Cheap Wine: Best Pinot Noir Under $20

Since the movie Sideways in 2005, sales of Pinot Noir have skyrocketed throughout the world and especially in the United States. Unfortunately, unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, it is difficult to make high volume, inexpensive Pinot Noir that still smells and tastes like Pinot Noir.

So can you get quality at under $20 a bottle?

What is Pinot Noir?

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Native to Burgundy, where it reaches its apogée in the Grand Cru vineyards of the Côte d’Or, Pinot Noir is a particularly challenging and costly variety to cultivate.

It requires a relatively cool climate -- not too cold and not too hot. Quality drops drastically when yields are too high. Pinot Noir demands so much more of the vine grower and the winemaker, both financially and in man-hours. It is a very old variety and prone to significant mutation, resulting in much greater number of clones than say, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Pinot Noir should never be described as powerful. The beauty of Pinot Noir wines lies in their elegance, finesse, perfume, silky tannins, and bright fruit character. Pinot wines are seductive, drawing you in with their captivating bouquet. With age they can develop complex aromas and flavors of earthy truffle, leather and dried herbs.

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While Burgundy may be the benchmark for top Pinot Noir, today there are a number of other regions producing impressive wines. These include parts the cooler parts of California such as Russian River Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Cruz Mountains, and Santa Maria Highlands and Carneros; New Zealand (particularly Central Otago); and Oregon.

Is cheap Pinot Noir available?

Given the high costs of production, good Pinot Noir wines do not come cheap. We only have to browse the shelves in any reputable wine store and see that most carry a price tag of above $50.

With this in mind I went shopping to see what I could find for my more realistic budget. Having tasted a few examples below $10, I decided I needed to up my budget. So I gave myself an upper limit of $20. I visited a number of stores in New York and ended up with a selection of twenty wines to try.

On Sunday evening, I tasted through all the wines (blind, so as not to be influenced by producer or provenance). Happily, almost all of the wines smelled and tasted like Pinot Noir. For the most part they were clean, with decent fruit character, balanced and not overly oaked.

However, they lacked the complexity that only really great Pinot Noir can deliver. But for the price, I was more than happy with most of the wines. They certainly delivered on both quality and value. As you will notice, Burgundy itself does not feature much. If my budget had been up to $25, I could have included quite a number of excellent regional-level Bourgogne Rouge, a category that is improving all the time, especially the 2005 and 2006 vintages.

While I tasted some good wines from California, my preference, at this price point is New Zealand. Their cooler climate enables a more restrained Burgundian style.

I hope that some of these reviews are useful, the next time you go shopping for Pinot Noir. I have also included a number of wines that I recently tried at a tasting of New Zealand wines in New York City.

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Best Pinot Noir under $20

2005 Crossroads Destination Series Pinot Noir, Hawkes Bay - $16.99 – Vivid and rich cherry, cranberry and raspberry flavors and aromas with toasty spice and leather notes. Smooth tannins, and plumpish mouth feel. Lingering sweet spicy finish. (16.5/20)

2005 Yering Station Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley - $16.99 – Cheery red berry, plumy, cherry nose. Lighth, but inviting. Refreshing with lots of ripe cherry berry flavors and sweet spicy finish. Medium length. (16/20)

2007 Tamar Ridge, Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir, Tasmania $16 - Appealing cherry berry, strawberry and raspberry fruit character with complimenting spicy and savory notes. Elegant with smooth tannins, lots of fruit, and a long finish. (16/20)

2006 Delta Vineyard Pinot Noir, Marlborough $16.99 – Concentrated red and black cherry with pretty floral notes of roses and violets and inviting woodsy notes. Smooth, silky tannins and persistent, elegant fruit across the palate. (18/20)

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2007 A-Z Pinot Noir, Oregon $17.99 - Freshly made black cherry, strawberry and raspberry jam aromas with notes of char, underbrush and smoke. Juicy fruit on the palate with a nice mix of sweet and savory spices. Smooth tannins. (15/20)

