Malbec, Merlot and Pinot Noir wines review

Here’s how to tell which red is right

Consumer Reports magazine: November 2012

Crios, $13
This malbec offers rich, ripe fruit flavors and nice structure with a touch of bitterness.

Is a $3 bottle of wine worth drinking? Yes, if it’s Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw merlot. Charles Shaw beat far pricier merlots when our experts recently tasted dozens of malbecs, merlots, and pinot noirs, varietals that work well with a range of foods (think Thanksgiving dinner).

The best wines in our Ratings can be drunk now but might improve in the next year or two. They should be served at temperatures in the mid-60s.

Malbec is boldest of the three. Com­­mon flavors include plum, blackberry, cassis, black pepper, oak, vanilla, and tobacco. Malbecs with a firm structure (a pleasing feeling in the mouth, imparted by acids and tannins) pair well with rich, fatty, savory dishes such as steaks, roasted meats, stews, and risotto. Simpler, fruitier malbecs go better with casual foods such as burgers, pizza, and party snacks. The rated malbecs are from Argentina and are 2010 vintage.

Merlot is medium bodied, and a classic high-quality merlot is known for its velvety feeling in the mouth. In addition to berry, black pepper, oak, and tobacco flavors, merlot may have hints of licorice, herbs such as mint, and (yes, again) leather. Malbecs stand up even better than merlots to fatty or charred foods.

The rated merlots are 2009 vintage except Velvet Devil, McManis, and Charles Shaw, which are 2010. Chateau Ste. Michelle and Velvet Devil are from Washington, the rest from California. Two that didn’t make the cut: Shafer, $47, and Target’s Wine Cube, $4.50 per 750 milliliters. Despite the price gap, their scores were similar.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, $16
This merlot provides a tasty, complex, balanced array of black fruit and wood flavors.

The rated merlots are 2009 vintage except Velvet Devil, McManis, and Charles Shaw, which are 2010. Chateau Ste. Michelle and Velvet Devil are from Washington, the rest from California.

Pinot noir is lighter than the others, and usually dry. It has more subtle flavors than most reds, and tannins are lighter, which lets fruit be the focus. In addition to berry, herb, vanilla, tobacco, and leather notes, it can have jammy, vegetal, and cedar (think pencil shavings) flavors. “Classic Burgundian” often describes high-quality pinot noirs, which may have a slight gamy aroma that adds to their complexity.

Among the three reds, pinot noir is the top choice to accompany turkey or other fowl. It also partners well with fish, roasted vegetables, fruit, and some pastas.

The rated pinot noirs are 2010 vintage. Oyster Bay and Spy Valley are from New Zealand, the others from California. Pinot noirs tend to be a bit pricier than other varietals, partly because the grapes provide a lower yield.

Bottom line. Plenty of tasty choices cost $15 or less. Note that not all brandmates are of equal quality. Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Indian Wells merlot, for instance, was excellent; its Canoe Ridge Estate merlot was decent but not among the best.

Do wine aerators work?

By infusing oxygen into red wine immediately, as you pour, wine aerators are supposed to let you avoid waiting to let wine “breathe” before you sip. We had two trained wine experts and 62 untrained tasters sample Gato Negro Cabernet Sauvignon poured directly from a bottle and through each of two aerators: Metrokane Rabbit Aerating Pourer, $25, and Vinturi Essential Wine Aerator, $35.

The Rabbit lessened some of the fruit flavor that dominated the nonaerated wine, so subtler woody/earthy flavors could be appreciated; the Vinturi let spicy and vegetal tastes come through. But when the wineglasses sat uncovered for a half-hour, the aerated and nonaerated wines began to taste more similar. Our 62 novices tasted differences but varied over which option was their favorite.

Bottom line. Gadget fans and impatient oenophiles might like an aerator.

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters!
Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Food News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more