In Pursuit of $20 Pinot

Affordable Cabernet? No problem. Bargain Malbec? Easy. A good bottle of inexpensive Pinot Noir? Now that's a challenge. So we tasted 65 to find 15 great bottles we're certain you'll fall for.

Union Wine Company Underwood Pinot Noir
Photo: Courtesy of Union Wine Co.

One way to think of buying wine is that it’s a carnival game, like the kind where you throw darts at balloons and try to pop one that will give you a prize. You walk into a supermarket and there in front of you are 50 or even 100 bottles of Cabernet or Chardonnay; you take your chances, make your pick and fairly often you come home with something pretty palatable.

But try doing that with Pinot Noir, especially for less than $20? Forget about it. That’s when the wine version of the game is rigged. The prize seems great, but the darts are dull, the balloons are underinflated and you, my Pinot-loving friend, are the mark.

Even so, I don’t blame the sellers. In my opinion, the real culprit is the grape itself.

Of all the major wine grapes in the world, Pinot Noir is undoubtedly the most difficult to grow. Thin-skinned and finicky, it takes umbrage easily at problems like too much sun (it burns), too much moisture (it rots) and too much heat (it gets fat and tastes like raisins). It grows best in benighted places like Burgundy, where summer hailstorms have wiped out huge portions of the crop in four of the last five vintages. It’s also genetically unstable—not really a problem in the short run, but in the long, it’s a bit like marrying someone and having all your kids turn out to be mutants. Finally, Pinot doesn’t produce much. It’s what viticulturists like to call shy-bearing, which means that compared to something fecund like Chardonnay, it’s always going to be more expensive, grape for grape. Add all that up and you’re looking at higher cost.

The other problem is that Pinot has become popular. Since the mid-2000s, when interest in it began to rise—thanks, Sideways—sales of the grape have been climbing steadily, year after year. That would be great if there were endless amounts of affordable top-quality Pinot Noir fruit out there, but there aren’t. Plus, a lot of the vines that have been planted to compensate for the increased demand aren’t in the best places for the grape…and refer back to the previous page for the various issues that can stem from that decision.

The obvious answer to this situation, and the strictly practical one, is just to say the hell with it and start guzzling Malbec instead. But here’s the thing: Pinot lovers (and I’m one) aren’t practical. This grape’s particular appeal—its earthy, spicy, wild-berry flavors and its rare ability to offer intensity and delicacy at the same time—isn’t found in other wines. Which is also why, I’d argue, Pinot is rarely blended with other red varieties, unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache and many more. One could accuse it of being standoffish; one might be right.

So here you are. You love Pinot. You know that you can spend $150 and get a transcendent bottle, but you are not interested in spending $150. You want to spend $20. You are in the store and the game is rigged. What do you do?

Simple: You cheat. And you do that by having someone else (me) taste 65 affordable Pinot Noirs, pick the best and put them on a handy list—like this one. Enjoy!

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