Proving yet again that Pinot Noir may be the most food friendly wine on the planet, the dinner and wines I shared with Steve Lutz, owner/winemaker of Oregon’s Lenné Estate were as delicious as the conversation was enlightening. Surrounded by relaxing views of the large and well-appointed dining room at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in Chicago, Steve enjoyed seared rare wagu beef carpaccio and prime braised short ribs with buttered root vegetables and mashed potatoes with braising sauce while I dined on tuna tartare then crab cakes with Cajun lobster sauce. Red meat and seafood? Yes. Both of us remarked (at frequent intervals) how the rich and distinctive Cinq Elus and mocha driven, easy drinking Lenné Estate Pinot Noir, both from the 2012 vintage, complemented each choice, a characteristic that not many wines can boast.
Living the Dream
Steve Lutz, who learned to love wine while drinking it (sounds suspiciously like the rest of us, doesn’t it…), entered the corporate world after college graduation. Soon thereafter, he resigned, moved to Napa Valley where he worked briefly in the cellar at Beringer Winery and at various tasting rooms, ultimately becoming a manager. After a five year stint with his own gourmet pizza business (try his suggestion of a mozzarella, olive oil, wild mushroom, goat cheese, truffle oil pizza with your next Lenné Estate Pinot Noir…my mouth is watering right now), Lutz moved to England, married his wife Karen, and returned to Oregon to begin his wine career as a winery consultant and Vice President of marketing and administration for Anne Amie Vineyards. Lenné Estate, named after his father-in-law Len who helped with its down payment, was created in 2001.
Steve Lutz knows just what he’s doing in the northern Willamette Valley vineyards of Lenné Estate located outside of Yamhill, Oregon despite plenty of setbacks. Originally part of a dairy farm, Lutz was immediately enamored with the south facing orientation, elevation of 375-575 feet, and terroir of the parcel that he planted with three Pinot Noir clones in 2001. Although the vineyards are found in one of most nutritionally poor soils, peavine, in the area, Lutz is a self-proclaimed “dirt lover”. He considers the yellow shale and sandstone “thrilling” although he lost 35% of his vines originally planted because of it. It took several years for the young vines to develop roots and sustain growth thanks to the nutrient poor soil, their destruction from deer, and the searing heat in 2003. In 2004, the vineyards finally produced a small amount of fruit and when Lutz tasted this first wine still in barrel in January 2015, he was “blown away.” The financial challenges were almost debilitating, but Lutz knew that his vision for Lenné Estate would be realized. Finally, the 2006 vintage year provided enough fruit to “vinify each clone separately”. Steve Lutz was on his way.
A Minimalist Approach
Ensuring that “the vineyards are expressed in the bottle”, Lutz is a minimalist winemaker. He doesn’t add enzymes to the wines to extract color, he abstains from using mechanical pumps that contributes to oxidation, and the juice is pressed when there is still CO2. “The goal,” he explained, “is to get the fruit into the bottle as intact as possible and let secondary flavors develop there, not the winery. It’s the site that gives concentration and density to the wines. There’s no way to compensate for poor soils which is a very definition of the philosophy of minimalist winemaking.” Although Lutz shared that he’s “not big on barrel aging”, an amount of manipulation is involved with some oak for eleven months and the wines filtered at bottling.
The Pinot Noirs of Lenné Estate
The peavine soil, one of Lutz’s biggest challenges yet in my opinion his biggest asset, contributes to the growth of Pinot Noir grapes with small clusters and berries and its wines with mesmerizing aromas of rich black cherries, minerality, and mocha along with a “mid-palate grip”. But what about the wines I tasted at Del Frisco’s?
Steve Lutz feels that the 2012 cinq élus is the best young wine ever produced at Lenné. I found luscious notes of spice, rich red fruit and mocha on the nose and palate. Complex with integrated tannins, the finish was long and deep. Consider keeping this wine until 2025 (if you can). ($72.) The 2012 Lenné Estate Pinot Noir, the signature wine of the Estate, presented balance and structure with mouthwatering acidity, finely honed tannins, and notes of cola, black cherry, licorice, and mocha. An affable wine now, you could enjoy this in 6 to 10 more years. ($45.) Almost breathtaking, the depth and palate profile of the cinq élus was a delicious counterpoint to the Cajun lobster sauce atop my crabcakes; the acidity and mocha elements in the Estate Pinot Noir complemented the tuna tartare surprisingly well.
Why do I consider the story of Lenné Estate another reason to love Pinot Noir? I appreciate and honor the perseverance of Steve Lutz despite a plethora of challenges, the conservative philosophy towards winemaking, and his rich and food friendly wines that not only helped create a brilliant taste sensation at this memorable dinner but are an homage to the unique terroir found in this special area of Oregon.
Cheers to Pinot Noir! ~ Cindy