“Why do we do blind tastings?” winemaker Steve Lutz asked a group of 18 of us who had assembled at the long wooden tables in his Lenné Estate tasting room, which looks like a French farmhouse perched on the hill on Laughlin Road between Yamhill and Carlton. Eight Pinot Noir glasses were arrayed in front of each one of us, each glass containing a sample of wine that ranged in color from pale violet to deep red-black. They were sourced from some of the most famous vineyards in the world. “For me, they’re really fun and educational,” added Steve. “You learn a lot.”
The occasion was a blind tasting and comparison of French burgundies, but with one Oregon ringer – Steve’s own 2013 Estate Pinot Noir – thrown into the line-up. He had assembled a selection of French wines, also from the ’13 vintage, that ranged from inexpensive Village-level bottles up to Premier Cru wines with price tags of upwards of $80/bottle, including one that retailed at $114. Steve conducts the French tasting every year and always sells out, as do his other blind tastings, including one where he puts four Pinots from the red soil vineyards of the Dundee Hills up against four from the black, marine-sedimentary soils of our Yamhill-Carlton AVA. In July he will conduct a comparative tasting of New Zealand Pinots that many of us are eagerly anticipating. (Check out the Lenné Estate website for details, prices and sign-ups.)
The blind tasting idea sprang from his early winemaking education at Mondavi Estates in California, where the staff would assemble twice a week for comparative tastings of some of the most famous wines in the world, and sharpen their noses and palates on the complexities of different regions and different vintages.
Even for layman tasters (like this writer), he was right: It was interesting and educational to evaluate the wines based solely on their appearance, nose and taste. The French wines exhibited a range of aromatic and flavor characteristics, from smoky and meaty to floral and fruity, with a sharp acidity that ran through the entire group. A couple of them were exquisite, a couple others unappealing. Tasted blind, with no clues from the bottles (or their price tags), the wines told their own stories.
“Our Oregon wines are typically riper than Burgundies, but not as ripe as California wines,” Steve explained. “Ours age better than California but not as well as Burgundy.” He added that he personally never drinks Burgundies that are less than ten years old, in order to let the sharpness of the wines settle down.
Was it a bold move to compare his own wine side-by-side with such expensive and storied imports? Maybe, but Steve said with a laugh that his wine nearly always “wins” the tasting, which is to say that the tasters score it highest in the lot, which was also the case at this event. The 2013 Lenné Estate was balanced and juicy and delicious, scoring high in the panels of nearly every taster. Like most Oregon Pinots it was ready to drink now but would benefit from more years in the bottle. And needless to say, at $45 it was a bargain compared to the pricier, and typically more lauded French Burgs from the likes of Nuits St. George, Santenay and Vosne-Romanée.
Steve began planting his hillside vineyard in 2001, adding parcels in ensuing years and opening his winery in 2006. He stays small, making about 1,600 cases of wine a year, two of which are only sold out of the tasting room. His blind tastings are a great way to explore wines that rarely cross our paths. And of course, to appreciate the quality of the wines that we have right here in our Willamette Valley backyard.