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A long-standing joke in the American wine trade asks: What’s the difference between a cold and a case of Californian syrah?

You can get rid of a cold.

The enormous success of cabernet across the Golden State leaves little space for lesser-known varieties such as syrah, grenache and mourvèdre to gain traction. Merlot, pinot noir and zinfandel managed to carve out a niche to captivate consumers, but the grape varieties from the Rhône Valley continue to struggle despite their ability to make incredibly enjoyable wines.

When the so-called Rhône Ranger movement in California started in the late 1980s, many North American wine lovers didn’t know much about grape varieties like syrah or grenache or the areas in southern California, such as Paso Robles and Santa Cruz, where they were growing.

Decades later, not much has changed. These wines are still delicious and largely underappreciated.

Case in point, the latest release of one of the flagship American Rhône wines, Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant, is hitting store shelves in Ontario. The wine’s name was inspired by a 1950s-era law that banned flying saucers from the nearby vineyards in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Its label depicts an unidentified flying object hovering over a vineyard.

The wild and wonderful concept was hatched by winemaker Randall Grahm in 1984 and carried on for 35 vintages before he sold his Bonny Doon winery and associated brands last year to WarRoom Ventures, a wine business that operates Lapis Luna Wines.

For the 2018 vintage, Grahm changed the Le Cigare Volant blend to produce a lighter, bright and more affordable wine. He stopped buying expensive mourvèdre grapes and used more abundant cinsault grapes in their place. The result is a stylish and appealing red wine that shows the value of offbeat varieties growing in California to anyone who is interested.

The current Bonny Doon release is featured alongside two Rhône reds and some other notable picks from wineries in British Columbia, Argentina and, even, Uruguay.

Bodega Garzón Maldonado Sauvignon Blanc 2020 (Uruguay), $19.95

Rating:90 /100

Garzón’s vineyards are close to the Atlantic Ocean, which provides a range of microclimates to produce robust red wines from tannat and cabernet franc as well as crisp and refreshing whites like this stylish sauvignon blanc. The ripe tropical fruit character is enhanced by salty and earthy notes. Vegan friendly. Drink now to 2022. Available in Ontario.

Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Cuvée Oumuamua 2018 (United States), $19.95

Rating:91 /100

Now in its 35th vintage, Le Cigare Volant remains one of California’s most exemplary Rhône style red wines. A blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah, this is an engagingly bright wine, with floral and peppery notes rounding out the dark fruit flavours. Its dry and refreshing character make it easy to appreciate. Drink now to 2026. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $26.35 in Quebec.

Cellier des Dauphins Réserve 2019 (France), $16.95

Rating:88 /100

One of the Rhône’s largest winemaking co-operatives, Cellier des Dauphins added its Réserve label in 2018. An easy-to-appreciate blend of grenache and syrah, this bistro red offers appealing ripe fruit with a dry, spicy finish that will cleanse your palate between bites. Drink now. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in British Columbia, $27.49 in Saskatchewan, $19.99 in Manitoba, $14.55 in Quebec.

Château La Nerthe Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2017 (France), $59.95

Rating:93 /100

La Nerthe makes wine from an organic estate that is one of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s largest, totalling more than 90 hectares (220 acres). The blend of grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and cinsault contributes to a fresh and intense red, with layers of fruit, floral and spice. The concentration and character make for a harmonious and satisfying red that’s drinking nicely now but promises to gain much more complexity and depth of flavour over time. Drink now to 2030. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $58.50 in Quebec (2016 vintage).

Drappier Brut Nature Pinot Noir Champagne (France), $65.95

Rating:91 /100

This is an enjoyable Champagne with a rich and complex character. Brut Nature on the label means that this didn’t receive any dosage, the last stage of traditional method sparkling wine production before the cork goes in, which often adds some sweetness to counterbalance the acidity. You don’t miss it. There’s serious depth of flavour thanks to the toasty, nutty and honeyed notes that add interest to the lemony flavours that carry through the long, lingering finish. Drink now to 2025. Available in Ontario at the above price, $52.25 in Quebec, $69.99 in New Brunswick.

Feudo Maccari Saia Nero d’Avola 2017 (Italy), $29.95

Rating:91 /100

This complex red is produced in Sicily from the nero d’avola grape. Bottled after aging in French oak barrels for a year, it boasts ripe fruit with some cinnamon and savoury notes, which make for a wine with arresting character. It’s nicely balanced and structured giving it a serious style to enjoy with a meal. Drink now to 2026. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.

Peak Cellars Skin Kissed Pinot Gris 2020 (Canada), $30

Rating:90 /100

With its pale peach hue, this fruity and fragrant wine could be marketed as a rosé. Winemaker Stephanie Stanley loaded whole bunches of pinot gris from one of the winery’s vineyards in Lake Country and let the grapes soak overnight. When she pressed the clusters the next morning, the juice was coloured from contact with the grayish-purple skins. The aroma and flavour suggest peach with some blossom, apple and berry notes that contribute to the concentration and character. Drink now to 2022. Available direct through

Viña Cobos Felino Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 (Argentina), $19.95

Rating:90 /100

Felino is always one to watch from veteran California wine maker Paul Hobb’s operation, Viña Cobos, in Argentina. This enjoyable blend of cabernet sauvignon grapes grown in the Uco Valley and Luján de Cuyo sub-regions of Mendoza offers appealingly ripe fruit and oak derived smoke and spice notes, Drink now to 2024. Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in British Columbia and Alberta.

Willamette Valley Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2018 (United States), $38.95

Rating:91 /100

A blend of pinot noir grapes grown across Willamette Valley’s three estate vineyards, this bright and appealing red wine is focused on the quality of the fruit – there’s very little oak on display. There’s a pleasant core of berry and cherry flavours with some floral and spicy accents, which makes it a solid introduction to the style of pinot made in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Vegan friendly. Drink now to 2025. Available in Ontario.

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