When people ask me to recommend good affordable red wine, I always say the same thing. Get flexible. Look for grapes you may not have had often—Gamay, Mencia, Zweigelt—and look for blends. Consider wines made without oak, because either those oak barrels are jacking up the price of your wine, or the oak in that wine ain't from barrels. Consider cool climates, which may yield wines a little less ripe, alcoholic, and sweet.
Whatever you do, I often say, don't buy cheap Pinot Noir.
One of the main reasons I say this is that the juice from pinot noir grapes is often blended with other stuff (to make a sort of pinot-punch) until it just doesn't taste like pinot at all. Legally, 75% of the wine must be from the grape named on the label, but the rest could be anything. As Jon Bonné wrote on the San Francisco Chronicle's website:
The road to cheap Pinot is paved with more robust grapes; many inexpensive Pinot Noirs contain Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah and even Chardonnay. Labeling laws make it all perfectly legal. So who's to blame? We all are. The wine industry didn't wake up one day and decide to make one of the most notoriously difficult grapes into a mass product. It responded to a huge demand.
Mass market bottles can veer toward sweet-and-jammy, without acidity to balance the wine. And if it's not blended with other stuff, budget Pinot Noir can be thin, bitter, sour, and unpleasant to drink. When you spend a little more, Pinot Noir can get earthy and mushroomy, bright and tart, filled out with fruit and herbal flavors. But can you get any of that in a weeknight wine? We decided to put a mixed case to the test.
All of these wines are widely available for under $15 retail, and some under $10. We covered 12 bottles with brown bags and tasted them all blind, narrowing it down to five top picks for a second-round showdown.
24 Knots 2009 Pinot Noir (Central Coast); $15
Bogle Vineyards 2010 Pinot Noir (California); $10-13
Cellar No. 8 2010 Pinot Noir (California); $9-12
Cupcake Vineyards 2010 Pinot Noir (Central Coast); $8-10
FishEye Winery 2011 Pinot Noir (South Eastern Australia); $9
Greg Norman 2010 Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara County); $12-15
Mandolin 2010 Pinot Noir (Monterey); $13-15
McManis Family Vineyards 2010 Pinot Noir (California); ($9-12)
Moobuzz 2009 Pinot Noir (Monterey); $15
Pennywise 2010 Pinot Noir (California); $10-12
Reserve St Martin Pinot Noir 2010 (Vin de Pays d'Oc, France) $11
Robert Mondavi 2010 Pinot Noir Private Selection (California); $9-12
During the blind tasting, we noted each wine's general flavors (does it taste like red fruit such as strawberries or black/blue fruit?), sweetness, acidity, body, alcohol heat, and oak.
We looked for wines that seemed to balance these elements in a way that increased overall enjoyment, and noted which elements were missing in each sip, and which elements stuck out over the rest.
After the first round, 5 frontrunners were selected for further tasting. As you'll note, our top picks were pleasing (especially #1, the Greg Norman Pinot Noir) but none of these climbed into the upper echelons of what Pinot Noir can be. Only the top wine had enough acidity to balance the sweeter fruit character, and only the top wine scored above 6 points out of 10.
#1. Greg Norman 2010 Pinot Noir (6.4/10)
Our winner offered medium-full body and a little spicy oak, with the closest thing to earthiness under its plush fruit flavors. It had enough acidity to please some of our tougher tasters, though several found the oaky flavor too dominant. This easy drinking wine would be good for serving with burgers or grilled lamb chops.
#2. Pennywise 2010 Pinot Noir (5.2/10)
This simple, juicy wine offered bright red fruit flavors (think red currant and raspberry) and a little sweet oak. "Not bad," said one taster, "I wish I was eating a juicy steak with this." Another noted that it would be the perfect base for sangria.
#3. Cellar No 8 2010 Pinot Noir (5/10)
"This wine is on the sweet side," noted one taster, "a bit unstructured, with lots of blueberry pie but nothing earthy or herbal, and not quite enough acid to hold it together." Another taster noted, "plenty of people are looking for jammy wine like this, but it's not my thing."
#4. Moobuzz 2009 Pinot Noir (4.9/10)
"This wine's a little more savory," noted one taster, "and it could work well with salami." It struck our tasters as less sweet than the others, with a scent that some found unappealing.
#5. Reserve St. Martin 2010 Pinot Noir (4.2/10)
This wine was a bit darker and deeper in color, with flavors that reminded us of cranberries, but with a slight sweetness on the finish. While some tasters liked it, others didn't love its slightly bitter side.
Got Others to Recommend?
We'd happily pick up our top two wines above, but tasting these twelve bottles confirmed our suspicion that it's tricky to find decent pinot on a budget. Do you have any affordable bottles of Pinot Noir that you love?