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Merlot Wines, Pinot Noir Wines, Rhone Wines

Cheap Merlot Wines.

Merlot is among the best-known and most popular red wine. The Merlot grape is grown all over the world, from California and South Africa to Hungary, New Zealand, Argentina, Canada, and France.

It can be vinified as a varietal or used in a blend; either way, the Merlot grape produces a medium-bodied wine that's relatively fruity and smooth, with hints of plum, tea, and berries, and it pairs well with grilled meat and shellfish.

One of the best cheap Merlot wines we found is Bogle Vineyards Merlot 2009 (starting at $8), which has won several awards and is listed as one of Wine Spectator's best Merlots under $20.

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Reviewers consistently note that it tastes more expensive than it is, with a dark fruitiness and easy drinkability. Two other best cheap Merlot picks: the California 2011 Gnarley Head Merlot (starting at $7), which won a double gold medal at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle competition in addition to several other medals, is smooth with a nice finish, according to reviewers. Our tasting panel really liked the Chilean Carta Vieja Merlot 2012 (starting at $5), a very good medium-bodied wine with a nice peppery finish at a true entry-level price.

We also found a low-cost Merlot that falls into the "never mind" category. Franzia Merlot (starting at $13 for a 5-liter bottle, equivalent of $2.40/750 ml bottle) is a boxed wine that wins points from some blog sites for staying fresh longer than bottled wines but is dinged on other sites, such as Metroactive and by the shoppers we spoke with in our local wine store for its thin, artificial taste and really off smell. (Some suggested that if you're going to drink it, chill it first.)

Cheap Pinot Noir Wines.

The Pinot noir grape grows in cooler regions worldwide, and its varietal wine is currently very popular in the U.S. The best examples of Pinot noir wines are complex and silky, with subtle cherry cola flavors, a bit of flower and a bit of earth. Bad Pinot noir, however, is overly alcoholic, bitter, and a bit like fruit juice diluted with water. A good cheap Pinot noir won't have the earthy notes, but is food-friendly and pairs well with just about anything, from lean meats and poultry to vegetables, grains, and cheese.

The best cheap Pinot noir wines we found are mostly from California, including Kirkland Signature Carneros Pinot Noir 2011, a Costco exclusive (starting at $10) and one that earns a spot near the top of our best cheap red wines list as well as an impressive 90 points from Wine Enthusiast. Reviewers at Cellar Tracker found it very drinkable, with a 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, say reviewers on Snooth, but full of both body and flavor. Reviewers at Cellar Tracker say they can't believe it's only $10, and say that a good long airing improves it.

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Stepping outside the West Coast zone, our tasting panel tried one from Bulgaria, Vini Veni Vidi Vici Pinot Noir 2011, which they found to be a bit thin and young, but otherwise, soft, light, "chewy," and easy to drink. The Reverse Wine Snob agrees. This one was earns 86 points at Wine Enthusiast, and we gave it a berth among our top ticks.

Cheap Rhone Wines.

Rhone wine is made with a blend of grapes; any number of 20 varieties, such as Syrah, Viognier, Grenache, and Mourvedre, can be mixed and matched. The blends are typically sold as Cotes du Rhone, and they 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 bit sweeter.

Review continues below

Rhone wines mostly come from France, as do the two cheap exemplars we like. Les Trois Couronnes Cotes du Rhone 2009 (starting at $9) is a classic medium-bodied Cotes du Rhone, say reviewers at Cellar Tracker, and definitely ripe for pairing with food so that its rich, peppery undertaste pops out. A blogger at Artisan Wine asserts it has good depth that improves after a day or two. Vrac Cotes-du-Rhone 2012 (starting at $10) was sampled in our tasting, and panelists liked it a great deal. They found it a bit light but very drinkable, without an acidic undertaste. They said it was clean and "plumy," and Snooth reviewers agreed, terming it fruity and smooth.

by Elizabeth Sheer (Google+ Profile)

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