“Where do I start? The diversity that is coming out of Oregon is really exciting”
Wine Expert Jimmy Smith Shares His Oregon Wine Experience
Jimmy Smith knows his way around a New World tasting room. Until the Covid lockdowns grounded his usual plans. “I travel[led] a lot for the wine schools and for buying…when I go to the new world, I tend to go to places like South Africa, South America. I've gone every year [for] the last ten years…apart from the Covid years.”
So what did the owner of the West London Wine School and South London Wine School do with some of this ‘down time’? Smith set about becoming qualified through Oregon Wine Experts to teach an Oregon Wine Master Class in his schools. “Teaching that masterclass [to my students], is what really set it in stone. Oregon is one of the places that I have desperately wanted to visit and it was on my radar just before Covid.”
While Smith was visiting family on the West Coast last month, he also made a special pilgrimage to Oregon’s AVAs to experience first-hand the unique character of the growers, makers and the wine. “I had read a lot on Oregon’s history, and because it's a relatively new history, a lot of the original players and the pioneers are still alive, and that makes it even more fun. [Visiting] really brought it to life.”
We spoke to Jimmy to find out more about his experience in Oregon, meeting wine makers and growers - as well as some of the outstanding bottles he tasted along the way.
What do you think differentiates Oregon Wine from other US regions?
I think it’s really rooted in the story of Oregon Wine. If you look at the history in three phases: the embryonic industry, Californian influence and then finding their own style. The original winemakers would admit that the first ten or twenty years were establishing a vineyard and trying to carve out a reputation. A lot of the time they weren’t too sure. There wasn’t a lot of structure to it.
Then came the success of California [winemakers] in the 1970s and 1980s. Oregon growers moved to a Californian style production, because it was a way of creating economic sustainability. And then they realised, of course, that's not the way to go long term. Because Oregon Wine producers can be a boutique producer focusing on inventive pioneering techniques and adapt to create their own style. The Oregon Pinot Noir taste is second only to Burgundy. If you had to compare Oregon Pinot, it’s probably the best in the new world. The consistency is extremely high.
From that history, there’s a true pioneering spirit in the Oregon Wine industry. I think there are exciting things coming from Southern Oregon specifically, they’re not scared of doing things differently. It’s a really experimental area.
Visually, the vineyards are so striking. You've always got the backdrop of the Cascade Mountains and the coastal ranges in view.
At times, I felt that the landscape is almost British. When you're driving from Dundee to McMinnville in particular. The first day we got there was like thirty-seven degrees Celscius and then it dropped down into the twenties. It felt like a British summer and that was quite nice. The landscape is great and the people, the people are wonderful.
Oregon’s most planted grape is pinot noir. Can you talk about what you learned first-hand about its production, and how this culminates in the unique style of Oregon pinot noir wine?
One thing that really fascinated me when preparing for my school’s Oregon Masterclass was, when I got in contact with each of the wineries about technical sheets, I realised that the selections of pinot noir were coming from Dijon clone vines. Quite a few of the producers out there such as Sokol Blosser and Patricia Green for example planted Dijon clones that came out in the 60s and 70s.
When I visited winemaker Jim Anderson of Patricia Green Vineyard, which has a massive scope, he was able to show me these old clones. Amazing!
Secondly, what was really interesting was the practices in the vineyards. Quite a lot of the vineyards we visited were organic-based and biodynamic. I met Sarah Martin of Bergstrom Vineyard who showed me around and explained their practices in terms of biodiversity and how they’re growing very strong, healthy vines.
The third area would be winemaking techniques. This really stood out when we visited Bill Nelson. As a winemaker, he was more about getting contact, extended ferments, giving pinot noir more intensity, darkness, richness. This style would appeal to a more modern pallet.
What I find is that the Oregon pinot noirs have a lot of soul to them...I feel like it could get quite spiritual here. The wines I tried had life and lift and freshness, and that's something that you find in a top Burgundy. Overall, these vineyards feel somewhat less commercial and more boutique and you can see that in their approach to agriculture.
And what did you learn about Oregon Wine’s second biggest wine export, Chardonnay?
I'm a massive fan of Chardonnay which exhibits a more mineral, oxidative style. I was expecting some of these chardonnays to be similar to the Californian style, not the same, but emulating that butteriness. Once again, this trip reiterated that Oregon has it’s own sense of style.
I enjoyed Bergstrom’s Old Stones Chardonnay, which is their ‘entry-level’ chardonnay. I think they seem to be cutting their own reputation there.
The wines were for the most part, extremely elegant, well-balanced and lovely.
Which other wines did you try that you want people to know about coming out of Oregon?
Where do I start? The diversity that is coming out of Oregon is really exciting. I didn't get a chance to go to any of the Southern Oregon AVAs, where lots of other white varieties are being produced, but I did try Elk Cove’s Riesling. They also have a Pinot Gris and a Pinot Blanc. Actually I think the Pinot Blanc from Elk Cove is one of the most underrated ones from Oregon.
I have to mention the Vermintino from Troon Wine. They made something like, I don't know, 900 cases and that was it. What a treat.
I would personally love to see more of the unusual stuff come to the UK market.
I think I would also like to see lots more pinot noirs available to the UK market. I think there's a massive opportunity – Oregon has such an amazing possibility in Europe, certainly in the UK market because Burgundy is currently pricing themselves out.
What I do want to say is that Oregon has a living history. It’s there for people to experience – that’s exceptionally rare. You're tasting history… and experiencing it, while tasting it. It’s a living heritage.