I’m pulled in two directions this week – toward Napa and the southern Rhône. Napa because of a new-product lineup launched last week in Ontario Vintages stores (some of which will be poured at a walk-around “Napa Valley Rocks!” tasting at the Royal Ontario Museum on Monday). Several are terrific, but they’re priced beyond the reasonable limit for the average working stiff. Being a working stiff, I sought relief by tasting through a batch of reds from the southern Rhône’s magnificent 2010 vintage, one of the region’s best in several decades.
Here we are, a short tale of two valleys. On one hand there’s high-profile Napa, where the really good stuff is often painfully expensive. On the other there’s the southern Rhône, where the classically luscious, savoury reds even in the best years seem to escape collector-driven hyperinflation.
As one nice couple recently wrote to me after I published a few reviews of wines from the Vacqueyras district in the southern Rhône: “Keep up the excellent taste and maybe don’t tell everyone how great the Vacqueyras wines are!” Oops, here I go again.
Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (California)
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $137.95
Very expensive, I know, and absurdly so to most mortals. But this is mind-bending wine, a Napa cab that tastes more like suave, tight red Bordeaux (specifically Margaux from an exceptional year) than the typical fruit-explosion Napa cab. Togni, who has been growing grapes high on Spring Mountain since 1981, studied with the legendary Émile Peynaud at the University of Bordeaux, which no doubt helps explain his stylistic aim. He produces just 2,000 cases a year, most sold direct to mailing-list subscribers in the United States. This 2010 is packed with dusty tannins and is a little austere at the moment, with an uncanny graphite note that strongly telegraphs Bordeaux. It deserves at least five years in the cellar and should improve for at least two decades. Available in Ontario.
Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (California)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $83.95
An elegant cab from a storied producer, this red serves up lots of spice as well as some mint and tobacco to go along with the concentrated cassis-like core. Fine-grained, polished tannins supply sturdy backbone. It should pay dividends after 10 or 12 years in the cellar. $62.75 in Que.
Miner The Oracle 2008 (California)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $99.95
It’s nice when a big California red steps out of the smooth zone to expose grainy texture. Very dry and structured, this blend of the five classic red-Bordeaux varieties, led by cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, has plenty of toasty oak coursing through its veins. Expect notes of coffee, cedar and vanilla along with the rich dark fruit. Accessible now, it should improve for a decade or more.
Beringer Napa Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir 2010 (California)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $39.95
The name Beringer brings to mind lavishly oaked, broad-shouldered cabernets, merlots and chardonnays. Pinot? Not really. But here’s a very nice effort. It’s substantial for a pinot, to be sure, pushing 14.3-per-cent alcohol and showing jammy, mouth-filling berry fruit. Then it evens out with bright acidity and finds structure in firm tannins. I wish it were a little more affordable. $34.99 in N.B.
Terres d’Avignon Réserve des Armoiries 2010 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $15.95
Here’s one brilliant Côtes du Rhône bargain, a blend of grenache, syrah, carignan, cinsault and mourvèdre. Full-bodied and smooth, it offers luscious dark fruit with savoury layers of underbrush, herbs, licorice and pepper. Ripe, yet with great tension and vigour. Available in Ontario.
Domaine Saint-Pierre Vacqueyras 2010 (France)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $24.95
Talk about heft. This weighs in at 15-per-cent alcohol and blatantly reveals the ripe opulence of the sunny 2010 vintage. A mix of grenache with syrah from one of the finest appellations in the southern Rhône, it’s voluptuous. The alcohol only barely peeks through the thick wall of dark-skinned fruit, which is coated in tar, licorice and herbs (figuratively speaking). Big and accessible now, it’s got the structure to improve for, oh, about eight years. Available in Ontario.
Domaine Les Aphillanthes Cuvée Les Galets Plan de Dieu 2010 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
The wine’s full name includes “Côtes du Rhône-Villages,” but that additional designation would have taken up too much boldface space. A mouthful to say and to drink, this red comes from an area known as Plan de Dieu, one of the better Côtes du Rhône villages permitted to distinguish themselves with a reference on the label. A blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre from old vines, this standout comes across with supple raspberry, cherry, flowers and classic southern Rhône wild herbs. It’s also slightly funky, with a whiff of barnyard air in just the right, subtle measure. Alcohol: 15 per cent. Available in Ontario.
Domaine La Fourmone Trésor du Poète Vacqueyras 2010 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.95
Not the biggest Vacqueyras of 2010, but it is sufficiently ample, with plenty of cassis-cherry fruit and a big savoury essence suggesting lavender and black pepper.