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By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR


We have a special fondness for pinot noir, but it has a bad habit of frustrating us. Like Forest Gump’s “life is a box of chocolates” line, you just don’t know what you’re going to get in pinot noir.


Winemakers would agree. Thin-skinned pinot noir is often called the “heart-break grape” because its temperament can easily spell disaster. Mildew and under-ripeness can spoil an entire crop, costing winery owners significant money. For that reason, many have given up on making pinot noir.


But nowadays grape growers have found the cooler climates and soils that are right for this fickle grape variety. As long as it is grown in the right areas, there is a more reasonable chance for success.


Like no other grape variety, pinot noir vines are prone to mutation. However disastrous that sounds, winemakers have benefited from using its variety of clones to produce different results. A pinot noir made from the popular Dijon clone is quite different than that made from the Martini clone. There are many new clones to make the chemistry even more interesting.


Unfortunately, finding a good pinot noir can be an expensive proposition. It’s unusual nowadays to find pinot noir under $40. But we found them!


Here are the top 15 pinot noirs we tasted in the last year:


Cambria Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 ($25). You have to love this pinot noir purely for its generous, forward flavors. It’s simply delicious — but not subtle in the classic sense of Burgundy. At $25, it is one of the best pinot noir values on the market. Black cherries and strawberries dominate the flavor profile.


Clos du Val Carneros Pinot Noir 2010 ($32). Raspberry, cherry and spicy nose complements the layered, ripe cherry and cola flavors.


Carmel Road Monterey Panorama 2011 Pinot Noir ($35). We loved the forward, juicy fruit of the enjoyable pinot noir from Monterey County vineyards. Soft mouthfeel, loads of plum flavors and a dash of cola. It’s the first vintage of this estate bottling.


MacMurray Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2011 ($28). One of the best values in pinot noir and often found on restaurant wine lists, this wine was fermented in small, punch-down tanks. The wine is very aromatic and decadently douse in ripe fruit.


Artesa Estate Pinot Noir Reserve 2009 ($39). This complex yet silky pinot noir from Napa Valley exudes strawberry and lavender aromas followed by cherry, strawberry and oak flavors.


La Crema Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($39). This is a very delicious and smooth pinot noir with great complexity and finish. Licorice and cola aromas with supple and sweet blackberry flavors. We also like the winery’s 2011 Monterey pinot noir for $23 - a good value.


Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 ($22). K-J has a reasonably priced, extracted and delicious pinot noir from Monterey and Santa Barbara counties. Juicy and ripe strawberry notes with a dash of pepper.


Garnet Vineyards Monterey Pinot Noir 2011 ($16). This price may seem steep, but in the pinot noir market, it’s a steal. You get a lot of fruit flavor for your money. Forward, extracted blackberry and cherry flavors with good spice and hints of sweet vanillin oak.


Veramonte Ritual Pinot Noir 2011 ($12). This Chilean beauty is the combined work of Agustin Huneeus and Paul Hobbs - two California winemakers we have great respect for. This wine has scored huge points from critics and a previous vintage made the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list. Lots of black cherry flavors and complexity for the price.


Byron Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir 2011 ($29). You get a lot of pinot noir flavor for your money here. Extracted raspberry and cherry flavors with hints of spice and long in the finish. Byron also makes a delicious and more concentrated pinot noir from the Nielson Vineyard ($36). It has ripe plum and blueberry notes with some interesting spice and a lingering finish.


Waterstone Carneros Pinot Noir 2009 ($22). Rich, dark plum and cherry flavors with a good dose of cola highlight this luscious pinot noir from Carneros.


J. Lohr Fog’s Reach Pinot Noir 2011 ($25). Using grapes from the cool Arroyo Seco appellation, Lohr has crafted a richly textured, opulent pinot noir that some may find too jammy but most will find just delicious. Strawberry and cherry flavors with an earthy, mushroom touch.


Harmonique Elegance Pinot Noir 2007 ($36). This Anderson Valley producer concentrates on pinot noir and takes advantage of the region’s cool climate. Every one of the seven pinots we tasted were excellent. This has a burgundian character with earthy notes, elegance, and hints of licorice and cranberry. The wines are available through mail order only: www.harmoniquewine.com.


La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2012 ($25). If you are looking for an affordable pinot noir, this one is dependable year after year. Good balance with juicy cherry flavors and a dash of licorice. Nice forest floor accent and long finish.


Cuvaison Carneros Pinot Noir 2011 ($20). Simple but elegant raspberry and strawberry flavors with a dose of spice. Clean acidity, good balance.


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