Tortoise Creek wines have always been a favorite on the blog, almost making it into the $10 Hall of Fame one year. The problem with the wines has never been their quality, but availability. A couple of years ago, I met Mel Master, the Englishman behind the label, and we spent most of the discussion lamenting how difficult it was to find his wines. And, in one of those ironies that proves the point, this wine was shelved with the red Burgundies at the store where I found it, almost guaranteeing no one would buy it.
Master makes French wine, using grapes from the Languedoc in the south of France. Quality can often be uneven from that part of the country, but Master's wines are always varietally correct and delicious. In this, the Les Oliviers ($12, purchased) may be his finest achievement. It is the closest thing to traditional pinot noir the Wine Curmudgeon has found for under $20 in years.
This is a simple wine and will never been confused with $50 red Burgundy. But that's one of its advantages. It means the Les Oliviers doesn't have any silliness -- no jammy fruit, no extra tannins, no bonus alcohol. It tastes like French pinot noir should taste: light, low in alcohol (13 percent), with easy tannins and some blackberry fruit, though not nearly as much as comparably priced California wines. Most importantly, it had some earthiness, which has long gone missing in pinot at this price. Or, frankly, at French pinot at twice the price.
Serve this on its own (even slightly chilled) or with almost any food that calls for a lighter red wine. Highly recommended.