If you were to ask virtually any winemaker what makes good wine, his or her answer will likely be that it starts with good fruit. Ask what is needed to grow good fruit and the answer will be poor soil. Poor defined by a wine grower is rocky soil, even better if it’s on a slope. Both allow for drainage which makes vines struggle to gather both nutrients and water, which in turn results in concentrated, flavourful and high-quality berries. Tucked at the top of a hill in Oregon’s Willamette Valley sits Lenné Estate—a winery that lives, and almost died, because of its poor soil.
When Steve Lutz first set eyes on the property in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA which today is Lenné Estate, he saw everything he needed—a sloping, south-facing site with optimal elevation ranging from 375 feet to 605 feet (well within the Yamhill-Carlton AVA elevation requirements), and just the type of poor soil a winemaker covets. So sure was he on the property that he made an offer before it went up for sale and then made a follow up offer within hours, well over asking, to ensure it never got put on the market.
What he didn’t bank on was how poor these soils actually were and that they would make him struggle as much as his vines for several years before he was able to a good fruit yield. The Yamhill-Carlton AVA is made up largely of marine sediment along with some Jory volcanic soil. Lenné’s soils consist almost entirely of an unusual sub-type of marine sediment known as Peavine. Peavine soil is characterized by silty clay loam that is dark brown and tends to be a much more sandstone-heavy mixture. It’s very dry and dusty which produces more earthy, smoky characteristics in the fruit.
Steve purchased the 20.9-acre property in 2000 and began planting the 15.5 acres now under vine in 2001. He made just 200 cases in 2004 and finally it started producing a good yield in 2008. Today the winery produces approximately 1800 cases of its wine from the estate and sells about 20% of its fruit to Owen Roe Winery.
Originally planning to be a lawyer, Steve left his home state of Colorado in the 1980’s after taking the LSAT and deciding it wasn’t his calling. He opted instead for California’s Napa Valley to get into the wine business. He worked in the valley for a few wineries in different capacities including in the cellar at Beringer Winery, in the tasting room at Franciscan, as assistant tasting room manager at Inglenook Vineyards, tasting room manager at Merryvale Vineyards and in the cellar at Beringer Winery. After close to a decade, he felt he needed a change. He switched gears entirely and opened up a pizza restaurant in Santa Rosa called Borolo’s Gourmet which is still there to this day.
Steve met his wife Karen through the restaurant while she was working as a food service rep. After four years he sold off the restaurant and the two headed to England for a year where the namesake of the winery, Karen’s father Lenny lived. They moved to Oregon in the late 1990’s and Steve went back to working at a winery for another 4 years. But the desire to have his own winery persisted and in 1998/1998, he started looking for a site.
Lenny helped with a down payment but sadly he passed away in 1999 before we would see the winery established. They decided on the name Lenné as an homage to him but with a slight enhancement that might be a bit more marketing friendly. The winery produces Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the former under 3 different labels. Steve uses 8 or 9 Pinot Noir clones in any given year which includes 4 single clones, 2 2-clone blends and 3 5-clone blends. At less than 2,000, cases, it means each are made in very small quantities.
The Le Nez label (French for “the nose”) are Lenné’s entry wines. It is comprised of a 5-clone blend that expresses the entire vineyard. It is predominantly red fruit and meant to be easier drinking and approachable early. The Lenné Estate label is their flagship wine, a blend of all 5 clones featuring barrel selections. They’re typically made up largely of the Pommard clone (roughly 45-50% each year). This is a darker, richer Pinot with a recommended aging time of 6-10 years as their ideal drinking window to allow the distinctively earthy, mocha and richer darker notes to start showing. The last label is the Cinq Elus, or “the five chosen” and is comprised of the single best barrel of each clone made only in the best vintages.
Steve’s wines are known for having a bigger, fuller bodied style and his winemaking philosophy is minimalist in nature. He believes in letting the fruit dictate what the wine will taste like and not fighting against what Mother Nature gives him each vintage. Because of the poor soil, he needs to limit the growth of any cover crops to ensure he keeps the nutrients in the ground for the vines. This means pruning closely which is all done by hand. Typically everything done in the winery is harvested, fermented and barreled single clone in small micro-blocks. He will then methodically taste through all the barrels, pick his favourites and those will go into the single clone wines, then the next tier goes into the blends.
He cold soaks for approximately 4 days using only punch downs (no pump overs), a bladder press with no water adds or chaptalization. He tends to use a little more new oak than others in the area, anywhere from 20-50% and uses 100% French Oak. He ages all of the Chardonnay on Lees entirely in oak where it spends 9 months in the barrel and the very best barrel then goes into steel for a further 8 months with all of the lees from all of the barrels together and that becomes their Reserve Chardonnay.
From the first few years of struggling to grow fruit, Steve’s patience and perseverance have certainly paid off. Lenné’s wines are bold, complex and delicious, certainly proving they were worth the wait.
2017 Lenné Chardonnay Reserve
We like what they did with this Chardonnay: the fruit tones are lemon/lime, citrus and green apple but the texture and intensity are driven up a notch with battonage (the French term for stirring the spent yeast cells) which adds a slightly creamy texture and gives good balance.
Very Good+ (USD$48 at the winery)
2014 Lenné Estate Pinot Noir
The first in a three vintage vertical tasting. Black cherry flavours are served up on a medium/full bodied frame with moderate tannins. Hints of rhubarb join in on the finish. Baking spices infuse the long finish.
Excellent (USD$40 at the winery)
2015 Lenné Estate Pinot Noir
Also a big wine, the 2015 might lean a bit more toward the red fruit end of the spectrum. There is bright acidity which keeps this wine in sharp focus. This one promises a long life in the cellar.
Excellent (USD$40 at the winery)
2016 Lenné Estate Pinot Noir
Back to the black fruit profile, this vintage showed the most minerality. Black cherry and plum with earth tones underneath. A big Pinot that would pair wonderfully with game.
Excellent (USD$40 at the winery)
2016 Lenné Pinot Noir South Slope
Big and robust, this wine shows its brawny side with plenty of tannins and structure. The intense black cherry flavours marry well to the structure and the result is a balanced but hefty Pinot Noir. 50% Pommard clones and 50% Dijon 115. A few years in the cellar are likely to show further development and would be worth the wait.
Excellent (USD$55 at the Winery)
18760 NE Laughlin Road
Yamhill, OR 97148
Tasting Room: 12pm-5pm 7 days a week