One of the questions I get a lot is, "What wine would you recommend for everyday drinking?" In my experience, most people mean this to be a wine that is easy to drink, of good quality, and under 10 bucks. While many of us enjoy an elegant Oregon Pinot Noir or intense Napa Cab, it is extremely rare to find them at this price point. In fact, a really good budget Pinot Noir is probably the most difficult wine to find.
To test this assumption, I assembled a group of good friends to blind taste 5 Pinot Noirs I purchased in Macon for around $10. I only told them the wines were affordable Pinot Noirs from Italy, California, Chile, and France and to rate each wine on a scale of 1 to 10 and try to guess which country they were from.
The wines sampled included two from California (Robert Mondavi Private Selection and Blackstone Winemakers Select), one from Chile (Pepperwood Grove), one from France (Lulu B), and one from Italy (Mezzacorona). All five wines were wrapped in paper bags to hide the labels and the tasting began.
All of us guessed at least three countries correctly and I think two people got 4 correct. Some of us preferred the fruitier style Pinot and others liked a more balanced style. Pepperwood Grove and Mezzacorona tied for first place while Lulu B finished last.
The one thing we all agreed on is that none of the Pinots really expressed the true varietal characteristics of the grape. Some were overly candy-like in their sweetness and some were lean and uninteresting. A really well-made Pinot noir offers classic black cherry, spice, raspberry and currant flavors, and an aroma that can resemble wilted roses, along with earth, tar, herb, and cola notes. These Pinots all fell short, offering at best a dull version of what could have been.
All in all, I strongly recommend that you trade up to the next price point of closer to $15 where you will likely get a better representation of Pinot character, with a nice balance of fruit, acid, and tannin.
I have a few other general rules to offer you in finding a good quality budget wine:
1. If you must buy cheap, you will usually get a better quality white than red. The processes involved in making many higher quality reds include extended time aging in oak barrels and that is costly. The average French oak barrel can cost up to $1200! Most white wines are quite nice when fermented and aged in cheaper stainless steel tanks.
2. Look for off the beaten path varietals from lesser known regions: for white wines try Albarino from Spain, Vinho Verde from Portugal, Cortese from Italy, Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, or Chenin Blanc from South Africa. On the sweeter side, Riesling from Washington State or Idaho can be great values.
3. For Reds seek out Primitivo or Nero d’Avola from Southern Italy, Gamay from Touraine in France, California Red Zinfandel, red blends from the Douro in Portugal, Garnacha from Spain, or Malbec from Argentina.
4. Red blends are hot again and offer a nice balance of the best characteristics of each individual grape when blended together. Several California blends based predominantly on red Zinfandel include Ménage a Trois, Apothic Red, and Raymond’s R Collection field blend. As always, I recommend branching out and trying something different. The world is full of interesting wines and many of them can be had at prices well below that of big name California wineries you see in grocery stores all the time. Have a great summer and enjoy some new wines!