge is making those distinctive characteristics come through.”

These days, Lee has more surface area to play with, thanks to the access to the Gran Moraine and Zena Crown vineyards via JFW.

“Prior to the sale, we had around 12 to 14 acres (5ha). But now we’ve got more area to work with to select grapes that fit our particular style of wine,” Lee added.

Although there are more meetings to attend as part of a bigger company, overall he is happy to have his time freed up to make all those Pinot Noirs – his favourite wine, by the way.

“I play with other things like Syrah. But Pinot Noir is what I love because it’s very transparent. It reflects the place better. Some people say it’s a difficult grape, and it’s true to an extent. Sometimes you have to aim for the best just to make ok wines. But it’s the one I like to drink.”