Taste Test
Under-$15 Pinot Noir comes in
several styles and what seem
to be even more flavors, as
if they were surrounding the
idea of traditonal Pinot. Still,
most of the wines have some
characteristics in common,
whether they’re in the $10
and up or the less than
$10 segments:
Lots and lots of fruit,
and almost as much oak
(from chips or staves or
dominoes or whatever).
The former is true even in
wines that aren't blended
with something else, but
are 100% wines and the
blended Pinots are even
more fruit-forward.
Not a lot of acid or
tannins, even for Pinot
Noir. This seems to be a
conscious winemaking
decision, aimed at the
U.S. palate.
Low alcohol. Despite the
trend toward 15% pinot
noir toward the higher
end, these wines are
mostly less than 14%,
and some are even less
than 13%.
What does someone
whose specialty is cheap
wine, both on my Wine
Curmudgeon blog and in
my upcoming book,
Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide
to Cheap Wine
, look for in
under-$15 Pinot? Two things:
some varietal character, and
balance, because a Pinot
that is too fruit-forward is just
another red blend. These
wines passed that test dur-
ing a recent tasting of some
three dozen samples.
Under $10
Casillero del Diablo 2012
($9, Chile, 13.5%):
like a Chilean wine, but also
like pinot, a little dark and a
little old-fashioned.
Cono Sur “Bicicleta”
($9, Chile, 13.5%):
My favorite of the tasting,
with an almost Burgundian
earthiness and restrained
cherry fruit.
Mirassou NV
($9, California, 13.5%):
Nicely balanced, with acidity
evening out the red fruit and
a zingy finish.
Turning Leaf 2011
California, 13%): The big-
gest surprise, with a hint of
varietal character, not too
much fruit, and tannins and
a finish not normally associ-
ated with a $6 wine.
Edna Valley 2010
San Louis Obispo, 13.9%):
Solid example of California
style, fruit forward with vel-
vety tannins.
Harlow Ridge 2012
($11, Lodi, 12.5%): Lots of
red fruit, but mostly balanced
with a Pinot-like finish. Who
knew there was Pinot in Lodi?
Julia James 2011
($12, California, 13%):
Lighter, but modern-style
Pinot with soft tannins and
ripe cherry fruit.
Line 39 2012
($12, Central
Coast, 14.5%): More sophis-
ticated, richer and with deep
red fruit that shows off the
Mark West 2011
California, 13.8%): Tasty,
with soft red fruit and almost
too much oak—the style that
launched 1 million cases.
Tortoise Creek
“Les Oliviers” 2011
($11, Limoux, 13.5%):
Honest, straightforward
French Pinot made in the
European style.
Other producers have followed in a
near frenzy. E. & J. Gallo’s Mirassou and
Barefoot are the next best-selling under-$15
Pinots, while Bronco Wine Co. makes bar-
gain Pinot under a dozen labels. There are
Chilean, French and New Zealand imports;
brands from independent producers like Ce-
cchetti Wine Co.’s Line 39 and Bogle; and
even new big-supplier labels featuring Pinot
Noir, such as Diageo’s Velvet Crush. This
development, says Napa wine marketing
consultant Paul Tincknell, is one of the few
he can think of where the U.S. wine busi-
ness has followed consumers, instead of try-
ing to lead them to a new product. His take
on the consumer interest? “They were tired
of Cabernet and Merlot,” says Tincknell.
“They wanted to try something different.”
There remains a question why con-
sumers, who had seemed content with
“bigger” red varietals for so long, decided
they wanted something new. And it’s im-
portant to note that Cabernet and Merlot
remain more popular; Cabernet outsells
Pinot by about 2½ to 1, while Merlot
outsells it by some 7 to 6, according to
Nielsen case statistics.
With those two leading reds essentially
holding ground, it may well be that new
Pinot Noir drinkers are coming from else-
where. Chris Keel, who owns a small fine
wine shop in Fort Worth, TX, called Put a
Cork in It, observes, “I am selling cheaper
Affordable Pinot Noir
Cono Sur Vineyard
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