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waters on wine

Studies suggest the context in which you drink a wine can have a significant influence on your experience of it.IL21/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

My first summer working at a winery, I served a couple who had enjoyed a bottle of the winery’s cabernet merlot while dining at a hotel restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. They were surprised how much they liked the wine and wished to buy bottles to take home to Toronto.

Sampling the cabernet merlot again on a Sunday afternoon at a busy tasting bar, they were shocked: “This can’t be the same wine,” they said.

It was the same wine, the same vintage, but it didn’t match their expectations. The experience was different. There wasn’t any candlelight. The couple was no longer enjoying a stress-free meal alone, with the red wine served out of a decanter into gleaming crystal glasses by an attentive sommelier.

Instead, they were being jostled amidst a mass of other tourists, tasting a wine out of a basic wineglass before confronting a long drive home and the end of their weekend getaway.

The surrounding and setting can dramatically influence how much you enjoy a bottle of wine.

Sensory science studies continue to reveal how aspects such as the type or shape of the glass, lighting, background music and whether we’re alone or in a group affect our overall experience and enjoyment of a wine.

Yes, there can be variation from bottle to bottle, a wine can be stored improperly or go off due to a bad closure. But researchers look into cases where the wine doesn’t change, only the surroundings do, to gauge how subjects evaluate or appreciate wines in different settings. From a clinical sensory booth to a dark restaurant environment to more of a cafeteria-style setting, tasters show different perceptions to the same wines.

The next time you really enjoy a glass of wine, take a moment to consider the surroundings. They certainly contributed to the experience.

Many of the wines recommended this week were tasted on the first sunny and spring-like day of the year, please forgive me if the reviews seem brighter, more luminous than usual.

Cave Spring Cabernet Franc 2017 (Canada)

Rating:89 /100

PRICE: $17.95

After years of research and development, Cave Spring has settled on cabernet franc as its signature red wine variety in Niagara. The winery produces four versions from each vintage, with this expressive entry-level label representing the largest production at more than 2,000 cases. Grapes sourced from vineyards located close to Lake Ontario are selected to yield a ripe and fragrant red wine style. The resulting mix of ripe red berry, herbal and earthy notes captures the charm of well-made cabernet franc and makes for a fresh and elegant red wine that’s ready to drink. Drink now to 2024. Available in Ontario.

Columbia Crest H3 Merlot 2016 (United States)

Rating:89 /100

PRICE: $19.95

H3 refers to the Horse Heaven Hills district, which is home to the Columbia Crest winery, the largest production facility in Washington State. Made in a ripe and flavourful style, H3 Merlot is a medium-bodied and harmonious red wine that offers strawberry jam flavours mixed with baking spice and chocolate notes. The smooth texture and lingering finish add to the appeal. Drink now. Available in Ontario at the above price, $22.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $22 in Quebec.

Jose Maria da Fonseca Moscatel de Setubal 2012 (Portugal)

Rating:89 /100

PRICE: $16.95

This attractive style of sweet fortified wine is made from muscat grapes and aged in oak barrels, a technique pioneered in 1843 by winery founder Jose Maria da Fonseca. Brandy is used to halt fermentation once a desired sweetness is reached and the fortified wine is left on the muscat skins for three months to extract desirable flavours. Aging in wood vats contributes to the wine’s mahogany colour while intensifying its figgy and marmalade flavours. The result is a rich and honeyed wine with dominant dried apricot, citrus peel and caramel aromas and flavours. It’s best enjoyed chilled, served with crème brûlée, caramel flans or runny cheeses. Available in Ontario at the above price, $16.05 in Quebec.

KWV Cathedral Cellars Chardonnay 2016 (South Africa)

Rating:89 /100

PRICE: $17.95

Cathedral Cellars Chardonnay is always made in a rich and rewarding style, but it’s following the global fashion of winemakers by downplaying buttery and oak notes in favour of more freshness and fruit flavours. This reveals ripe tropical and citrus notes with balanced acidity and a lingering finish. It’s a ready-to-drink style that is enjoyable with or without a meal. Available in Ontario.

Montes Limited Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2018 (Chile)

Rating:88 /100

PRICE: $14.95

Made with 100-per-cent sauvignon blanc from the coastal region of Leyda Valley, this affordable white wine captures the zesty and intense personality of the grape variety. The refreshing character offers an array of grapefruit, lime and tropical fruit notes with some green pepper and herbal notes. It’s a wine that’s best enjoyed this spring or summer. Available in Ontario.

Rocca delle Macie Famiglia Zingarelli Riserva Chianti Classico 2016 (Italy)

Rating:91 /100

PRICE: $24.95

Making the most of the celebrated 2016 vintage in Tuscany, this nicely flavoured and structured red wine presents a ripe core of dark fruit flavours with spice, leather and oak notes that add fragrance and complexity. This is appealingly ripe without losing the refreshing character that makes Chianti Classico such a fabulous food wine. Drink now to 2030. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta. The enjoyable 2015 vintage is $24.95 in Quebec.

Tessellae Old Vines 2017 (France)

Rating:91 /100

PRICE: $19.95

Here’s a ripe and spicy red from the Maury estate of one of the south of France’s most successful winemakers, Jean-Marc Lafage. A blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre grapes grown on 65-year-old vines, Tessellae is a full-bodied, juicy and enjoyable red that’s ready to drink. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta. The equally impressive 2016 vintage is $24.99 in British Columbia.

Yalumba Organic Shiraz 2018 (Australia)

Rating:89 /100

PRICE: $17.95

Four family farms in different parts of Australia contribute organically grown shiraz grapes for this juicy, smooth and fragrant red wine. The result is a fresh and direct model of shiraz that highlights the spicy and floral aspects of the grape along with fresh blueberry and plum notes. If your impression of Australian shiraz is stuck in the past – bold, ripe and oaky with high alcohol – this promises to be a hard reset for your belief system. It’s a fresh take and taste that’s ready to drink now. Vegan friendly. Available in Ontario at the above price, $16.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $16.95 in Saskatchewan and Quebec, $19.99 in Nova Scotia.

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