When we test wines, we concentrate on bottles that sell for $20 or less, though we also include a few pricier offerings. To increase the odds of finding high-quality wines, we consider those that have consistently garnered praise from others, including some wine publications.
In our most recent tests, we rated 53 wines representing four popular varietals: pinot noir, pinot grigio/pinot gris, merlot and red blend. In ratings based on quality (as determined in blind tests by two expert tasters), just one bottle scored lower than "good." Of the remainder, half rated "very good" or "excellent," and 13 of those combined impressive quality with low price to earn distinction as CR Best Buys.
Our experts also provided advice on pairing our wines with foods. Although particular wines often are associated with particular foods, good wine pairing has as much to do with sauces or a food's preparation as with underlying fish, meat or fowl. Following are some of our top-scoring wines (unless otherwise noted, all are made in California) along with serving recommendations:
¢ Pinot noir. Made famous by Miles, the neurotic oenophile in the hit movie "Sideways," these typically dry red wines are subtle and moderately complex. Flavors include raspberry or strawberry, spicy notes and - drawing a comparison Miles surely would savor - cedar pencil shavings. Our picks are Artesia Carneros 2002 ($18 per bottle) and two CR Best Buys: Meridian Vineyards Central Coast 2003 ($10) and Beringer Founders' Estate 2003 ($12). Serve these or other pinots noir with roast beef; broiled, roasted or grilled meat, chicken, oily or fatty fish like salmon; and savory, rich, herbed foods.
¢ Pinot grigio/pinot gris. Made from a grape called pinot grigio in Italy and pinot gris in France (it goes by either name in the United States), these white wines are relatively simple, possessing such fruity aromas as apple, pear and citrus. Among pinots grigio, we like Hogue Columbia Valley 2004 ($10, from Washington state), McManis Family Vineyards River Junction 2003 ($10), Ecco Domani Delle Venezie 2004 ($11, from Italy), and Bella Sera Delle Venezie ($8, from Italy). All are CR Best Buys and would go well with lighter dishes: less-seasoned seafood and shellfish. As for pinots gris, we recommend two wines from Oregon: King Estate 2002 ($15) and Willamette Valley Vineyards 2003 (at $12, it's a CR Best Buy). Serve these with richer and heavier fare: salmon; veal dishes; egg rolls and spring rolls; and pasta with cream, butter or pesto.
¢ Merlots and red blends. Merlots have predominantly fruity aromas or offer a mix of fruit and wood, with dark-berry and spicy notes. Red blends, a growing category, combine two or more varietals, such as shiraz/syrah, cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese. They have characteristics similar to the merlots. One red blend stood out from the rest in our tests: Rosemount Estate Shiraz-Cabernet 2004 ($8, from Australia). It's a CR Best Buy, as are the following merlots: Gallo of Sonoma Reserve Sonoma County 2002 ($13); Bogle Vineyards 2003 ($9); Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo 2004 ($9, from Chile); Jacob's Creek 2003 ($9, from Australia); and Yellow Tail 2004 ($7, from Australia). Our experts say these wines go well with broiled, roasted or grilled meat and chicken; hearty fish such as Ahi tuna; savory side dishes; rich sauces with herbs; and aromatic vegetables such as fennel and onion.
The vintage for each wine, listed on the label, is the year in which at least 95 percent of the grapes were harvested. Many of our recommended wines have changed, or will soon change, to a new vintage. If you can't locate the wine in the old vintage, try the new. We've found that, year to year, the quality of wines in our prescribed price range is quite similar.