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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
2012 Noble Vines 667 Monterey Pinot Noir
14.5% alc., $9.99.
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.
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.