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Why you should explore off-the-radar wines Add to ...

Is there an itch in your pants? Drinks-industry pundits say Canadians will crave novelty in 2011. We’re ready for wide-eyed discovery, jonesing to venture beyond standby grapes and blue-chip regions. This could be the year we cut the chardonnay cord and risk the shame of mispronouncing gruner veltliner or chasselas to sip something more, well, interesting.

The quest for new experiences speaks to a level maturity in the wine market, of course. It also dovetails with another trend: the search for value. Off-the-radar grapes and regions are where dollars earn the most traction. Bad-value Napa cabernet? There’s plenty around. Ridiculously overpriced chasselas? It pretty much doesn’t exist.

I spoke to seven beverage consultants and liquor-board buyers recently about the coming year. None mentioned Australian shiraz, California cabernet or red Bordeaux, three categories popular with conservative drinkers. They did mention grapes such as bonarda, tempranillo, cabernet franc, marsanne, torrontes and barbera.

So how about a fine chasselas to kick off this week’s selections?

Jean Geiler Chasselas 2009 (France)

SCORE: 89

PRICE: $12.95

Associated most commonly with Switzerland, where it’s often used to make fondue, the white chasselas grape gets little attention in Canada. (Noteworthy exception: Quails’ Gate winery in British Columbia grows it to craft a terrific white blend.) This offering from Alsace in northern France was just released through Vintages stores in Ontario and tastes deliciously exotic. Medium full-bodied, silky and soft, if offers up notes of stone fruit, chamomile tea, flowers and minerals. It would pair nicely with aromatic Indian food.

Masi Masianco 2009 (Italy)

SCORE: 87

PRICE: $14.95

The large Venetian producer Masi is a champion of local and often obscure varieties. An inspired blend of pinot grigio and the more obscure verduzzo grape of northeast Italy, this is light but more silky than a lot of standalone pinot grigios, with good concentration owing in part to short barrel aging for the verduzzo. Expect lemon- and banana-like flavour and juicy acidity. It’s very nice on its own or with lighter fish dishes. Available in Ontario, B.C. (for $17.99), Quebec ($17.10) and Nova Scotia ($17.99).

13th Street White Palette 2009 (Ontario)

SCORE: 88

PRICE: $14.95

Blended from chardonnay musqué (a floral-scented clone of chardonnay), gewürztraminer, riesling, chardonnay, sémillon pinot gris and sauvignon blanc, this inspired mutt of a white from an excellent boutique producer packs a fruit punch of flavours, including lychee, citrus and peach. Dry and also nice for Asian food. Available through Vintages in Ontario.

Averill Creek Pinot Grigio 2009 (B.C.)

SCORE: 88

PRICE: $18

This white is unusual not for the grape variety but the source: Vancouver Island. Averill Creek owners Andy and Wendy Johnston, former Edmontonians, farm a 50-acre estate on a slope of Mt. Prevost above the Cowichan Valley. This is a splendid effort, light-bodied but with more flavour intensity than most Italian offerings. Lemon, green apple, flint and a yeasty note suggesting bread crust are underpinned by lively acidity in this fresh, unoaked white. Great on its own or with shellfish. Available through private stores in B.C. and, at a slightly higher price, Alberta. Available direct from the winery, too: 250-709-9986; jasonis@shaw.ca.

Averill Creek Pinot Gris 2008 (B.C.)

SCORE: 89

PRICE: $20

More opulent than the pinot grigio above, though made from the same grape variety, it was fermented and aged in French oak barrels and underwent partial malolactic fermentation for added texture. Nice for salmon and other rich-fleshed fish. Available in British Columbia and Alberta.

Baillie-Grohman Gewurztraminer 2009 (B.C.)

SCORE: 87

PRICE: $19.99

Talk about off-road. Baillie-Grohman, founded by ex-Calgarians Bob Johnson and Petra Flaa and named after a Kootenay region pioneer, is a new estate in Creston, B.C., well east of the Okanagan Valley, near the U.S. border. Medium-bodied, with good flesh and classic gewürztraminer notes of lychee and spice, the wine has an almost sweet, ripe core yet dry finish. Impressive for the product of young vines. Try it with spicy food. Available in select private wine stores in B.C. and Alberta and direct from the winery (250-428-8768, www.bailiegrohman.com). The suggested price in Alberta is $23.99.

Fairview Shiraz 2008 (South Africa)

SCORE: 89

PRICE: $14.95

This is a big red for value seekers. Full-bodied and smoky, with plenty of dark fruit and chocolate and a nuance of grilled meat. Great for steak and red-meat stews.

Remole Toscana 2009 (Italy)

SCORE: 86

PRICE: $12.25

A blend of mostly sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon from Tuscany, this qualifies as a decent-value red. It’s medium-bodied, with cherry-like flavour and a salty-bitter edge on the food-friendly finish. Widely available across the country, including in B.C. ($13.99).

Cantina Tudernum Rojano Rosso dell’Umbria 2006 (Italy)

SCORE: 90

PRICE: $24.40

Available in Quebec, this red made from sangiovese, merlot and sagrantino is medium-bodied and juicy, with notes of bright cherry, cocoa, spice and tar. A good match for hearty beef, lamb and pork dishes, including pastas with meat sauce.

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