Pinot Noir is a finicky, sensitive grape and the best bottles from Burgundy can be hundreds of dollars, but there are other options. We blind tasted and ranked 10 great Pinot Noirs under $25.
I'm all about food and wine bringing people together as I mentioned in Part 1 of my Tasting Page Taste Test where we explored great food pairings for Pinot Noir. It's fun experimenting with different flavor combinations with friends saying why they don't like a specific taste, and others vehemently defending a flavor like they produced the scent themselves.
In my 1st Taste Test, we started with everyone bringing one bottle of Pinot Noir priced under $25. We all tasted without knowing what we were drinking, and then rated each wine until we crowned a winner. We assigned a number to each wine on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best. The person who brought the wine with the most points at the end of the night got a goodie bag of wine paraphernalia, and of course Pinot Noir bragging rights for life.
My invite list didn't include scouring the top restaurants for their wine sommeliers to attend. I wanted real people, who like you and me, have the same dilemma of what to drink on a Thursday, Tuesday, or Saturday. So don't expect "cat pee" and "shaved tobacco," jargon. In fact, towards the end of the evening, words escaped some, so some feedback included emoticons with various smiling faces and tongue protrusions. You get where we're coming from now?
I should also mention that there was a big container of cucumber - lime water, which I highly recommend when conducting a tasting like this, or you'll end up with one big slumber party and no one being able to tell red from white at the end.
The wines are listed in order from the favorite to the least favorite, though there was only about a 10 point differential from best and worst. In fact, the majority agreed that they'd drink any of these bottles, any night of the week. Now you understand my friends and how they got the invite?
10 Great Pinot Noirs Under $25 (listed in order of preference)
2012 Animist Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, CA
This was the winning wine, coming out of Sonoma Coast's Russian River Valley, a great place for pinots with its pockets of cool air. There was some debate going on with this wine as the retail price at Whole Foods was $29.99, but it was on sale for $19.99. Regardless, there's always a deal to be had somewhere, and if you're like us, you're going to Whole Foods right now for this winner at a great price. What set it apart was its deep cranberry and cherry undertones, balanced with tannins, mid-palate balance and a lovely finish.
2012 Firestone Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills, CA
Firestone helped put Santa Ynez on the map as it was the first estate winery in the region. A family owned ranch and eventual winery from the early 70s, the Firestone family saw potential in the area and took a chance planting grapes (and sending their offspring to appear on reality dating show, The Bachelor). The chance paid off (for the winery, not for Andrew on the Bachelor), and vintner Bill Foley has now taken over the winery and is producing a portfolio of wines including our runner-up best Pinot Noir, coming from Santa Rita Hills. This classic tasting Pinot has smoky notes, nice depth and soft touches of cherry and spice.
2012 Arterberry Maresh, Dundee Hills, OR
I brought this wine to the party, never having tasted it, just going on the word at my local wine shop, Lincoln Fine Wines. Arterberry Maresh has a really young winemaker doing great things and I was guaranteed no one else would bring this wine (interestingly, we had no duplicate wines at the tasting). I just spent time in Oregon doing some wine tasting (my Willamette review here) and missed this one. It's a lighter wine without pronounced notes of oak, making it a good partner for some of the food we had. The pronounced nose eased up on the palate and while tasting decent now, could do well with a little aging. In the words of one taster, "Yipee!" Yup, yipee indeed.
2013 Meiomi Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara, CA
This wine started as the runaway winner with its balance and jammy notes, but after a lap through all the wines and a revisit an hour or two later, much had changed, and not just the color of all of the tasters' teeth. A very pronounced vanilla flavor took over, much to some's delight and other's chagrin. The balance shifted to a more syrupy cola, which was sometimes a nice break from some of the more tannic, dry wines. For $19.99 though, it's an easy, every day Pinot. The grapes come from several counties - Monterey, Sonoma and Santa Barbara, CA, which might explain its range of flavors.
2013 The Forager Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, CA
I really liked this wine because it had cherry and black raspberry notes and I love to taste some deep fruit in my wine. It wasn't one note though. It was full bodied with hints of pepper and a lingering finish. It's hand harvested from cool climate areas of Sonoma. Small oak barrels lend to the balance during the 9 month maturation. I thought this Pinot Noir had character. One taster wanted it with duck. Another had a back and forth philosophical debate on paper with it, changing his mind with every sip: "Good - Bad? Can't decide. Good I think." This was our 8th wine tasted so I think we were all questioning our judgement at this point, not to mention what we think is the correct number of wines to have at a tasting.
