Seeking affordable pinot noir

VINTAGE POINT

Wines: Tasting uncovers some good choices around, but nothing great for under $20.

March 06, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Pinot noir is to a restaurant wine list what an infielder who can play three positions is to a baseball team: invaluable.

Wines made from the classic Burgundy grape have a versatility you don't find in cabernet sauvignon or merlot. They can span the gap between your salmon and your companion's steak. They have an extra measure of acidity that pairs well with grilled foods. Their relatively light tannins make them pleasant to drink young.

At their best, whether from Burgundy or from the American West, they can be sublime. The problem, for the restaurateur or the retail consumer, is cost. It's tough to find an affordable - let's say $20 retail - pinot noir that offers much sophistication. Most of the producers whose pinots are truly exciting charge far more.

In the lower reaches of the pinot noir price range, quality can get especially dicey. It's a lot easier to make truly dreadful wine from pinot noir than it is from cabernet, merlot or any of the best-known white-wine varietals.

My interest in budget pinot noirs was sparked by a recent conversation with a friend who is planning to open a restaurant. When the conversation turned to pinot noir, I drew a blank when asked what he could put on the list at an affordable price.

So I did a little research, tasting wines from California, Oregon, Australia and Burgundy. The results? Let's just say that if there are any great wines lurking under the $20 mark, they escaped my dragnet. There were quite a few good ones, and a few that were close to delightful. There was also an abundance of mediocrity, some of it hiding under prestigious labels.

The two French wines in the tasting were clearly different in style from the California and Australian pinots. Both were light- to medium-bodied, with ethereal but lively flavors and very pure fruit. While lightweight when compared with great Burgundy, they were lightweights with regional style.

The better of the two was the 1999 Joseph Drouhin Pinot Noir ($13), classy and flavorful with excellent balance and penetration despite its lack of body and complexity. The 1999 Louis Jadot Pinot Noir Bourgogne ($17) was a bit more earthy but basically similar. Both would serve well on restaurant wine lists and could sell for under $30.

The two entries from Southeastern Australia showed relatively well. The lush, ripe 2000 Rosemount Estate Pinot Noir ($12) offers generous black-cherry flavors and good balance, though little complexity. The 2001 Lindemann's Bin 999 Pinot Noir ($9) is a young, brash wine with rather a candied black-cherry flavor reminiscent of some nouveau-style wines. There's no denying its uncomplicated charm.

Oregon contributed one wine, the 2000 Firesteed Pinot Noir ($12). This is a truly light red wine, with only a little more color than a rose. The flavors were spicy and lively and it wasn't unpleasant, but would you respect yourself the morning after?

The California wines showed a great range of quality - from the impressive to the shabby. In rough order of quality, here's how it went:

1999 Estancia Pinnacles Pinot Noir, Monterey ($16). This was the Best in Show, with generous fruit, intense black-cherry flavor, smooth texture and excellent balance.

1999 Echelon Central Coast Pinot Noir ($15). This stylish, full-bodied wine showed ample black cherry and a touch of an herbal edge but nothing unpleasant.

1999 Kenwood Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($15). The aroma was excessively earthy when this was first opened, but the smell blew off to reveal a wine with compelling fruit, good length and balance and a touch of French character - though more Rhone-like than Burgundy. This wine could improve with two to three years' aging.

1999 Beringer Founder's Estate Pinot Noir ($11). This is a well-balanced, medium-bodied pinot that reflects its California style. It's widely available and if you don't ask too much of it, you'll be pleased with the value.

1999 Indigo Hills Central Coast Pinot Noir ($10). It's pleasant, with tasty if not exactly subtle berry and black-cherry fruit.

2000 Camelot Pinot Noir ($9). Not fit to serve in the Holy Grail, but a pleasantly fruit pinot for a rock-bottom price.

Now the bad news:

The 1999 Robert Mondavi Coastal Pinot Noir ($12) and 2000 Beaulieu Vineyards Coastal Pinot Noir ($10.59) are both examples of famous wineries stretching their prestigious names too thin by slapping their labels on flavor-deficient mediocrities.

Turning Leaf is a slightly upscale Gallo label with little prestige to squander. The flat and bland 1999 pinot noir will neither help nor hurt its reputation. The crude, rather medicinal 2000 Villa Mt. Eden Coastal Pinot Noir ($10) is a disappointment.

The thin, barely palatable 1999 Parducci Mendocino Vineyard Select Pinot Noir ($9) is a discredit to a fine old family winery name. It's no bargain - even at this price.

Saving the worst for last, the 2000 Clos du Bois Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($16) is this month's nominee for the Plonk Hall of Fame. (Note to beginners: Plonk is a wonderful word for bad wine.) It's a most unattractive light color and any fruit it might once have had was stripped out of it. Please note that the price is one of the highest in the group. In my experience, all that is typical of Clos du Bois - a winery whose products find their way onto far too many restaurant wine lists.

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