Shopping. Wrapping. Shopping. Partying. Shopping. It's Dec. 18 and your reading time is at a premium. So, allow me to skip the long intro and get right to the heart of the matter - reviews and scores. I'm focusing on the good stuff, wines I've rated 89 or higher, and I'm starting with fine spirits, the kind that will make worthy gifts.
Ballantine's Blended Scotch Whisky Aged 17 Years (Scotland)
PRICE: $83 in Alberta and Quebec
Jim Murray, the estimable whisky critic and author of the annual Jim Murray's Whisky Bible, recently ranked this his World Whisky of the Year for 2011. Sadly, it's only available in Alberta and Quebec, plus duty-free shops in Ontario and British Columbia (for $89). Blended whiskies get a bad rap among connoisseurs, who in this country tend to focus largely on single malts. But this one's a gem that will please fans of both smooth blends as well as characterful single malts. Substantial in body, it offers up creamy vanilla and honey enhanced by subtle smokiness and a dollop of salty breeze.
Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban Highland Single Malt (Scotland)
PRICE: $82.50 in Ont., $80.95 in B.C.
This is my current favourite of the excellent Glenmorangie line. Aged for 10 years in bourbon casks and for two extra years in ruby-port casks for added complexity, the current shipment shows a rosier hue than in the past. (The colour varies slightly with each bottling because of the variable saturation of the casks.) Beautiful to behold and seductive on the palate, it's deliciously dry and spicy, with notes of cocoa, mint and chocolate.
Glenfarclas Highland Single Malt (Scotland)
PRICE: $64.95 in Ont.
This intriguing 12-year-old whisky leads off with a strong flavour of underbrush and evolves with notes of cereal, toasty oak and salt. Great for the price.
El Dorado Vintage 25 Years Old Rum (Guyana)
Just 75 six-bottle cases of this glorious nectar were allocated to Ontario. It's the top dark rum from Demerara Distillers and may impress even those with an aversion to lesser rums. Dark amber, almost mahogany in colour, it has a syrupy, velvety texture and tastes like chocolate and caramel studded with raisins and doused in oloroso sherry. Sip it like great cognac.
Gaston de Lagrange XO Cognac (France)
Soft and round, this cognac is dripping with honey, vanilla and apricot and a subtle sherry-like note on the harmonious, long finish.
Domaine Martelet de Cherisey Meursault-Blagny 1er Cru La Genelotte 2007 (France)
Full-bodied and silky, this white shows subtle tropical fruit and nutty characters. Delectable yet lively for a Meursault.
Château La Cheze 2005 (France)
From the great 2005 vintage, this red Bordeaux is outstanding for the money, with ripe dark fruits and minerals and chewy, old-school tannins. Decant it now or age it for up to seven more years.
Vincent Lacombe Pommard 2009 (France)
Classic Pommard firmness in this attractively priced pinot noir from Burgundy, with notes of cherry liqueur and earthy beetroot, nicely supported by acidity and substantial tannins. It could cellar well for 10 more years.
Il Poggione Vigna Paganelli Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2003 (Italy)
Offering up dried cherry and underbrush with subtle church wood, this red is penetrating and succulent. Drinking nicely now, it could evolve favourably for up to 15 more years.
Dr. Hermann Riesling Kabinett 2008 (Germany)
A medium-dry and seductive white, with drippy peach framed by slate and the right level of sugar-balancing acidity.
De Martino Legado Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Chile)
A big bargain, this full-bodied red was made from perfectly ripened fruit, with a silky mid-palate, flavours of currant and mint and nicely integrated tannins. Great character and complexity compared with most Chilean reds in its price bracket.
Hazyblur Shiraz 2006 (Australia)
At 15.5 per cent alcohol, this McLaren Vale red is aptly named. But it's far from hot or medicinal. Full-bodied and packed with blueberry-like fruit, it unfolds with intriguing notes of herbs and flowers.
Fog Crest Chardonnay 2006 (California)
This offers full-throttle New World chardonnay flavour - creamy with big tropical fruit, butter and toast, all lifted by just enough acidity. A well-crafted, mouth-filling white.
Ridge Geyserville 2008 (California)
Mostly zinfandel, this storied red blend, which includes carignan, petite sirah, mataro and mourvedre, offers up a core of blueberry jam and raisin enlivened by zippy acidity. A zinfandel lover's treasure.
Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain 2006 (California)
Great vintage from a fine producer. A full-bodied and solidly built red showing considerable tannic firmness supporting flavours of cassis and shoe leather. Decant it if you plan to drink it in the next four or five years. It could cellar for at least 15.
Baron de Ley Gran Reserva Rioja 2001 (Spain)
Beautifully evolved for a nine-year-old, this medium-full-bodied red suggests dried cherries, spice, violet and pork drippings. Classic Rioja.