Hundreds of thousands of wines get released each year around the world. Some are fresh vintages of existing brands, some entirely new. They're based on one or more of an estimated 5,000 grape varieties, each with its distinctive flavour. Yet for many people, the wine hunt comes down to this: What's a good, moderately priced bottle I can find at the local liquor store day in and day out?
I get the question from friends and family almost weekly. Who needs to bother reading a twice-weekly column when you can prevail upon a critic to cut to the chase?
It's the bane of a wine critic's existence, because the landscape changes all the time and most great wines are produced in frightfully limited quantities. I'm talking a few thousand or even few hundred cases each harvest. You've got to drive around town, in some cases all the way to the winery, to snap them up.
It's that continually changing selection and, I dare say, scarcity that breathes oxygen into wine columns. If the mission of this space were to write only about good, perennially and widely available $15 brands, the job would be over in the time it takes you to twist the screw cap off a bottle of Penfolds Koonunga Hill Cab. There just aren't that many.
Yet the question persists. So, here's a fresh list I came up with off the top of my head recently for some friends who have been cornering me for a few reliable and relatively easy-to-find recommendations on the shelves now. It's not definitive but it's a list of good buys that were good enough to be memorable. Consider it a friends-and-family short list.
Given that we've entered the post-Victoria Day summer stretch, I've tailored the list for sun-soaked sipping: 10 crowd pleasers - five bold barbecue-worthy reds, four crisp whites and a dry rosé - that taste good in the great Canadian outdoors. Note that I've mentioned a few before in other contexts, typically in my recommendation-heavy Saturday column. But some are relatively new releases. Prices, unless otherwise indicated, refer to Ontario retail.
I've kept things diverse, stylistically speaking, because summer is about more than just big, chunky malbecs. Isn't it?
Lurton Les Hauts de Janeil Syrah & Grenache 2008, France ($12.95). Bordeaux-based "flying winemaker" François Lurton, who crafts wines in several countries, has hit it out of the ballpark here with a great-value red. It hails from southern France's Languedoc region, where vines such syrah and grenache thrive to yield deliciously herbal, gutsy reds. This is medium-bodied, with a core of ripe fruit enhanced by notes of licorice and spice. Great for grilled chicken or lamb.
Penfolds Koonunga Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Australia ($16.95). The Penfolds brand, best known for the $300 Grange red, is a benchmark for consistency and quality at this more modest price. Textbook cabernet flavours abound here, with notes of cassis, chocolate, cherry and vanilla, knitted together in a full-bodied, velvety smooth blanket. The finish is crisp and firm. Just as good, from the same value-priced line, is Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet 2008 ($16.95). Serve either with rare or medium-rare beef.
Two Hands The Lucky Country Shiraz 2008, Australia ($15.30). A mouthful of deep red flavour awaits you in this big-bodied effort blended from ripe Barossa Valley and crisper McLaren Vale fruit. It's lusty and silky, with generous black-fruit essence, licorice, spice, cigar box and a nostalgic (at least for me) note of black wine gum. Great for grilled meats brushed with sweet barbecue sauce.
Alamos Malbec 2008, Argentina ($13.95; $14.99 in B.C.). From the distinguished producer Catena, this entry-level red is remarkably smooth, with notes of blackberry and black currant balanced by black pepper. A smidgeon of rich cabernet sauvignon and crisp bonarda were added to this blend for texture and balance. It's ideal for burgers and medium-to-well-done beef.
Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2009, South Africa ($14.95). A perennial darling of wine critics, this robust, full-bodied red comes from one of South Africa's best and most unpronounceable producers, Boekenhoutskloof (booken-HOOTS-kloof). Luscious and creamy, it shows concentrated dark-fruit flavour underpinned by espresso coffee, grilled meat and that classic Cape smokiness, lifted by firm acidity. Serve it with grilled beef, lamb or game, such as venison.
Argento Malbec Rosé 2009, Argentina ($9.95). Too many rosés today are flaccid with sugar. This one's crisp and lively while delivering a solid, concentrated cherry-apple fruit. Perfect for solo sipping or with appetizers, such as prosciutto-draped bruschetta, the Italian toasted-bread slices brushed with olive oil and raw garlic.
Grand Gaillard Sauvignon Blanc 2008, France ($12.95). If you like crisp sauvignon blanc, keep in mind that most white Bordeaux is made partly or entirely from the grape. But there are also tremendous values today in white Bordeaux, and this is one. Round and silky yet light and crisp, it offers notes of lemon and herbs - perfect for asparagus and goat-cheese-adorned salads and for solo sipping.
Grooner Grüner Veltliner 2008, Austria ($12.95). If you can get past the kitschy name, presumably designed to assist non-Germans with the pronunciation of the gruner veltliner grape, you may be impressed with the balance of this versatile white from Weingut Meinhard Forstreiter. Light, with a tart-juicy essence, it boasts a silky core and notes of lemon, herbs and slate. A fine choice for salads, even where piquant Dijon mustard figures into the dressing.
Bodega J&F Lurton Pinot Gris 2008, Argentina ($10.95; $13.99 in B.C.). While the rest of the world guzzles big-brand, often anemic pinot grigios from Italy, you can be savouring this relatively flavour-packed South American beauty, based on the same grape. Light medium-bodied and clean, it's a good match for grilled fish or chicken.
René Barbier Classic White, Spain ($9.95). Light and lively, this white shows remarkable nuance for the money, with notes of crisp apple, banana and citrus. Perfect for grilled shellfish or for sipping by itself on a warm day or evening.