Pinot Noir is equal parts awe-inspiring and infuriating. In cooler climates, it produces complex, elegant wines. When temperatures are too hot, however, or grapes don’t receive enough attention in the vineyard and winery, things can quickly turn jammy and overly alcoholic.
In America, Pinot Noir is the third most planted wine grape. It can be affordable or expensive and thrives in the cooler Pacific Northwest in states like Washington and Oregon. The greatest number of plantings of American Pinot are in California, however, particularly in cooler stretches of the Central Coast, and Sonoma and Los Carneros.
It’s impossible to discuss American Pinot Noir without mentioning the 2004 comedy-drama “Sideways,” a movie that had a profound effect on the nation’s wine-drinking habits. The scathing words of protagonist Miles Raymond saw a much-covered decline in popularity of Merlot, while his eulogizing about Pinot Noir aroused drinkers’ interests.
“Only someone that really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into it’s fullest expression,” Miles says in the film. “Then… Oh! Its flavors are just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle.”
The words resonated with American drinkers and preceded a 170 percent increase in California Pinot production. We tasted a range of American Pinot Noirs to select and rank these top five affordable bottles. All are less than $45 and offer considerable value for the money. What could be more thrilling than that?
Located on California’s Central Coast, the Arroyo Seco AVA is a cool-climate region with one of the longest growing seasons in the state. In other words, it’s Pinot paradise. The Scott Family Estate’s Pinot Noir has a smoky and earthy character, with cedar and vanilla aromas coming from French Oak aging. On the palate, the wine offers a refreshing, fruity finish. And, at $20, this bottle punches well above its weight in terms of both quality and complexity. Average price: $20.
A “‘shroomy and zesty” wine, as one taster described it, the Gran Moraine Pinot Noir has great depth to the nose, which is full of cherry, earth, and floral notes. Rich with black fruit and cranberry flavors, it tastes truly “Oregonian,” while its velvety tannins provide a “smooth finish.” Average price: $42
Well-balanced, silky, and easy-drinking, the FEL Pinot Noir is a crowd pleaser. Its $42 price tag means that it’s not ideal for most of us for midweek sipping, but it’s a great wine to bring to a dinner party or serve at a special occasion. “I’d bring this to someone’s house and feel confident,” one taster commented. Average price: $42
The Ayres Perspective Pinot Noir impressed the panel with its nose of strawberries, tart cherries, and fresh pine needles. Lively and refreshing with prickly tannins, “this is the perfect wine to drink when you’re cooking or lightly snacking,” one taster said. During warmer months, the Ayres Perspective could definitely be enjoyed with a light chill and served with a rich goat cheese salad. Average price: $30
Produced by Napa’s oldest commercially run winery, Charles Krug’s Carneros Pinot Noir is a delicate and elegant wine with a classically Old World style. Its aromatic bouquet includes a mix of brambly berries, as well as the variety’s signature “mushroom, forest floor” character. The wine has a refreshing, bright fruit finish and promises to age well. Our panel’s verdict? Pair with Thanksgiving turkey for the ultimate American Pinot experience. Average price: $27