While there’s a time and place for hearty, heavy red wines, other seasons and situations call for reds that are lighter in style and lower in alcohol.
California, Oregon and Washington are great places to turn to when looking for those kinds of wines. Think beyond the usual suspects like Pinot Noir, too. Plenty of other varieties from these regions offer big flavor for less than 13% abv (alcohol by volume).
Madson 2019 Toyon Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Cruz Mountains); $50, 94 points. Wet oregano, bay-leaf and pine-needle aromas are layered across tart cranberry, raspberry and currant on the zesty nose of this bottling. The palate is bright and tart, with cranberry at the core, as juniper and gin-like botanical touches round out the experience. —Matt Kettmann
Waits-Mast 2017 Mariah Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mendocino Ridge); $42, 93 points. This wine has an earthy, rustic charm from its rather light, tawny-garnet color to aromas of turned earth and leather to grilled plum and cigar-box flavors. It’s fascinating to taste and certainly stands out from the many current rich Pinots. — Jim Gordon
Kelley Fox 2019 Mirabai Pinot Noir (Dundee Hills); $37, 92 points. The hallmark of Kelley Fox wines is elegance, exemplified here in this blend of old vine Maresh Vineyard and Weber Vineyard grapes. It’s light and lively, with subtle savory notes and tart raspberry fruit. Tannins are gently ripened and trail out with hints of chamomile tea. — Paul Gregutt
Lumen 2017 Sierra Madre Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley); $62, 92 points. Lighter and a muddier shade in the glass than a typical Pinot, this slightly aged vintage shows baked cherry, iron and sagebrush on the nose. There’s a pleasantly peppery spice to the palate, which is full of crunchy peppercorns, bay leaf and juniper, set against a tart raspberry core. —M.K.
Tolosa 2019 El Coro Pinot Noir (Petaluma Gap); $130, 92 points. This is a taut, linear and high-toned red from the windswept site, bristling in crisp, delicate layers of grapefruit and tangerine. The fruity intensity is matched by savory elements of forest floor and tea, adding worthy contrast and complexity. —Virginie Boone
W.T. Vintners 2018 Stoney Vine Vineyard Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $49, 92 points. This is an expressive Rocks District wine coming in at an unseen alcohol level for the state. The aromas explode from the glass, with notes of raspberry, cranberry, rose hip, smoked meat, medicine, potpourri and sage. The smoked meat flavors possess compelling freshness and purity. Editors’ Choice. —Sean P. Sullivan
Notre Vue 2019 G-S-M (Chalk Hill); $69, 91 points. Floral, full and fleshy, this richly layered and ripe red blends 51% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 29% Mourvèdre. Strawberry and vanilla flavors accent the creamy texture, with a lifted freshness to the finish. —V.B.
Stolpman 2020 Syrah So Hot Syrah (Ballard Canyon); $42, 91 points. Fresh and snappy aromas of elder-berry are given an earthy kick from wet soil elements on the nose of this sulfur-free bottling. A firm tannic profile wraps around the palate, where elderberry and elderflower flavors coalesce. —M.K.
Fortino 2016 Malbec (Santa Clara Valley); $28, 90 points. This is a fine example of the potential for Santa Clara Valley vineyards. Aromas of charred meat, roasted red fruit and pepper lead into a savory, medium-bodied palate of more pepper, dried herbs and baked fruit. Editors’ Choice. —M.K.
Iris Vineyards 2019 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $22, 90 points. With each new vintage, Oregon vintners seem to deliver more and more quality in affordable (under $25) Pinot Noirs. Here’s a good one. Light and peppery, varietal and balanced, it’s an easy-drinking wine with details of citrus rind. It shows the delicate complexity of the grape without relying on new oak barrels to add extra weight. Enjoy this over the next two or three years. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
Shumaker 2019 Pinot Noir (Tualatin Hills); $28, 90 points. There’s a lightly leathery note suffusing this young Pinot, sourced from the estate vineyard in the new Tualatin Hills AVA. Wines from this location, in the northwest corner of the Willamette Valley, attain moderate ripeness at low sugar levels, given extended hang time. Elegance is the calling card, here in a wine with pretty raspberry fruit, hints of blood orange, a touch of mushroom and baking spices accenting an extended finish. —P.G.