2007 Castle Rock, Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast $12.99 – Fruit forward, and packed with juicy, ripe red cherry aromas and flavors. Light, soft tannins. Easy drinking with a sweet spicy cherry finish. (15.5/20)

2006 Fleur Pinot Noir, Carneros $17.99 – Appealing mix of characteristic Pinot cherry and earthy, roasted meat, leather notes. More savory than sweet. Good oak integration and hints of pepper and char on the finish. (16/20)

2006 Mac Murray Ranch, Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast $14.99 – Earthy, black cherry and plums with notes of cracked black pepper, charry smoke and sweet spice. Appealing smooth mouthfeel and long length. (16.5)

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2005 Joseph Drouhin, AC Côte de Beaune Villages, Burgundy $18.99 – Persistent fresh black cherry, wild strawberries and forest fruits aromas and flavors with hints of spice and dried herbs. Well balanced. (16/20)

2007 Blason de Bourgogne Pinot Noir, AC Bourgogne , Burgundy $14 - The palest of all wines tasted. Delicate red cherry and freshly picked strawberry aromas and flavors. Light, simple but pleasing and easy to drink. Served lightly chilled, would be a lovely aperitif or serve with a first course. (14.5/20)

2005 Edition Maximilian Pinot Noir, Rheingau (Germany) $12 – Pretty with ripe, yet elegant nose of red cherry, lingonberry with some black pepper, spicy notes and lifted rose petal notes. Smooth and silky on the palate with lovely a pretty sweet cherry lingering finish. (15.5/20)

2007 Lindemans Bin 99 Pinot Noir, South Eastern Australia $7 – Characteristically a lot more fruit forward with jammy, ripe red and black fruit aromas and flavors – cherry, strawberry with distinct mint, cola and sweet spice notes. Smooth tannins and medium length. Great value but not as elegant as some others.(15/20)

2006 Louis Jadot Pinot Noir, AC Bourgogne, Burgundy $14 - Restrained on the nose, showing more of a black cherry and plum character and notes of black pepper and tar. Quite classic regional Burgundy with smooth tannins, food friendly, correct but won’t knock your socks off. (14.5/20)

2007 Saint Clair Vicar’s Choice Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand $18 – Earthy, plumy, black cherry aromas and flavors with an overlay of spice, cola, cracked pepper and roasted meat notes. (15.5)

2007 Mud House Pinot Noir, Central Otago $16.99 – Lovely lifted aromas of ripe black cherry, wild raspberry and enticing savory herbs. Silky tannins and a long fruity finish with a neat spicy kick. (16/20)

2007 Roaring Meg Pinot Noir, Central Otago $19.99 – Inviting perfume of red and black cherry, with floral notes. Elegant and silky across the palate with lots of cherry, raspberry freshness mingling with meaty, cola and earthy spicy notes. (17.5/20)

2007 Babich Pinot Noir, Marlborough $18 – Brimming with bright red cherry -berry fruit. Easy drinking and straightforward. Well made everyday wine. (15.5/20)

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Pinot Noir and food

Another great aspect of Pinot Noir wines is their affinity with many different foods. The high acid and relatively lower tannin makes for perfect pairing with fish dishes such as grilled salmon, roasted halibut or swordfish steak.

They also work amazingly with lighter meats such as chicken, veal or turkey – no wonder so many people choose Pinot Noir to compliment the Thanksgiving mainstay. Additionally, I cannot think of anything nicer than a glass of good Pinot Noir with a succulent roast leg of lamb.

So, with all this selection to choose from, Pinot Noir lovers can continue to enjoy their favorite grape at affordable prices.

Until next week enjoy!

-- Mary

(Images: Pinot Noir grapes from Appellation America, Burgundy vineyard from the BIVB, Santa Rita Hills Vineyard from Santa Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance, Veal Chop and Pinot Noir Pairing from the BIVB.)

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Drinks, Budget, Wine

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.

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