There is much great wine in the world and much that is affordable. Sadly, those qualities intersect not nearly as often as they should. Today I'd like to focus on that convergence.
In the past week, I tasted not one but several reds that caused me to do a double take. Were they really that affordable? In one case, I e-mailed the importer to confirm. Yes, he assured me, the Pasqua Passimento 2008 sells for $11.95 in Ontario. (Important note: The 2008 is just starting to appear on shelves; a random check of liquor stores revealed plenty of 2007, which is not nearly as good.)
After tasting another wine, I mentally multiplied the bottle price by 12 to calculate what I'd have to fork out for a case to take me through the rest of winter. That wine, Le Secret des Capitelles Saint-Chinian 2009, at $14.95, is a gloriously spicy, herbal red from southern France that should cellar nicely for three or four years at least. It's a style I particularly love.
I'd like to believe, based on this week's experience, that values are on the increase, but I'm sure it was random luck - a fluke streak in my bargain hunting. Still, I think it's worth assembling some highlights here. Some of these wines have been on shelves for a while and other selections are new, or, at least, the new vintages have just arrived in stores. They all offer incredible value. Please note the years listed on the label.
Le Secret des Capitelles Saint-Chinian 2009, France
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $14.95
Saint Chinian is an appellation of France's southern Languedoc region that straddles the Mediterranean Sea. It produces some of the most serious reds in the region, similar in style to good Cotes du Rhône, with a telltale essence of wild herbs that grow in the region. Like Cotes du Rhône, they're usually blended from multiple grapes. This one is 65 per cent grenache and 35 per cent syrah. Grenache provides a soft fruitiness, while syrah delivers a spine of astringent tannin as well as, the slightest suggestion of meat on the grill. I defy anyone not to pick up notes of lavender and thyme in this glorious drink. Some of you may agree about the meat thing - I find it's reminiscent of herb-crusted pork roast with cherry compote on the side and a light dusting of cracked pepper. Serve it with braised meat, such as lamb shank. Available through Vintages in Ontario.
Pasqua Villa Borghetti Passimento 2008, Italy
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $11.95
With the 2008 vintage, the big Veneto-based producer Pasqua has belted it out of the park. Essentially a turbo-charged Valpolicella, this is a red pressed from grapes that were partially dried to concentrate flavours before fermentation. Unlike Valpolicella, it contains some merlot in addition to the indigenous corvina and croatina, giving it added smoothness. The result is a succulent, medium-bodied wine with flavours of cherry jam, raisin and spice. I love the dramatic tension - suggestively sweet and almost syrupy but ultimately crisp and dry. It would make a good partner for cheese. Significant supplies of the 2008, which comes in a heavy, fat-bodied bottle as opposed to the narrow Bordeaux-style bottle of the past, may not arrive until later this month.
Cantine due Palme Selvarossa Riserva Salice Salentino 2006, Italy
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
The wines of Salice Salentino are made mainly from the local grape negroamaro. This is the heel of Italy's boot, where the sun shines hard and the wines can be almost as friendly as the people. Even at this price, the juice in this (very heavy) bottle is a big value, with good concentration, succulent blueberry and cherry, a touch of chocolate and spine-straightening acidity. It would be really good with grilled red meat. To be released in Ontario through Vintages stores March 5.
Mas des Bressades Cuvée Tradition 2009, France
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
Mas des Bressades enjoys a solid reputation for value, even though by value-wine standards its production is small and the wines sell out quickly. This latest vintage of the Tradition red from the southern Rhône Valley should please fans. It's a blend of syrah and grenache, much like the Capitelles above, and starts with a blast of wild herbs and licorice. Then it develops a chewy texture, fruity core and ends with peppercorn. Serve it with lamb or braised beef. It will be released in Ontario through Vintages stores March 5. The price is $15.15 in Quebec.
Tabali Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Chile
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
As this wine shows, Chile has no equal in the under-$20 cabernet sauvignon category. Full-bodied, very dry and clearly pressed from perfectly ripened grapes, it features a juicy core of cassis, hints of smoke and mineral and a slight tannic tug on the finish. Serve it with steak or medium-rare roast beef. Scheduled for release in Ontario through Vintages stores March 5.
Vina Perez Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2008, Chile
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
I like this one for its textbook cabernet notes of cassis, black olive and menthol - a hallmark of Chilean cabernet. Ever taste a Halls cherry cough drop? You'll recognize that flavour here. The fine, silt-like tannins make it a good candidate for up to three years of cellaring. Serve it with grilled beef or lamb.
Louis Jadot Macon-Villages Chardonnay 2009, France
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.70
Poise is not a word one associates with chardonnay. The world's most popular white grape offers great latitude to the winemaker, who can choose to age it in new oak barrels or old oak or no oak at all, depending on how much vanilla and toastiness is desired. Malolactic fermentation, which softens the wine and gives it a buttery quality, is another option that doesn't work well on most other whites. Unfortunately, many winemakers tweak their chardonnays too much or too little. This entry-level white from an esteemed big producer in the grape's spiritual homeland of Burgundy is medium-bodied and silky, with hints of apple and pineapple and a toasty barrel nuance that never tastes woody or artificially vanilla-like. In a word, it's poised. Not as great as the 2007, but very nice. As versatile a white as you'll find, it's fine for chicken, fish, pork and vegetarian dishes, and pretty fine on its own as well.
Pascual Toso Merlot 2008, Argentina
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $12.95
Not many 13-dollar wines come with such concentration of flavour. Those that do tend to be one-dimensional and tend to taste like something out of a milkshake dispenser. This is real wine, even if the core flavours do hint at creamy vanilla and cherry. The soft texture strikes me as just what many people are looking for when they seek out a merlot for under $20, and there's a nice savoury hint and little kick of acidity on the finish to keep it interesting. Nice to sip on its own. It's on sale in Ontario for $11.95 until March 26.