GREAT Pinot Noirs, as a friend once put it, have a near-sexual allure. The first taste can turn you into a bottle stalker, which is why the world’s Pinot lust has pushed prices of the most coveted to three- and four-digits. Today, though, it’s easier than ever to find seductive examples with those rose-petal aromas, silky textures, and layered flavors at more affordable prices.
In Burgundy, still the grape’s ur-territory, global warming has (mostly) ensured riper grapes every year. That, along with better vineyard practices and young ambitious wine makers has upped the quality of non-snob generic Bourgogne Rouge and little-known village appellations like Santenay.
The biggest change in pinot during the past decade, though, is the rise of New Zealand, Oregon, and California, as wine makers finally zeroed in on the vine’s sweet spots. Pinot is tricky to grow, and subtle shifts in temperature and soil make the difference. In California, pinot is now the state’s third most planted grape: 44,000 acres-worth, nearly double the amount 10 years ago. The hottest success stories are in coolest areas, like the Sonoma Coast, Mendocino, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and Santa Barbara. Even their regional blends now have a balance and elegance California pinots rarely showed in the past.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley has grown warmer, too, giving its wines more ripe lushness. The state is booming with deep-pocketed vineyard investors that include a raft of top Burgundy producers. And half a dozen districts in New Zealand now regularly turn out intense pinots with exotic red fruit and herb flavors.
Expect more bargains in the future. For now, here are my top 15 pinots under $50.
$40 to $50
• 2014 Kelley Fox Momtazi Vineyard Pinot Noir. This boutique Oregon producer sources grapes from top vineyards for her Pinots. This one has the kind of power and mineral elegance you find in one from Burgundy’s Nuits St. Georges.
• 2014 Two Paddocks Pinot Noir. Most celebrities make pretty ordinary wines. Jurassic Park star Sam Neill, owner of this New Zealand winery in Central Otago, is a major exception. His flagship wine, a blend of four organic vineyards, is full and savory, with intense fruit flavors.
• 2014 Domaine de la Cote Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir. You’ll see this Pinot, a partnership of sommelier Raj Parr and famed wine maker Sashi Moorman, on a lot of Manhattan wine lists. It’s light and graceful, reflecting the winery’s house style and its cool microclimate in the Santa Rita Hills.
• 2014 Flowers Winery Pinot Noir. Steep, twisting roads lead to this winery 1,500 feet above sea level on the Sonoma coast. Cool winds off the Pacific preserve the bright acidity while the warm 2014 growing season gave this wine a taste of rich, dark cherries and a lush texture.
• 2014 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Dundee Hills. Well-known Burgundy negociant Maison Joseph Drouhin was the first French producer to buy vineyard land in Oregon, and 2017 is the winery’s 30th anniversary. Its basic Pinot, from a fine, exuberant vintage, is a heady mix of ripe fruit and savory cherry notes.
$30 to $40
• 2014 Tyler Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County. Intense flower and spice aromas, and fresh, crunchy fruit are the hallmarks of the Pinots from young, talented Justin Willett. His entry-level blend is a good introduction to the brilliant style of his much more expensive single vineyard Pinots.
• 2015 Sarah’s Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir. Pinot noir is this winery’s claim to fame, and this one, with lush dark fruit, comes from its appellation series, which highlights top districts for growing the grape. Santa Lucia Highlands is close to cold Monterey Bay.
• 2014 Burn Cottage Cashburn. Sonoma wine maker Ted Lemon, of Littorai fame, directs the vineyards and wine making at this biodynamic estate in New Zealand’s Central Otago. The juicy, sensual, light-bodied Cashburn is the winery’s second, cheaper label.
• 2014 Carpe Diem Pinot Noir Anderson Valley. Not far from the Mendocino coast, fog-shrouded Anderson Valley has gained a reputation for bright, exciting Pinots. The cool climate is the reason for this wine’s vivid black cherry flavors and intense rose petal and spice aromas.
• 2014 Maison L’Envoye Two Messengers. This US negotiant project, which debuted in 2011, now has footprints in Burgundy, Oregon, and Tasmania. This smooth, mineral-accented, spicy pinot comes from several vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
$20 to $30
• 2015 Domaine Alain Hudelot-Noellat Bourgogne Rouge. Rock-star wine maker Charles Van Canneyt makes one of the best examples of generic red Burgundy around, especially in this top vintage. Its bright, pure, ripe cherries flavor and sensual texture remind me of a Chambolle Musigny.
• 2015 Domaine Marc Colin Santenay Rouge Les Champs Claude Vieilles Vignes. Few producers make vibrant, silky-textured reds like this one. The grapes come from 100-year-old vines right next to a premier cru vineyard.
• 2015 Bodega Chacra Barda Pinot Noir. Yes, Argentina is still malbec country, but Tuscan wine maker Piero Incisa della Rocchetta (whose grandfather founded Italy’s great Sassicaia), discovered abandoned pinot vines in cool Rio Negro, Patagonia. He now makes several stellar Pinots, including his pure, graceful, entry-level Barda.
• 2014 Domaine des Terres Dorées (Jean-Paul Brun) Bourgogne Pinot Noir. The pinot vines for this superb wine are, surprisingly, in Beaujolais, where gamay is the reigning grape. Iconic wine maker Jean-Paul Brun’s only Pinot is a juicy, tangy wine with the depth and complexity of many reds in the Côte d’Or.
• 2014 Montinore Red Cap Pinot Noir. A surprisingly satisfying Pinot for the price, this Oregon bargain is made from 100% certified biodynamic grapes. It’s a drink-me-now version of the state’s bright, fresh, red berry and spice style. – Elin McCoy, Bloomberg