2012 Ponzi Tavola Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, OR
This is a solid Pinot Noir from Willamette. It won't blow you away, but it won't offend you. There's light tannins and red fruit flavors, making for easy drinking. The comments from several people summed this wine up perfectly. One person literally wrote, "nothing to say." Another commented on every wine on the tasting sheet except for this one and then went back and wrote "Not sure what happened here." And then there was the feedback with absolutely no words and just an emoticon quasi-smiley face with its tongue sticking out to the side. I think it was then we decided that 10 wines with some Chablis to start might be a bit too much for one evening.
2013 Argyle Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, OR
Our 3rd Oregon Pinot placed 7th in the pack. It's not a super sophisticated wine, but then again my crew was drawing doodley smiley faces on their tasting sheets as feedback. The group knew what they liked, but couldn't always put it into words. The words and penmanship dropped off towards the end of the night. One called this wine "whimsical," but agreed that it ended weak. It had a very pale color, "almost like water, but I oddly liked it." You can drink this wine without food because it's so light with few tannins or acidity. A simple, everyday Pinot that you could pair with several of these food items.
2012 Byron Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, CA
Santa Barbara experienced a cool winter and spring in 2012, leading to dark berry and cherry fruit flavors with floral and mineral accents. I found this wine to be very perfumy and another called it "fruit punch, not complex, not offensive, really good grape juice." At $19 it is decent juice, but it ranked #8, so it won't win you any wine tasting contests. It was at this point we all marveled at the range of flavors that can be present in a Pinot Noir. It's a very delicate grape with thin skin so it's quite susceptible to the weather and local environment. You could taste the difference in terroir, aka dirt or soil, between the bottles, but even two different vineyards in the same region could produce two very different wines due to the exact location of the grapes.
2007 Ortman Salisbury Vineyard, San Luis Obispo, CA
2007, what? Yeah, that was me, again. If there was ever a problem with me and wine, it might be that I have too much, or rather that I can't drink it as fast as I like to collect it. So I often pull wine out that might be past its prime. I loved Ortman out of Paso so much, but sadly, they're no longer. I've been hoarding my remaining bottles, but knowing additional time is not on this Pinot's side, I added it to the line-up, but am not counting it in the 10 bottles since you can no longer get it. It was one guests' favorite which only made it more bittersweet when she learned that this was the last she would have from this great label.
2013 Ritual Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile
We had only one entry from Chile, and well, there's a reason you don't see a lot of Chilean Pinot Noirs on this list or in restaurants. This winery is actually working with Paul Hobbs, an American winemaker, to utilize the same techniques as the big boys in Burgundy. So they're trying to go big here. The grapes come from a cool climate area on Chile's northwestern coast, so they get Pinot loving morning fog. This was actually a fine Pinot - fruit forward without a lot of complexity and a long finish. The oak was a bit overpowering for me. It made another taster cough. Perhaps a little more time - both in the bottle and making the wine in the area will help.
2012 Fritz Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, CA
Someone has to be on the bottom of the list and it was Fritz from Russian River Valley. I should note again though, that there was only 10 points (out of 50 total) separating the top from the bottom wine, so no individual wine was given 0's or 1's, though of course, some got sad faces and tongue protrusions. This got an "eh, middle of the road," "too much cherry... yikes," and several cough syrup comments. Someone flat out said, "I just didn't like the flavor." There's definitely cherry, cola notes and if that's your thing, this is your wine. If it's not, it might be on the bottom of your top 10 Pinot Noir list as well.
The good news is that there are many drinkable, enjoyable Pinot Noirs to be found under $25. Of course if you want to spend more, any of the regions above, especially the Russian River Valley and Willamette Valley will reward you will richer, lusher, longer lasting Pinots. If you want to go for broke with the creme de la creme of Pinot Noirs, then Burgundy is where you want to spend your money for well balanced, velvety, luscious, age-worthy Pinots.
Have a favorite Pinot Noir under $25? Let us know in the comments section, and stay tuned for more Tasting Page Taste Tests!