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The $9.99 Pinot Noir Challenge

Once in a great while I dip into the bottom shelf, inexpensive Pinot Noirs, to experience what many people are drinking. Let’s face it, most of the Pinot Noirs I review are wallet-draining expensive, limited in availability due to minuscule production, and not for drinking on a nightly basis.

I chose a case of wines that were priced at $9.99 or less, either based on the current retail price or the price after discounting (many of these wines are found in supermarkets that often discount them by up to 30% if the consumer buys six mix and match bottles).

Wineries often divulge little production details on their value-priced wines, so I chose not to supply a bevy of technical nonsense. The wines may not be 100% Pinot Noir (wines can be labeled Pinot Noir as long as other varieties do not exceed 25 percent). Many carry the California appellation and grapes are sourced from several regions.

Two decades ago, wine writers attributed the expense of premium Pinot Noir to the fact that it did not lend itself to large-scale winemaking, responding best instead when crafted in small batches. The demands of Pinot Noir winemaking were considered so challenging that the wine’s subtleties were easily lost in large production regimens. While this still holds true, the remarkable advances in large-scale Pinot Noir winemaking using selective manipulation have led to a plethora of good drinking Pinot Noir under $20 and even under $10. Claims that these cheap Pinot Noirs would ruin the lofty reputation of Pinot Noir have proven wrong since the wines are decent. They have made the grape more accessible to the general wine drinking public, and as a result, Pinot Noir has replaced Merlot and Zinfandel and challenged Cabernet Sauvignon as the go-to red for most regular wine drinkers.

It still holds true that very good, cheap Pinot Noir is an oxymoron, and with Pinot Noir you definitely get what you pay for, but when you need to grab a bottle of Pinot Noir for a casual meal, it is comforting to know that some inexpensive Pinot Noirs can fill the bill and are true to their heritage.

The wines reviewed here were fresh from supermarket or wine retail stores and were tasted soon after acquiring to replicate the consumer’s experience (most consumers drink wine within a day or two of purchase). 8 of the wines had natural cork or cork composite closures, 3 had screwcap closure, and 1 had a synthetic closure. None of the back labels provided any relevant information as to vinification of the wines except the Mark West bottling.

All the wines were true to Pinot Noir, but several had imposing oak imprints. The three that I can recommend are 2011 Mark West California Pinot Noir, 2012 Red Rock California Pinot Noir, and 2012 Noble Vines 667 Monterey County Pinot Noir.

2012 Cono Sur Bicicleta Chile Pinot Noir

$13.5% alc., $6.99, screwcap. Imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, AL. · Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. The nose is devoid of fruit, offering aromas of wooded forest, pine cone and Christmas tree. Soft in the mouth with a cherry core, bright acidity and notable oak presence. Balanced oaky tannins and a cherry-infused short finish complete the picture. Score: 79

2011 Castle Rock Mendocino County Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $9.99. · Moderate reddish-purple color in the glass. Aromas of oak-laced cherries with a hint of geranium. Decent cherry core with oak in the background. Rather bland, lacking in finishing pleasure, but drinkable. Score: 81

2012 Hahn Winery California Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $9.99. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Aromas of cigar oak dominant the nose. Flavors of oak-laced black cherries and tobacco with good fruit concentration and mild tannins. Full-bodied but not redeeming. Score: 82

2012 Redtree California Pinot Noir

12.5% (label), 13.08% (website) alc., pH 3.63, TA 0.58, 60,000 cases, $8.99, screwcap. From Cachetti Wine Company. · Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. Very aromatic initially with scents of cherry, cranberry, red licorice, spice and pipe smoke, fading some over time in the glass. Middleweight flavors of black cherry and raspberry draped in firm tannins. Score: 83

2012 The Pinot Project California Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $8.99, screwcap. Founded in 2009 by importer Michael Skurnik. Raised in approximately 15% French oak barrels and 85% stainless steel for 4-5 months. · Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. The nose is lacking in fruit appeal, showing aromas of exotic spice, oak and underbrush. A bit thin and flat with flavors of black cherry and anise and some finishing presence of black cherry fruit. Pleasant, but dilute and unexciting. Score: 83

2012 Bogle Vineyards California Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $9.99. · Moderately light reddish-purple hue in the glass. Pleasant aromas of cherries, baking spice and oak. A solid wine with modestly intense flavors of oak-kissed cherry and cranberry backed by balanced dry tannins. Easy to drink with a spark of acidity on the finish. Score: 84

2012 Cloud Break California Pinot Noir

12.5% alc., $8.99. A Total Wine & More exclusive brand. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Nicely perfumed with fresh aromas of cherries, baking spices and subtle oak. A flavorful core of cherry and cranberry fruit is supported by good acidity and balanced tannins. A solid wine that is nicely crafted and easy to like. Score: 85

2012 Estancia Monterey County Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $9.99. · Moderate reddish-purple color in the glass. Pleasing aromas of fresh red cherries and supportive oak. Tasty essence of dark cherries with oak highlights in the background. Smoothly textured with firm but not astringent tannins and a welcome cherry-infused finish. Score: 85

2012 Sean Minor Central Coast Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., pH 3.71, TA 0.57, $9.99. A blend from five appellations, mostly Monterey County. 100% Pinot Noir. Fermented in open-top stainless steel fermenters with punch downs two to three times a day. Aged in oak. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Shy aromas of berries, underbrush and oak. Darker berries, black cherries and plum fruit flavors are featured in a mid weight style that is soft in the mouth with some finishing intensity. Juicy fruit flavor but there is too much oak on board. Score: 85

2011 Mark West California Pinot Noir

13.8% alc., $7.97. Fermented in small tanks with daily punch downs. Aged in French and Hungarian oak barrels for about 8 months. · Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. The most aromatically attractive wine in this tasting with scents of cherry pie glaze, spice and sandalwood. Middleweight flavors of red and black cherries with an annotation of brown spice and oak. Modest tannins and nicely integrated acid. Score: 86

2012 Noble Vines 667 Monterey Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $9.99. · Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. Classy aromas of dark cherries and dark red berries lead to a mid weight palate of flavors that echo the nose. Nicely balanced and very forward, with complimentary hints of spice and oak. A gentle wine that aims to please. Score: 86

2012 Red Rock Winery Reserve California Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $9.99. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Very fragrant upon opening with aromas of darker berry fruits and a floral accent, fading some over time in the glass with oak showing up. Soft and cozy on the palate with a tasty black cherry and black raspberry core. Impressive balance and harmony. Score: 86

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