Like the California condor, a good, inexpensive pinot noir with true varietal character is an endangered species in the Golden State despite a virtual sea of low-cost wines to choose from. But there are exceptions, as noted below.
I put together an impromptu line-up of five wines ($20 or less) for a blind tasting this week. Three bottles were tasting samples from California wineries. The other two were recommended by local retailers — the Wine Mine in Oakland and Farmstead Cheeses and Wine in Alameda.
There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch, although I liked two bottles more than the others.
Here’s the breakdown:
Wine 1 was a delightful garnet red. It showed a subdued “soft” cherry nose with a bit of barnyard aroma. I picked up a light “clean” cherry taste. This wine developed some complexity after a bite of sourdough bread and butter. I was surprised by some minerality — graphite mostly — that showed up at the dinner table after a mouthful of grilled onglet (a French cut of steak) cooked medium rare with roasted tomatoes, steamed broccoli and mashed potatoes.
I liked this enough to buy it and try it again. It was the Cupcake Vineyards 2008 Central Coast and it retails for just $8, making it the least expensive entry in the field.
Wine 2 picked up a hint of sassafras and cola in the nose with a deeper garnet color than No. 1. Nice honest fruit (cherry) up front that mellowed nicely on the tongue and even managed to linger a bit after swallowing.
It was a nice match for the mellow meat dish and it was my second favorite wine of the day.
The wine is Windy Hill 2004 Sonoma Coast, $12.50 at Farmstead Cheeses and Wine. The vineyards sit on a hillside made famous by the artist Christo who created an 24.5-mile fence of white canvas that ran through the property to the Pacific Ocean. The previous vintage was just as good, if not a tad better. This is a winery to watch! (Update: Farmstead’s Jeff Diamond has dropped the price of this wine to $10!)
Wine 3 showed a nice red color with a broader aroma that featured cola and light cherry accents. It had nice red fruit upfront, but it doesn’t develop much complexity. A bit hot on the finish, but it was redeemed by a faint flash of raspberry. This was the Robert Mondavi “Private Selection” California 2009, which retails for about $10.
Wine 4 is the darkest red of the lot with a reluctant nose that didn’t reveal much after 10 minutes in the glass. Plummy, but not overpowering. A nice little hit of tannin and the taste shows a little spice on the finish. I was surprised to learn it was the Saintsbury Garnet vintage 2009 ($19.99 from the winery and often marked down a few dollars less at retail locations). This wine, the winery’s entry-level offering of pinot noir, comes from grapes grown in the Carneros District.
I have enjoyed Garnet many times, through multiple vintages. Steady quality quaffer, in my opinion.
Wine 5 was second darkest in color, just behind No. 4. It also showed a rather reluctant nose with a slight whiff of sour cherries. The cherry theme, albeit subdued, followed onto the tongue. This wine was thin, but it opened up with food to reveal more texture, some cranberry and a bit of star anise. This wine turned out to be the ringer of the bunch, suggested by my friend David Sharp at the Wine Mine. It’s the 2008 Vin de Pays des Côteaux du Verdon, made by Maison Louis Latour. Retail price is $11.
You can taste the Valmoissine, and 4-5 other pinot noir and syrah wines, at the weekly $1 tasting at the Wine Mine (5427 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) this Saturday (Sept. 25) from 2-5 p.m.