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Affordable Pinot Noir

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New Zealand, once best known for its sauvignon blancs, is now on a roll with pinot noir. That wasn't always the case. About 10 years back Kiwi Pinot was rather pricey and under performing. The wines were decent, some better than that, but the quality was inconsistent and the sticker on most bottles ran more than $30. At the time, that would buy you a very nice Burgundy that was a much better pinot, but things have changed. We put together a tasting of non-domestic pinot noirs from around the world, all priced under $20, and three New Zealand wines tied for first place. Here are the panel's top picks:

2008 Manu Pinot Noir, $15.99

The most beautifully aromatic of the trio hails from Marlborough. It offers a layered complexity that is alluring--dark fruit, coffee, mushroom, earth, bacon fat and more. It's ripe and round in the mouth with supple bing cherry and dried stone fruit flavors throughout. Nice touches of coffee, spice and chocolate add interest. This wine delivers a lot more than you expect at this price point.

2007 Mt. Difficulty Roaring Meg Pinot Noir, $19.50

This pinot from the central Otega region of New Zealand is the richest of the three favorites with aromas that are almost syrah-like, but with a touch of Burgundian funk. Flavor-wise, it leans toward Burgundy, though in a bigger and bolder style and opens with appealing raspberry and creamy cherry fruit, along with an earthy core of light minerality that's matched by soft oak and a subtle meatiness throughout. This wine is a good value for the level of quality.

2008 Yealands Pinot Noir, $11.99

Light and lovely floral and fruit aromas dominate the nose (cherry, strawberry, rose petal, violet) and are backed by dusty notes of earth, leather and herb. On the palate, it's a mouthful of sweet cherry and ripe plum along with soft hints of anise, chocolate and spice. All that is nicely balanced by the proper hit of acidity that amps up a bit on the finish. The amazing value makes it a great choice to pair with everything from paella to pizza.

This week's panel: David Kirkpatrick, Boise Co-op Wine Shop; Cindy Limber, Bardenay; Kevin Settles, Bardenay; Scott Sprague, Idaho Wine Merchant; Leslie Young, Boise Co-op Wine Shop.