Value Vino - Great Wines for Under $15

The distinction between aroma and bouquet is not one we make often in this column, though there is one to be made. Aroma is technically the characteristic smell of a particular grape, say black cherry. Bouquet, on the other hand, is the result of the winemaking process and bottle-aging — say the vanilla hit you often get in an oaky chardonnay. “Nose” is another term that’s used almost interchangeably, though it sounds so, well, wine-geeky. So it’s sometimes just easier to say that sauvignon blanc smells like grapefruit peel and cat pee. Honest, cat pee. And this is not necessarily a flaw. Pinot noir, for its part, is often characterized as being “barnyardy,” and this isn’t a pejorative term, either.

You may now breathe a sigh of relief. Most of the pinots available to us in the under-$15 range don’t reach the exalted earthy-sweaty-leathery stage. A recent trade tasting also featured a crop of pinots meant to be drunk while they’re young and fresh. The Bandon from Oregon’s Willamette Valley was one, retailing — if you can find it (and I couldn’t) — at around $10. But keep looking; my limited notes claim “great entry-level wine.” Cloudline, another Oregon product, got three checks in my abbreviated system, and should retail for slightly over our usual limit. We usually don’t think of Germany and red wines in the same synapse, but the racehorse-quality Heger from Baden was equally impressive at around the same price, say $17.

We don’t always think of New Zealand and red wine together, either, but pinots are coming on strong in its perfectly suited cool climate. At home, and with food (a grape, gorgonzola, and fontina pizza), and served lightly chilled, New Zealand’s 2005 Marlborough from Sherwood Estate first impressed me with its gorgeous garnet color. (Thin-skinned pinot noir often yields a somewhat pale wine.) The aromas — er, smells — were clean, pretty, and tended toward green olive and a little cherry (though the back label claimed “sweet berry”). Pie cherry, rhubarb, pomegranate … slightly tart red fruits, in other words, summed up a taste profile that was accented with more green olive. A truly lovely wine.

And totally different from the 2005 Mark West California Pinot Noir. This wine is said to be “sourced primarily from California’s costal appellations,” but despite the cooling ocean influence that implies, it seemed all warm and spicy, with a little smoke, a little jammy, ripe fruit such as blackberry and dark cherry along with some pepper and even clove notes, all rounded out with a hint of oaky vanilla. We liked this one, too.

The 2005 Parducci California Pinot Noir seemed like a warmer-weather wine altogether, but it yielded the most characteristic pinot profile of the evening’s tasting: a vaguely vegetative smell with ripe cherry, a light body, and more cherry on the palate. This wine improved with a little more chilling than most, and was even more complex the next day after sitting in the refrigerator.

But if the ripe Parducci improved with chilling, the tart and almost acidic Heron 2004 Pinot Noir Vin de Pays d’Oc got better the longer it warmed in the glass. This is a hybrid product, bottled in California from grapes grown in southern France — not the classic region for pinots. Instead of the plums, mushrooms, leather, and damp earth of Burgundy, we get cranberry and pomegranate. At the price, who’s complaining?

At around the same price, give or take a buck, there also should be no complaints over the Rex Goliath California Pinot Noir and the Duck Pond from Oregon, again each very different from the other. Maybe it’s the chameleonlike quality that makes this elegant (and fickle) grape so appealing — and so flexible at the dinner table. From salmon to pasta to the classic Thanksgiving turkey, it’s pinot to the rescue. Food critics couldn’t live without it. And there’s no cat pee to be smelled in the lot.
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