It has long been said that pinot noir, the beloved red grape from Burgundy, is fickle to farm (early budding makes it prone to spring frosts, thin skins are prone to rot, fungus, and mildew, not to mention sunburn), and low-yielding (more farming! less fruit!). If it’s grown in too hot a climate, or is picked too ripe, the acidity falls out and you get a flabby fruit beast. If you harvest too early, though, you’ll get shrill, crunchy, too-edgy dishwater. It’s for these reasons, plus 2004’s Sideways, the movie that pushed pinot noir to the front of the mind and thus had farmers planting it like mad in places it doesn’t belong and overcropping it (to the extent you can overcrop pinot noir), that cheap pinot noir is such a ubiquitous bummer. They’re often overripe (thanks climate change), over-oaked (to mask their flaws), and utterly tiresome, even after just a sip.
But this is not to say that you can’t find good ones under $20; you just have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find one. Or! You can just ask us! We have a bunch that we really like that we’ve found by tasting thousands of them. Literally thousands. We’re looking for those soulful, enchanting beauties that exist in that liminal space between fruit beast and dishwater. We want tons of aromas of red and black fruits, plus fun stuff like forest floor and soy sauce and baking spices. We want a palate with energizing acidity to balance the fruitiness, like the tart skin of a plum does for its sweet flesh. And we want it to remind us of more expensive pinot noir (of course we do). So here’s a rundown of everything we have under $20.