March 7 2012 12:00 AM

A ‘blind tasting’ of various Pinot Noirs revealed some surprising discoveries

Pinot Noir is renowned as a grape variety that can be challenging to grow and even more challenging to turn into great wine. It is the signature grape of the Burgundy region of France and thrives in cooler grape growing regions where it achieves a wonderful balance of tannin, sugar and acid.  

Perhaps the best way to evaluate finished wines is in a “blind tasting” format, in which several glasses containing a variety of wines are presented to each taster, but not identified as to label, place of origin or price.

This can be a fun tasting format to conduct at home. Tasters evaluate each wine, take notes and rate them according to preference. Frequently the “winners” prove not to be the most expensive wines.  But sometimes there is a direct correlation between price and quality.

A recent Greater Lansing Vintners Club blind tasting of ultra-premium Pinot Noirs proved to be extremely enlightening, while also determining some clear favorites among the wines that were sampled.

Eight Pinot Noir wines were tasted, ranging in suggested retail price from $29.79 to $64.89. The wines were from around the globe, including California, Oregon, New Zealand and France. The 54 tasters were asked to vote for a favorite wine, a least favorite wine and a most unique wine.

Favorites seemed to reflect a more typically American palate, which leans toward richer, riper wines, contrasted with an old world palate of more restrained but complex flavors.

Wines tasted (in order of price) were 2009 Ken Wright Willamette Valley ($29.79), 2009 Melville Estate Santa Rita Hills ($35.89), 2002 Domaine Rollin Pernand Vergelesses “Les Fichot” 1er CRU ($35.99), 2006 Dog Point Marlbourough ($39.99), 2008 Morgan Santa Lucia Highland Garys’ Vineyard ($49.89), 2007 Domaine Serene Evenstat Reserve “Willamette” ($56.89), 2008 Patz and Hall “Chenoweth Vineyard” Russian River Valley ($59.99) and 2009 Hirsch San Andreas Sonoma Coast ($64.89).  

The least favorite — with a whopping 21 votes — was the Domaine Rollin Pernand Vergelesses. It was the oldest wine and had clearly lost a bit of fruit. Some tasters thought it was thin and getting tired and that it seemed to evaporate on the tongue. That being said, some of the Francophile tasters loved it and gave it a top grade: Wine is a very subjective beverage.  

The top vote getter for “most unique” wine was the 2007 Dog Point Pinot Noir from the Marlborough region of New Zealand, which is on the northeast portion of the south island. Interestingly, that wine also garnered five votes as favorite and nine votes as least favorite, again emphasizing the totally subjective nature of wine appreciation. This wine had many tasters fooled into thinking it was the French wine because of its extremely earthy notes, with herbal, forest floor characteristics and an extremely full bouquet. For some, the word “stink” came to mind, whereas others loved the complex aromas.  

The favorite wine of the group, with 15 votes, was the 2008 Patz and Hall, which also happened to be one of the most expensive wines. Boasting 15.4 percent alcohol, this wine is tailor-made for the American palate. Bold, rich, ripe and fruit forward, it has a sweet mouth feel, broad flavors, viscous texture and a bit of alcohol heat on the finish.

Closely trailing that wine, with 12 votes, was the Morgan wine from Garys’ Vineyard. Garys’ is one of the most renowned Pinot Noir vineyards in California, from one of the best regions for growing Pinot Noir — the Santa Lucia Highlands. For my palate, it had a bit more tannin and a slightly tarter edge, contrasted with the Patz and Hall. It had a beautiful nose, notes of caramel and cherry and good balance. Yet for seven tasters it was the least favorite. 

Next in line was Domaine Serene, from one of Oregon’s best producers (as is Ken Wright). This wine had sweet tannins, hints of chocolate, broad flavors and perfect balance. 

Closely trailing was the other wine from Willamette Valley, the 2009 Ken Wright, which presented with a nice acid backbone, a bit of herbal edge, delineated fruit flavors and a cleansing finish.  An excellent food wine.

The Ken Wright was tied with the Dog Point, followed by 2009 Hirsch and 2009 Melville. Yet for some of the most experienced tasters, the Hirsch and the Melville were in the top three. Both showed nice tones of red berry and cherry fruit, soft mouth feel, modest tannins and overall good balance.

Interestingly, every wine received at least one vote as “favorite” and seven of eight received at least one vote as “least favorite.” Six of eight received a “most unique” vote. All of which goes to show that in the world of wine appreciation, there are few absolutes; it is all about personal preference.

MSU Wine Tasting Benefit March 30

Meanwhile, another favorite local wine and food appreciation opportunity is just around the corner. The annual Michigan State University Museum Wine Tasting Benefit will be held at the Kellogg Center at 7:30 p.m. March 30.

More than 175 different wines — representing a vast array of grape varieties and numerous producers — will be poured at 25 tables. Wines will be available for ordering on site. The event features door prizes, a silent auction and hors d’oeuvres; at $40 a ticket, it is a screaming bargain. For more information, call (517) 432-4655 or visit