Much pinot noir that costs $15 or less is made with grapes that aren't pinot noir. This is not illegal, since federal law allows a wine to called by its varietal as long as it contains 75 percent of the varietal. This is so common that one Dallas wine bar owner told me that when a saleswoman brings in a pinot that is all pinot, she makes sure to mention it so that the owner knows it's not like the others.
That's because many sub-$15 pinots don't always taste like pinot noir. They're not unpleasant, but they're fruitier and less earthy than pinot noir and have many of the characteristics of the syrah or zinfandel that is often used to fill in the other 25 percent. Complicating the problem is that many of these wines don't list the grapes used on the label, so consumers are left wondering what's in the bottle.
Which is a long, but worthwhile, way of getting to the Mandolin (about $12, sample). It tastes like pinot noir, which the Wine Curmudgeon was quite shocked to discover. My tasting notes: "A surprisingly pleasant $12 pinot noir, given that so few of them at this price point taste like pinot noir. It had a bit of pinot earthiness, there was the requisite pinot fruit (berries?) and even a bit of pinot finish -- not much in the way of tannins, as it should be, and even a hint of more earthiness. It was not jammy or overly fruity, like so many southern France and other grocery store pinots."
The catch, you ask? Because there is always a catch with a wine this well made, isn't there? Turns out availability is limited, and the 2008 is or will be on store shelves soon. But if you find a 2007 somewhere, buy it and enjoy it.