I recently shared a drink with a visiting chef from Chile, Pilar Rodriguez. She's cooking in Toronto this week to promote Chilean wine and food on behalf of her country's foreign-affairs department. It may sound like a plum job, but there's a downside; she's forced to spend lots of time with nerdy wine writers like me.
For our meeting, she kindly brought along a bottle of Perez Cruz Syrah Reserva Limited Edition that she wanted to show off. At about $25, it's not your usual bargain Chilean red, which I think was the point. And I must say I liked it. But it was how she described the wine that turned me on to it as much the flavour: She called it "sexy."
Now, when a woman with a Spanish accent utters that word, it's hard to disagree. She could have been talking about porridge and I would have nodded like a bobblehead.
If you're wondering what she meant, permit me to translate it into Canadian. I believe it was what we socially reserved, toque-wearing Canucks might call a comfort wine. Though technically dry, it had a dense core of sweet, plum-like fruit that caressed the mouth. The alcohol was considerable, imparting more weight and viscosity than unpleasant heat. And despite the initial sweetness, the wine resolved with a tug of acidity and a suggestion of spices such as cracked pepper. It was, in a word, balanced.
Ms. Rodriguez's arrival last week coincided with a nip in the air in Southern Ontario, and soon it will be comfort-wine weather everywhere in Canada. To butcher a Guess Who lyric, seasons change and so does wine. Consider the following as potable equivalents of mac 'n' cheese or Haagen-Dazs straight from the container:
Both words refer to the same variety, but shiraz is the name that has become associated mainly with a more fruit-forward, let-it-all-hang-out style. If syrah is a pair of new, tight jeans, shiraz is elastic-waist trousers. Usually big-bodied, this fruit bomb of a red can rise to levels of great complexity, but also deliver cuddly warmth without demanding a lot of attention from the drinker, especially at under $20.
A current standout value: Barossa Valley Estate E Minor Shiraz 2007 ($17.95 in Ontario, $19.99 in B.C.). From the makers of one of Australia's $100 trophy wines, E & E Black Pepper Shiraz, this entry-level red comes from a 2007 harvest that saw tiny quantities of fruit but exceptional concentration and quality. You can't get a much more classic Australian experience under a screw cap unless you bottle a kangaroo.
Quality domestic choice: Twisted Tree Syrah 2007 ($24.90 in B.C.) from British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. This is an excellent big red that exhibits the fruit-forward character and chewy concentration of a sunny region while tipping its hat at the grape's spiritual home, the northern Rhône Valley of France, with the classic syrah notes of cracked pepper, licorice and a whiff of tire rubber.
Two caveats here. It qualifies only when it's good. Merlot should be smooth and round. But when it's grown in the wrong place and the vines are coaxed to produce quantity of fruit over quality, it's decidedly uncomforting, with a stemmy, sharp quality, sort of like a down comforter filled with porcupine quills. It also only qualifies when not from Bordeaux's two Right Bank communes, St. Émilion and Pomerol, which are known for sophisticated merlots that can be more intellectually taxing than comforting.
Value choice: Malivoire Red 200 8 ($14.95 in Ontario). Safe to say Niagara is not the first region most oenophiles look to for bargain merlot (Chile, more likely). But here you go. Actually, it's a blend, made with merlot (45 per cent), cabernet sauvignon and gamay. Winemaker Shiraz (yes, that's his first name) Mottiar should get the Order of Canada for this ingenious blend. Who mixes corpulent, mambo merlot with light-bodied, tap-dancing gamay? Opposites apparently do attract. Great concentration here for a cool-climate red, along with the right balance of vanilla creaminess coming from seven months in oak. Smooth and berry-like, with herbal overtones and a juicy finish.
Two other Canadian choices: Sumac Ridge Black Sage Vineyard Merlot 2006 ($19.95) and Tinhorn Creek Merlot 2007 (available in the West, $18.99), both from British Columbia.
This comes with a qualification: The style must be oaky and/or creamy.
The first implies the wine was aged in oak. Chardonnay is one of few whites to be matured in oak almost as a rule. Charred oak barrels impart a toasty quality. Ever grilled pineapple slices on a barbecue the way they do in those food-porn magazines? If so, you'll know what a good, oaky, sunny-climate chardonnay tastes like.
The creaminess of many chardonnays chiefly comes from a process known as malolactic fermentation. Either encouraged or discouraged by the winemaker, as desired, it's a natural process that converts malic, or apple-like, acidity into lactic acid, the type found in dairy products such as butter or cream.
A "comforting" example to be released in Ontario this Saturday is Château St. Jean Sonoma County 2007 from California ($19.95 in Ontario, $25 in B.C.).
Look specifically for the red version, not the pink stuff known as white zinfandel. Red zin is the wine most likely to invite the adjective "jammy." Normally, I find that zinfandel works best with food, particularly spiced, grilled and slightly sweet red-meat preparations, such as barbecued ribs. But in cooler months, the more elegant examples can be satisfying on their own.
Clos du Val Zinfandel 2006 ($21.95 in Ontario) is a relatively elegant choice.
A virile red from northern Italy made with semi-dried grapes. Desiccating the berries after harvest concentrates the fruit sugars, delivering more flavour and alcoholic wallop. Often, Amarone hints at raisin, which is no accident since the berries are partly shrivelled.
Masi is a leading producer and makes the widely available and very good Masi Amarone Costasera 2006 ($37.35 in Ontario, $49.99 in B.C.).
Amarone is what Venetians consider their "wine of meditation." I bet that if Ms. Rodriguez from Chile were to taste it, she'd find it sexy.