A few weeks ago Becky and I took part in a blind pinot noir tasting with her parents friends. They are part of a tasting group that meets once a month and we were fortunate enough to be invited, perhaps due to our good behavior the previous time..perhaps... While the theme was Oregon pinot noir, due to a misunderstanding I thought the theme was just pinot noir, and therefore brought along an international sample that I hoped would wow the rest of the tasters. More on that later.
This was what I'd term a "loose-blind" tasting because the only knowns were that we were tasting pinot noir and it was (supposedly) from Oregon. The vintage spread was 2001-2010, in my mind a great thing because it forced us all to think about each wine and dredge up previous tasting experiences. I always tell people looking to learn more about wine that blind tasting is one of the most effective tools you can use. Reading books is great, so is visiting tasting rooms and large events, but blind tasting engages the brain's memory centers in a powerful way, teaching us to evaluate and retain the characteristics of wines we taste.
Below is a list of the wines we tasted, put in order from first to last according to my rankings that night. It's important to note that this only represents how the wine tasted to me that night, and isn't necessarily an indicator of overall quality. I am presenting my tasting notes raw and unedited, save for spelling corrections, so that you might get the most accurate possible view of what I smelled and tasted.
2010 Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster Pinot Noir Willamette Valley:
Nose: Candy (jolly rancher), strawberries, vanilla..oak, clean and fresh. Green notes..stemmy even, partial whole-cluster fermented? Good stuff, I like how intense the bouquet is without veering into jam territory.
Palate: Light, uplifting fruit, red cherries and wild strawberries. Green, stemmy notes add texture. Some tannin, grippy, but not overwhelming. Impressive balance, light yet intense and full. YUM.
2009 Craggy Range "Te Muna Road" Pinot Noir Martinborough:
Nose: Zippy raspberry, rose petal, hints of baking spice, and a touch of oak. Beautifully aromatic, reminds me of the best of CA and OR pinot's. 2006/7Oregon pinot?
Palate: Ripe red berry, oak, spices, raspberry jam, taut acidity that refreshes the palate. Great structure. Impressive! **Note: I later threw this result out because the wine was not from Oregon.**
2009 Montinore Estate Reserve Pinot Noir Willamette Valley:
Nose: Oregon funk, bright fruit, woody. Nice minerality, it's a dusty, earthy kind. Balanced nose, I like the interplay between the fruit and forest floor notes.
Palate: Nice acidity, keeps the mouthfeel light and fun. Red fruit...cherry and raspberry, good proportions of each. Well-integrated tannin, this is so approachable and friendly right now. Young, 2009 or 2010 maybe?
2001 Panther Creek Cellars Bednarik Vineyard Pinot Noir Willamette Valley:
Nose: Very light, with red fruit and a hint of green stems. Some earth and Oregon funk that's and muted. Seems graceful, could be an older vintage?
Palate: Very smooth approach brings some fruit, spice, and a touch of oak. There's some alcohol on the finish but it's not too harsh. Nice flavor integration, seems kind of simple though, lacking any "wow" factor.
2006 Oak Knoll Red Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir Willamette Valley:
Nose: Loads of bacon-y meat, teriyaki, dark fruits, and brown sugar. Interesting savory notes, could it be Brettanomyces? Not much fruit or Oregon funk pushing through, hard to figure what this is.
Palate: Oaky, like really oaky. Sweet baking spices, cured meats, but here are some bright red fruits finally coming out. Very mellow palate presence, smooth and soft despite the spice and oak. Uninspiring though.
2008 Johan Nils Reserve Pinot Noir Willamette Valley:
Nose: Tons of oak, like a vanilla-soaked bag of wood chips. Behind the oak lie ripe red cherry and herb aromas, but it's disappointingly oaky compared to the others. Very light bit of funk, almost completely washed out by the wood.
Palate: Sweet oak and cherry preserves dominate, the acidity feels beaten down. May be a young pinot but right now it's just too heavy and clunky to enjoy. Hopefully not the wine I brought! Sticks out for the wrong reasons.
What, if any, conclusions can I draw from this tasting?
A lot, actually: I have much to learn about Oregon pinot noir, for starters. Also I realized that I've got to learn how to blind-taste better. In this case, I let myself get distracted and I think my notes showed that. My distrust of what my palate tells me is another thing to work on, and I think it's something a lot of us do. Often what our gut (or palate) tells us right away is invaluable and attention must be paid to those "hunches".
The poor showing by the Johan Nils Reserve was a shock, since Johan is one of my favorite Oregon producers and I am always touting them to my friends and family. I think the Nils will get better with age though, it's going through a "dumb" phase. Willamette Valley Vineyards shocked me with their Whole Cluster pinot, it was so good and so cheap, around $20! Montinore's wines impressed me last time I visited and it was good to see that it wasn't a fluke. The group really enjoyed the Estate Reserve pinot noir, and at around $25 it's a bargain for the quality level.
While I had to discard the wonderful Craggy Range Te Muna Road from the final standings, it really held up against Oregon's array, further proof that New Zealand has come into their own as a pinot noir producer. In the interests of full disclosure, it was a sample sent to me for review purposes.
I suppose tastings like these serve to remind us all that wine is dynamic, ever-changing, and learning about it is a task you will never finish. It could be worse though, because educating yourself about wine is perhaps one of the most fun activities you can do.