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Pinot Noir, Rhone Wines, Rioja, Syrah, and Zinfandel

Cheap Pinot Noir.

The Pinot noir grape grows in cooler regions worldwide, and its varietal wine is currently very popular in the U.S. (no doubt thanks in part to the film Sideways).
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The best examples of Pinot noir are complex and silky, with subtle cherry cola flavors, floral notes, and a bit of earth. Bad Pinot noir is overly alcoholic, bitter, and somewhat like fruit juice diluted with water. Good cheap Pinot noir doesn't have the earthy notes but is food-friendly and pairs well with just about anything, from poultry and lean meats to vegetables, grains, and cheese.

The best cheap Pinot noir we identified is mostly from California, including Block Nine Pinot Noir 2012 (starting at $10), which earns a spot near the top of our list. Block Nine is a winemaker completely devoted to Pinot noir. Our tasters and reviewers at Cellar Tracker have found this wine very drinkable, with a smooth, medium body and nice, earthy aromas.

The McManis Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2011 (starting at $8), a winner of several awards, is dry and smooth with a slightly acidic finish, according to reviews posted at Snooth. It's full of body and flavor. Reviewers at Cellar Tracker say they can't believe it's so inexpensive and report that it improves with a good, long aeration. Mirassou Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012 (starting at $7) won third place in an Oregon wine tasting that included pricier selections. Reviewers say it has a bit more oomph than Pinot normally does -- perhaps not enough to pair with steak, but it's very flavorful and drinkable, nonetheless.

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Cheap Rhone Wines.

Red wines from this region of France are made with a blend of grapes; any number of 20 varieties, including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and even Viognier (normally a white wine grape), can be mixed and matched. The blends are often sold as Cotes du Rhone and vary in style and quality, largely reflecting choices made by the producer. Some cheap Rhone blends are relatively full-bodied, with undertones of chocolate and ripe black fruit; others are light and spicy with some complexity; and still others are a tad sweeter.

Chateau Pesquie "Le Paradou" Grenache 2012 (starting at $9) garners a whopping 90 points from Robert Parker at The Wine Advocate, who pronounces it an awesome value. He detects black cherry, herbs, and earth in this medium- to full-bodied wine. It's ready to drink now but could also be kept for another year or two. General accolades for the label and vintage help earn this wine a top spot on our curated list of cheap reds.

Cheap Rioja.

The Tempranillo grape is the core of Rioja wines. Having made its mark in Spain, it now also grows in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and the United States. Rioja is a relatively light, spicy wine with flavors of berry, plum, tobacco, and herbs. It's not high in alcohol, and despite a distinct flavor, it's not overwhelming. It goes particularly well with hearty food such as meat, pork, and rich cheeses. Rioja is also available as a rose, which serves as a good summer quaff. The best cheap Rioja we found comes from Spain. Cortijo Tinto 2012 (starting at $8) wins an 87 from Robert Parker at The Wine Advocate, who hails the medium-bodied wine as round, silky, and "seductive."

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Cheap Syrah.

The Syrah grape first emerged in France's Rhone valley but is now the most widely planted wine grape in Australia, where it's known as Shiraz. Syrah grapes yield wines that range from dense, elegant, and spicy to smooth and silky to sweet and plush. Syrah wine typically yields flavors of licorice and mocha, and it can be fruity or dry. In terms of taste, expect Syrah to be well-balanced, smooth, complex, and earthy. Petite Sirah, a distantly related American version of this grape, is nearly jammy and straight-out bold.

Shiraz gained popularity in this country with Australia's Yellow Tail, which remains a budget-friendly favorite. Yellow Tail Shiraz 2012 (starting at $6) presents an unusual, appealing flavor that combines cherry with chocolate notes. A blogger at Serious Eats calls it smoky and oaky and praises its structure. Bogle Vineyards Petite Sirah 2012 (starting at $9) was a favorite with our tasters, who concluded that once it rested a while, this wine was smooth, not too heavy, and enjoyable.

Cheap Zinfandel.

There's a lot of sugar in the Zinfandel grape, which translates to a wine that's relatively high in alcohol. Zinfandel is currently a hot red wine in the U.S., where its intense fruit/berry flavor, peppery bite, and earthy aroma has wide appeal. The style can range from simple and light to dense, complex, and smooth. Zinfandel is an everyday wine, usually said to pair well with barbecue, because the tannins can stand up to the fat in charred beef.

Ravenswood Vinters Blend Old Vine Zinfandel 2011 (starting at $7) is a medium-bodied wine that's juicy and not too sweet -- a perfect match with grilled meats, writes one blogger, while other reviewers assert that its bold flavor best suits pizza. This budget-priced Zinfandel merits 87 points from Wine Spectator. Bogle Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel 2011 (starting at $10) earns an average score of 86.2 from more than 50 reviewers at Cellar Tracker, who consider it bold, spicy, and tasty, albeit without a great deal of complexity. We saved one of the best for last: Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel (starting at $8) perennially impresses wine critics, competition judges, and consumers. The 2011 and 2012 vintages have been named Wine Enthusiast best buys.

by Elizabeth Sheer (Google+ Profile)

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Red Wines
  2. Cheap Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot
  3. Cheap Pinot Noir, Rhone Wines, Rioja, Syrah, and Zinfandel
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