Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Pinot noirs under $15 only go so far

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:

• MacMurray Ranch 2011 Russian River Valley Winemaker’s Block Pinot Noir ($60): If you like root beer, you’ll love the thread of sarsaparilla that runs through the berry and cherry flavors of this medium-bodied and highly polished take on the varietal, which won gold at Houston.

• Davis Family Vineyards 2011 Russian River Valley Horseshoe Bend Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50): Another gold-medal winner from Houston, largely for its sweet opulent fruit and generous exploitation of oak, adding up to an unusually powerful representative from the vintage.

• Davis Family Vineyards 2011 Russian River Valley Starr Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50): The warmer Starr Ridge Vineyard is reflected in riper and denser fruit with this take, also a gold-medal wine in Houston.

• La Follette Wines 2011 Sonoma Coast Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir ($40): Textbook pinot noir, showing by its equilibrium, buoyancy, length and spunky athleticism why the grape so often is called one of the world’s few “noble” varieties; also a gold-medal wine in Houston.

• Francis Ford Coppola Winery 2012 Russian River Valley Director’s Cut Pinot Noir ($27): No forced special effects here, just straight-forward pinot noir, meaning the raspberry-accented fruit is fragrant and floral, the texture is fleshy without being heavy, and the finish lingers pleasantly; a gold-medal winner at Cloverdale.

• Claiborne & Churchill Vineyard 2011 Edna Valley Pinot Noir ($28): While best known for its Alsatian-style gewurztraminers and rieslings, Claiborne & Churchill in San Luis Obispo County also turns out a little pinot noir. Don’t be deceived by its light color; its sunny fruit is fat, gorgeous and persistent; a gold-medal wine at Cloverdale.

• Cameron Hughes Wines 2012 Santa Barbara County Santa Rita Hills Lot 505 Pinot Noir ($25): Cameron Hughes, celebrated for its bargain wines at Costco, is kicking up its image and its prices with this husky, concentrated and exquisitely complex take on the varietal, our 59th and final pinot noir at Cloverdale, where it won gold.

• Hahn Winery 2012 California Pinot Noir ($14): For years, Hahn has been recognized for its high-value varietals, a standing it reinforces with this medium-bodied, sweetly fruit rendition of pinot noir. I wasn’t particularly taken with it at first, but gradually its tart cranberry note and vein of earthiness won me over. It was one of just six wines to win silver at Dallas.

• Jamieson Ranch Vineyards 2012 California Light Horse Pinot Noir ($14): Another silver-medal wine from Dallas, this is the sort of distinct, solid and readily fruity kind of pinot noir to pour for someone who swears they just don’t feel the seductiveness that the varietal has to offer.

• Barefoot Cellars California Pinot Noir ($8): Another silver-medal winner at Dallas, this also is an introductory take on pinot noir – dark, juicy and soft, with just enough typicity to hint at the grandeur the varietal can yield at its finest.

• Redwood Creek California Pinot Noir ($5): A fellow panelist at Dallas, where this entry also won a silver medal, likened it to “cherry/berry cider;” in other words, easy to like for its mellow tannins, sweetness and softness.