Like heavy-metal musicians and obnoxious Fox News anchors, many wine producers in the modern era seemed to embrace the notion that louder is better. Big, ripe fruit and boozy alcohol have been par for the course since the 1980s, particularly in sunny New World regions that led much of the industry’s export growth. If a wine did not shout, it was at a disadvantage.
At the heart of the fruit-bomb trend lay a parallel epidemic: heavy-handed oak aging. Generally, the longer a wine spends in contact with oak barrels – particularly new wood versus previously used vessels – the richer it gets with crowd-pleasing vanilla and toasty characters. Finding the right balance has always been a delicate dance for winemakers. But for many winemakers keen on chasing critical scores and mass-market success, it was usually prudent to err on the side of more lumber. I fondly recall Wolf Blass, the irreverent and hugely successful Australian wine pioneer, reminding me of his signature slogan: “No wood, no good.”
Mercifully, times change. Today producers everywhere are dialing back the volume, at least where the heavy bass notes of toasty oak are concerned. Some have gone so far as to embrace the colloquialism “unplugged” to denote wines unencumbered by the amplifying character of charred wood, as has Flat Rock Cellars in Niagara with its consistently good Unplugged Chardonnay.
The unplugged wines below paradoxically happen to taste pretty electric. Here’s a toast to deforestation, or wines without toasty oak.
Culmina Unicus Gruner Veltliner 2018, British Columbia
Austria’s signature white grape, gruner veltliner, has found a compelling new home in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley thanks to Culmina, the estate founded by Canadian wine pioneers Don and Elaine Triggs. The wine no doubt derives much of its remarkable complexity from a labour-intensive fermentation regime involving concrete eggs, concrete amphorae, stainless-steel tanks and a small percentage of used, neutral-oak barrels. Medium-bodied and plump, this white offers great mid-palate volume along with tangy, delectable orchard fruit and floral notes as well as a flinty essence. Available direct through culmina.ca.
Beaumirail Vacqueyras 2016, France
Very ripe, but thankfully not raisin-like. A blend of fruity grenache with spicy syrah and tannic mourvèdre. Jammy fruit with leather and peppery spice are delivered on a sticky-dense texture. Vinified in large vats, with very little oak influence. A classically gutsy, full-bodied and savoury southern Rhône red. Available in Ontario.
Planeta Frappato 2016, Italy
Ready for a different style of red wine? Planeta on the Italian island of Sicily has an offer we’d be stupid to refuse. The red frappato grape is better known as a blending component in a local cuvée known as cerasuolo di Vittoria, which includes a large proportion of local nero d’Avola. In this bottling frappato enjoys solo billing, a role it clearly relishes if one were to judge by this excellent example. Here’s a cheerful red with light body and candy-store fruit backed up by flowers and bright acidity. Available in Ontario at the above price, $24.99 in Prince Edward Island.
Stefano Farina Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba 2017, Italy
There’s exceptional concentration here, as evidenced by the saturated purple colour. That’s not always to be expected from Piedmont’s supposedly light, crisp dolcetto grape, often called the “Beaujolais of Italy.” Vinified entirely in stainless steel, this medium-bodied effort displays a satisfyingly sticky texture and a polished sheen, with creamy blackberry and currant fruit. There are also lovely, if subtle, touches of Rhône-like licorice and spicy white pepper. Imagine a cru Beaujolais crossed with a Côtes du Rhône, only without wood. Available in Ontario.
Flat Rock Unplugged Chardonnay 2018, Ontario
Ripe, round and yet disciplined by fresh acidity, here’s a Niagara standard-bearer for unoaked chardonnay. Apple, crisp peach and lemony acidity come together in admirable balance and harmony. Fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel. If this is what an “unplugged” wine tastes like, electricity might become a thing of the past. Available through flatrockcellars.com.
Moon Curser Arneis 2017, British Columbia
Almost effervescent, this zesty white based on Italy’s underappreciated arneis grape (and an oddity in the New World) comes across with nuances of tangerine, pear, honey and raw almond. Aromatic and vibrant. Available direct through mooncurser.com.
Gérard Bertrand Perles de Grenache Rosé 2018, France
Light peachy pink in colour. Plump, with sweetly ripe fruit suggesting raspberry and strawberry, supported by lemon zest and well-tuned acidity. Available in Ontario at the above price.
Familia Castano Castano Tinto Monastrell 2016, Spain
Medium-bodied and gutsy, here’s a bargain red from Spain with impressive density and a smooth texture reminiscent of properly ripened merlot. Plum and currant jam flavours are framed by bright spice, licorice and earth. Matured briefly in concrete vats. Available in Ontario.
Yalumba The Y Series Viognier, Australia
Medium-bodied, this is so round it’s seductively slippery, with aromatic notes of orange blossom, honey and ginger. Fermented with indigenous yeasts and vinified in stainless steel for freshness. Good match for Indian curries. Available in Ontario at the above price, $17.49 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta and Saskatchewan, $17.95 in Manitoba, $13.95 in Quebec, $17.99 in Nova Scotia.
Laurent Miquel Chardonnay 2017, France
Miquel’s bargain chardonnay from the Languedoc often tastes of vanilla, which is uncommon for a wine that sees no oak contact. Not that that’s cause for complaint. On the contrary, it just adds soft, rounded edges to the fleshy, apple-melon fruit. Simple and straightforward (what more could one demand at this price, after all?), it is very sound and worth the money. Cook up a few sea scallops or lobster tails and pretend you’re drinking the house white at Kelsey’s or The Keg – without having to leave home. Available in Ontario, various prices in Alberta.