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Beppi Crosariol on wine

The Rhône's wallflower wines are worth a second look Add to ...

I was recently in the Rhône Valley, a place identified strongly with red wines. Just 3 per cent of the French region's yield is devoted to pale-skinned grapes, mainly offbeat varieties you won't soon see on a label from those big-brand Yellowtail people from Australia. I'm talking marsanne, roussanne, clairette and bourboulenc. Wallflowers.

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Yet a disproportionate share of my fondest impressions has to do with whites. They included, most memorably, a killer Chapoutier Hermitage Chante-Alouette from the 2006 vintage, a 100-per-cent marsanne that could rival Billy Bee for its honey-like flavour and nectar-like texture, only without the sugar and with a much higher price, $60. I'm told that chic rich people in France dare to pair it with foie gras and duck, which makes me want to be a chic French person more than ever.

But not all the whites were priced for rich people. There were some affordable standouts, and one comes up for sale today across Ontario at Vintages stores. E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2008 ($16.95, product No. 290296) is a textbook treat of what southern Rhône whites have to offer. A blend of mostly viognier with roussanne, marsanne, clairette, bourboulenc and grenache blanc, it boasts a restrained-fruit flavour that you won't find in your typical and much more common chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. Aged entirely in stainless steel, not oak, it's fresh and floral. Soft and round, it finishes with a hint of spice, a versatile wine for everything from light vegetarian fare to roast chicken, veal or pork. The 2009 vintage, which had just been bottled and not yet readied for shipment, is even better.

Several fine reds from the Rhône also are featured in today's Ontario release, including Laurus Gigondas 2006 ($24.95, No. 163113), a full-bodied blend of grenache and syrah from the negociant Gabriel Meffre. It's rich and dense, with notes of spice, tar and wild herbs carried on a core of black-skinned fruits, lifted by a kick of acidity on the finish.

Syrah plays a solo role in Ferraton Père & Fils La Martinière Crozes-Hermitage 2007 ($21.95, No. 127712), which delivers a classic northern Rhône syrah nuance of meat drippings, with a note of lavender and firm acidity.

Zinfandel fans should be pleased with Truchard Zinfandel 2007 from California ($21.95, No. 54858), a full-bodied, juicy, perfectly ripe red hinting at plum, cedar and black pepper. It's part of a Vintages spotlight today on zinfandel, a grape known in Italy as primitivo. And the best-balanced example from Italy is Giordano Primitivo di Manduria 2007 ($17.95, No. 51797), showing a luscious core of raisin-like fruit and an almost-sweet, syrupy profile. It's a tad riper than I'd like, but still pretty good. Pair it with grilled meats, preferably slathered with barbecue sauce.

The other spotlight in today's release is on New Zealand and the highlights, some of which I mentioned in a previous Wednesday column, include: Craggy Range Te Kahu Gimblett Gravels Vineyard 2007 ($29.95, No. 699322), Greywacke Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($21.95, No. 164228) and Framingham Pinot Noir 2008 ($29.95, No. 163584).

The domestic standout released today in Ontario is Closson Chase Chardonnay 2007 ($29.95, No. 148866). It's a full-bodied white from an excellent producer in Prince Edward County, whose other wines from the 2007 vintage I've enthused about. It's a massive white from a winemaker who knows how to sculpt big chardonnays, brimming with flavours of tropical fruit, apple pie and toasted bread all in balance with good acidity.

It takes a frigid place to produce icewine. That's how the dessert nectar, pressed from frozen grapes, came to be Canada's signature wine style. It takes a cold climate also to craft fine sparkling wine. In Champagne, France's most northern and marginal region for vines, chilly nights ensure high acidity, which is de rigueur for fine fizz.

So, a question: Why isn't Canada better known for bubbles?

Winemakers will say it has everything to do with expense. Quality sparkling wine is labour intensive. It must be aged in bottles to mingle with the yeast sediment, producing the creamy, bread-like richness of those champagnes we know and love. Bottles take up more cellar space than barrels, and that costs money. They also take special handling.

Two excellent sparkling wines I tasted recently, though, makes me wish more producers would persuade their bankers to let them get in the game.

The first is Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine 2002 from Niagara. It's a special edition of Henry of Pelham's regular, and very good, Cuvée Catharine Brut. Whereas the regular, non-vintage bottling is aged for 30 months on its spent yeast, or lees, comparable to many popular champagnes, the special edition was aged for six years. Now the bad news. Just 20 cases of Cuvee Catharine 2002, the first vintage-dated bubbly from the winery, were produced. They were all scooped up by one Toronto restaurant, Scaramouche, which is pouring it by the glass (at $16 a flute) in celebration of the venerable establishment's 30th anniversary. But Henry of Pelham has been ramping up production, beginning with the 2007 harvest, and plans to release a commercial edition in 2013.

The second is Huff Estates Cuvée Peter Huff 2006 from Prince Edward County. It, too, is available in select fine restaurants in Toronto, including Canoe, the Niagara Street Café and Jamie Kennedy's Gilead Café, as well as direct from the winery ($39.95, e-mail karen@huffestates.com or call 613-393-5802) and through Toronto agent LeCaviste (www.lecaviste.ca, 416-424-2553). It, too, saw extensive aging on lees - a full three years. A core of almost-sweet, candied apple, orange peel, minerals and honey harmonizes with a hint of sherry-like tang and crisp acidity. It's a compelling statement of cool Prince Edward County's potential as a source of bubbly. Heck, the county even lies farther south than Champagne, though few people in France would believe it if you told them.

Picks of the week

The deal

E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2008 ($16.95, No. 290296) is a blend of mostly viognier with roussanne, marsanne, clairette, bourboulenc and grenache blanc. It boasts a restrained-fruit flavour that you won't find in your typical and much more common chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.

The splurge

Laurus Gigondas 2006 ($24.95, product No. 163113) is a full-bodied blend of grenache and syrah from the negociant Gabriel Meffre. It's rich and dense, with notes of spice, tar and wild herbs carried on a core of black-skinned fruits.

The domestic

Closson Chase Chardonnay 2007 ($29.95, No. 148866) is a full-bodied white from an excellent producer in Prince Edward County. It's a massive white from a winemaker who knows how to sculpt big chardonnays, brimming with flavours of tropical fruit, apple pie and toasted bread all in balance with good acidity.

 

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