Pinot Noir is perhaps the sexiest grape in existence. It’s also the trickiest. It needs to be coddled and coaxed to become its best self. In hotter climates, Pinot’s thin skins make it vulnerable to rot and mildew, not to mention that stewed flavor that makes your lips purse and palate weep. In cooler climates, the grape still demands a lot of attention in order to have any chance of thriving.
All that effort is worth it, though. Follow the 45-degree latitudinal band – give or take a handful of degrees – around the globe and you’ll discover vineyards producing primo Pinot everywhere from Ahr to Oregon. The best? That’s arguably found in Burgundy, where Romaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC, for short) commands quintuple-digit pricing.
When it comes to Pinot Noir, are “good” and “affordable” mutually exclusive? Absolutely not. We’ve got one “diamond wine” that’s worth every penny and three less costly alternatives that all deserve to be glugged into your wine glass.
Louis Jadot Echezeaux Grand Cru, 2013
Unlike many of the “diamond wines” in our Like This, Try That series, this Louis Jadot is a gem you’re more likely to hear about rather than try. Vintages have a tendency to sell out, though you can still find this particular bottle for sale via several importers, and many Burgundies are small-batch productions that tend to be easily recognizable by French wine fanatics but gain little traction in wider circles.
No matter. The important takeaway here is that this is a damned fine wine.
Like some sort of predatory cat, this red creeps along, all muscle encased in a sleek, slinky exterior. Cherry, strawberry, and raspberry mingle with light floral and spice aromas on the nose, while the palate explodes with that same red fruit and a zippy rush of acidity. It’s a light wine that somehow always feels remarkably significant.
LOCAL: Joseph Drouhin Cote de Beaune, 2015
Typically, going down the wine ladder in price means you lose some balance. That may be true to a degree, but this offering from Drouhin still captures the harmonious magic that’s synonymous with Burgundy. All the red fruit you expect, plus a plump mouthfeel and a plop of minerality. It’s like an excavation: dig through the currant and strawberry top notes and you’ll unearth the soft aroma of sun-warmed flowers and a hint of the region’s chalk-laced terroir.
In Drouhin wines, you’re also getting a ton of history. Joseph Drouhin launched his company in 1880 when he was just 22. The Drouhin empire has grown significantly since then but remains in the family, with Joseph’s four grandchildren – Frederic, Veronique, Philippe, and Laurent – largely in charge of day-to-day operations. The vineyard embraces natural production techniques, with biodynamic approaches taking the lead and terroir, as always, considered to be the lodestone with which most vinification decision are made.
A Little Far-Flung: Argyle Reserve Pinot Noir, 2015
Willamette Valley is home to Argyle Winery. It’s also on the same latitudinal line as Burgundy, which is why Oregon Pinot has gained a reputation for being as good as (or better, in some instances) than its French counterpart. Of course, the statement is up for debate, and trust me, bring the topic up in conversation with a serious oenophile and things might come to blows.
What’s for certain is that Argyle makes some phenomenal wine. Juicy strawberries, raspberries, and cherries mingle with light touches of oak, spice, and tannin. There’s stone here (the vineyard’s volcanic soil hard at work), rather than the chalky minerality mentioned above, and this drinks slightly heavier than the elegant dance that is the Jadot, but it’s plenty balanced and seductive in its own right.
Out There: Greywacke Pinot Noir, 2014
It’s a long, long way from Burgundy to Marlborough, New Zealand, and some funny things happened to Pinot Noir on the way down under. Much of the familiar red fruit remains, but here those flavors sit side by side with white pepper, black tea, dried herbs, and warm, moist earth. It’s a wilder version of Pinot with the volume nudged up, and yet the innate elegance of the grape remains.
To be clear, this wine isn’t an even swap the Louis Jadot. Not even close. In fact, none of the three more affordable Pinots are meant as a straight substitution. They’re different expressions of a grape that has massive appeal. The joy is in embracing the differences while still feeling anchored to those central characteristics that make Pinot what it is. In Greywacke, you get an authentic expression of New Zealand Pinot Noir with just enough echo of the Burgundian version that you’re reminded of just how wonderful it was that night you indulged your senses and spent $200 on a bottle of something beautiful. But then, that’s the power of wine in a nutshell, isn’t it?