Reluctantly I’m about ready to join the chorus that claims you can’t buy a decent bottle of pinot noir for less than $15.
I’ve had several bargain pinot noirs that speak to the varietal’s clarity and charm. I just haven’t had any this year. Quite the contrary.
At the Dallas Morning News and TexSom International Wine Competition in February, our panel was assigned 45 pinot noirs bearing the broad appellation “California,” a sign that the entries could have been made with grapes grown anywhere in the state and most likely were inexpensive.
Not a single one of the 45 won a gold medal. Only six got a silver medal.
What was going on here? The vintage couldn’t be faulted. While a few of the entries were from the difficult 2011 harvest, most were from 2012, a long and steady year that initially excited vintners after two years of erratic growing seasons.
The 2012 vintage, however, also yielded an immense crop, and those heavy clusters of fat berries just might not be giving up the sort of concentrated juice that produces enthralling wine.
The biggest surprise was that while so many of the pinot noirs had clear and inviting aromas, their flavors failed to bloom on the palate. My notes include several terms like “thin,” “hollow” and “blunt” too often for a class of young wines.
Their fruit could be sweet, but only occasionally did it enunciate pinot noir with sharpness and confidence. There were few issues with tannins, but acidity was often listless rather than vibrant.
At the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition at Cloverdale in January, a panel I was on judged 59 pinot noirs priced $25 to $29.99. We awarded 18 gold or double-gold medals, a high proportion, but not outlandish.
Again, most of the entries were from 2012, though quite a few of the gold-medal winners were from 2011. The major difference wasn’t price or vintage but geography. The Cloverdale entries almost without exception originated in defined appellations, such as Russian River Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands, we found when results were revealed.
Earlier, at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition in November, my panel judged 30 pinot noirs priced $36 to $100. Eight won gold medals, six from 2011, one each from 2010 and 2012.
In this price range the entries not only were from defined appellations but usually carried the names of specific vineyards, we later learned.
At Cloverdale and Houston, the pinot noirs tended to be richer, more intense, more opulent and more persistent than the entries at Dallas, to be expected when you start spending more than $20 per bottle.
I’m not giving up on finding expressive and interesting pinot noirs at $15 or less, but my experience at these three competitions reminds me that place of origin – and the more specific, the better – is crucial when deciding whether to invest in pinot noir.
That said, here are several of my favorites from the three competitions, listed here in part because they should be available hereabouts: