Sunday, February 13, 2011

VINTJS: A Tale of Two Trader Joe's Pinots

Trader Joes Pinot Noirs

Today I decided to pick up try some of the lower-end wines I picked up at the local Trader Joe's -- and none of them are from Napa Valley (*gasp!* blasphemy!)
VINTJS (pronounced "vintages") is Trader Joe's label they use for some of their branded wines (namely pinot noir, as far as I can tell)

I first became aware of it when looking through their selection and noticing this label on a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir a year or two ago. I scrutinized the label and became curious because the wine is actually made by "Wine by Joe", which is the budget-line label of Joe Dobbs, of Dobbs Estate wine (decent pinot noir) in Oregon.

On my last TJs shopping trip, I decided it was time to investigate some new wines -- to be specific, I picked up a 2010 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau ($7.99), a LaGranja 50/50 blend of garnacha/tempranillo from Spain ($4.99... and I'm curious to start trying TJ's entire selection of inexpensive Spanish wines, so if anybody has suggestions, let me know), an Evenus Zinfandel Port from Paso Robles ($7.99), and these two pinot noirs ($7.99 each) under the VINTJS label: one is a 2009 Willamette Valley (Oregon), the other is a 2009 Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey, CA)

I've been a big fan of Oregon pinot for a while, but I was recently turned on to Santa Lucia pinot when Charles Hendricks poured me one of his own at Hope & Grace cellars in Yountville (Napa Valley) It was possibly the best California pinot I've had; I also tried his Russian River pinot, and it didn't hold a candle. Something about the Santa Lucia terroir must be amazing, because there is an extraordinary balance of fruit and earth and spice (more spice than I get in most pinots -- like a little hint of cedar and clove), and a smooth mouthfeel without the cloying sour/tartness of some pinot noirs.

So my gf and I decided we would open these side by side for a taste comparison. On pouring them (into our amazing new Riedel Vinum crystal pinot/burgundy glasses), the color and opacity difference were negligible. They were both medium-dark (for a pinot), somewhat translucent (par for the course for pinot), and only had a slight variation in color, with the Willamette wine having a slightly more ruddy hue and the Santa Lucia one having a hint of raspberry color to it.

Taking a whiff of each, the difference on the nose is remarkable. The Santa Lucia one had a rich, aromatic smell -- again giving some hints of that earth and spice, a little bit of mushroom and cedar and clove, but all mixed in with hints of ripe fruit as well. A wonderful perfume, reminiscent of potpourri or incense. The Willamette one had a slight oak smell, but gave a little more alcohol on the nose (despite being lower ABV) but the primary aroma here was sour cherry, all the way.

The flavor profiles didn't stray too far from those aromas. The Willamette Valley pinot had a much more pronounced oak (American oak, if my tastebuds don't deceive me) flavor up front than was present on the nose, quickly followed by the sour cherry primary flavor. Considering the relatively low alcohol (13.3%), it seemed a little hot, but it could be the acidity contributing to that sense. Overall it's right about what I would expect for a pinot under $10: a little thin, a little tart, a little imbalanced, but drinkable.

The Santa Lucia, on the other hand, far exceeded my expectations. In fact, it was better than several $30+ pinots I have tried, and it was certainly the best pinot noir I've had for under $10, hands down. The mouthfeel was round and smooth, there was a nice balance of fruit and earth/spice flavors, and the sour/tart acidity often found in pinot (even though I enjoy it sometimes) was a lot tamer here. I am definitely going to go back to TJ's ASAP and pick up a case of this for under $100.

Originally my gf and I had planned on finishing half a bottle of each and saving the rest for the next day, but after tasting them we figured we'd better down the Santa Lucia one since it was so excellent, and then if the Willamette one was no good the next day, we wouldn't care so much.

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