It's official, the economy is over a barrel. Statistics Canada reported last week that our gross domestic product contracted in April for the first time in a year and a half. And we all know what that means: less money to spend on everything from food and medicine to the bare necessities, like good wine.
Fortunately, there's still plenty of good vino out there at fair prices. One of the better values I've tasted in some time was released into the Ontario market earlier this year. Les Fumées Blanches 2001 ($8.95, product No. 472555) is a deliciously crisp white from southern France made from 100 per cent sauvignon blanc. A blend of grapes from warm and cool microclimates for a ripe yet zesty style, it's lean and clean, offering pronounced fruit flavours of pineapple, peach and grapefruit, accented by hints of minerals and honey. This would be a terrific choice for summer patio sipping and a fine partner for salads and grilled seafood.
The name comes from the term given to the white "smoke," or mist, that blankets the hills of southern France's Languedoc region, where the wine is produced. It's also a play on the American term fumé blanc, which typically denotes a barrel-aged sauvignon blanc, although this delicate beauty sees no oak and is the essence of freshness.
Already the top-selling French vin-de-pays white in Quebec, Les Fumées Blanches sells more than 100,000 cases worldwide. It's made by famous "flying winemakers" Jacques and Francois Lurton, who also own properties in Spain, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Sons of famous Bordeaux producer André Lurton of Château Bonnet fame, the Lurton brothers, both in their mid-40s, started their first winery in 1988 after a thriving early career as consultants to such major producers as France's Remy Panier and Australia's Hardy and the distribution companies Sainsbury and Tesco. They've been tremendously successful, too, garnering a wealth of medals for their smartly balanced wines.
Another excellent white value from the same producers is the lush and fruity Bodega Lurton Pinot Gris 2002 from Argentina ($9.20, No. 556746). It's become an immensely popular wine (the brothers sell about half a million bottles of Argentinian pinot gris a year) and for good reason.
Not all Lurton wines are inexpensive, though they usually represent very good value for the money. Coming up for sale in Ontario Vintages stores next Saturday is J & F Lurton El Albar 2000 ($21.95, No. 725762), a full-bodied red from Spain, soft and plummy, with a grace note of dried herbs and a noticeably tannic finish. It could probably use five to seven years in a cool cellar. And available soon through the winter Classics Catalogue mail-order system in Ontario will be the superb J & F Lurton Piedra Negra 2000 ($39.95), a malbec-based red from Argentina that's rich, smooth and earthy.
If the recession has come early to your pocketbook, you might want to consider the rock-bottom-priced Tribal Sauvignon Blanc/Colombard 2002 ($6.95, No. 623694). This amazing white-wine value from South Africa, new in Canada, makes for a terrific summer refresher -- light, bright and citrusy, with a pleasing, moderately silky texture. The bottle is hard to miss, with its bold zebra-print label, though at this price you can be forgiven for expecting a bag-in-a-box.
The bargains don't stop at white wine, of course. When I recently tasted the just-released Marcus James Malbec ($7.95, No. 518431) without knowing the price, I scribbled to myself that it tasted like $13. What a discovery. New to the Ontario general list shelves, this Argentinian blend joins an equally amaxing value, the crisp, round Marcus James Chardonnay ($7.95, No. 372672). Medium-bodied and richly extracted, the Malbec has a lusciously juicy cherry core and remarkably long, dry finish. It would be very versatile with food and make a nice summer quaffer.
Remarkably for such a budget-priced wine, the grapes -- a blend of 80-per-cent malbec and 20-per-cent barbera -- are picked by hand rather than machine to protect the skins, so the juice has less of a chance to oxidize or ferment before it reaches the winery.
Argentina is acquiring quite the reputation for attractively priced malbec, a grape sometimes compared with merlot for its soft texture and plummy flavour. Those qualities are evident in Argento Malbec 2001 ($9.70, No. 591693), a chunky, smooth red, with hints of plum, cherry and vanilla and a nice grip on the finish. It has remarkable structure for the money, the product of cool, high-altitude vineyards in the Andes foothills and expert winemaking by the 100-year-old house of Bodega Catena Zapata.
Pick of the week
Les Fumées Blanches 2001 ($8.95, product No. 472555) is a deliciously crisp white and a terrific choice for summer patio sipping.