When you travel, do you stick to familiar destinations and brightly lit main drags or do you like to venture onto paths less familiar? I think of wine at home as armchair travel, tourism without the airport-security hassles and (regrettably) duty-free prices. But how many of us tend to drink largely what we know, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, California, Tuscany and – in the case of Canadian consumers, at least – Niagara and the Okanagan. Familiar regions dominate our consciousness for good reason. They make lots of great wine, though retail space and cultural biases also have much to do with it.
Occasionally, it can be fun to take a detour down wine's backstreets. Therefore, I'm leading off today's tasting notes with selections from Hungary, Romania, Ukraine and Israel, all released today in Ontario. The Israeli products are kosher, in time for Purim (which starts at sundown on March 7) and Passover (which starts the evening of April 6). These regions have been producing wine for much longer than Canada, so it's ironic that they seem so far off the beaten path. Romania, moreover, makes almost as much wine as Portugal and 11 times more than Canada.
I have also included two reds from less familiar districts of Italy and France: Sardinia and Madiran. And so as not to leave us cowering in the backstreets, I end with a red from the bright lights of Tuscany (it's kosher, too).
Hunyady Kékfrankos 2008 (Hungary)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
The Hunyady family has grown grapes since the 1700s, interrupted for five decades by Communist expropriation following the Second World War. Current owners Jozsef and Etienne Hunyady grew up in the Tuscan district of Bolgheri, where their grandfather, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, launched the first "supertuscan" red, Sassicaia. The kekfrankos grape, known as blaufrankisch in Germany, yields tannic, spicy reds, though it's sometimes called the "pinot noir of the east" because of its reputation for elegance. This one's medium-bodied and reminds me of good cabernet franc, smooth in the middle but with a firm acid backbone and sour-spicy character. It would pair nicely with pan-seared steak. (The 2007 vintage sells for $20.20 in Quebec.)
Budureasca Origini Feteasca Neagra 2007 (Romania)
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $13.95
According to the Californiabased Wine Institute, Romania was the 12th-largest wine producer by volume in 2009, just behind Russia and Portugal and well ahead of such countries as Greece, Austria and New Zealand. The native feteasca neagra grape, recalling the flavour of black currant, is often used for sweet wines, but this offering is bone-dry. Medium-bodied, it suggests currant as well as cherry, with chocolate, peppery spice and bracing acidity. I would match it with lean, delicate meats, such as veal scallopine.
Massandra White Muscat 2008 (Ukraine)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
Wine production in what is now called Ukraine dates back more than 2,000 years. This one has its own historical claim to fame (or infamy, depending on your perspective): The Massandra winery was founded in 1894 by the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, dubbed Bloody Nicholas in part for his anti-Semitic pogroms. It's a sweet, fortified wine in the image of tawny port and oloroso sherry. Medium-amber, it's very sweet and syrupy, with 16-per-cent alcohol and notes of raisin, poached pear and caramelized sugar. Serve it with salty blue cheese or rich, fruit-based desserts.
Galil Mountain Pinot Noir 2009 (Israel)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.95
The texture is soft and seamless, carried on a medium-bodied frame offering up hints of strawberry, raspberry and beetroot, with light herbs and mouth-watering acidity. Grilled salmon would be lovely. A kosher product.
Tabor Galil Merlot 2009 (Israel)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17.95
This is a crowd pleaser, with a soft core of happy, wine-gum-like fruit, chocolate, subtle herbs and a juicy finish. Fine on its own or with roast duck or chicken. Kosher.
Chuèrra Cannonau di Sardegna Jerzu Riserva 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Cannonau is the local name for the red grenache grape on the island of Sardinia. It's frequently well-priced for the quality, as is the case here. Expect notes of sour plum, earth, anise and mint in this medium-full-bodied red. Try it with charcuterie or well-done beef.
Domaine Damiens Tradition Madiran 2009 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
Made principally from the tannic tannat grape in southwest France, Madiran can be an austere red, as this one is. Full-bodied, it delivers a bracing jolt of dry, sticky tannins, with concentrated dark berry, mineral and juicy acidity. It should be decanted or cellared for about four more years at least. Pair it with rare beef or lamb.
Borgo Reale Toscana Rosso 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $25.95
A red blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, it's medium-full-bodied, with a smooth core, hints of vanilla, gentle spice and herbs. Fine for roast beef or red-meat stews. It's kosher and mevushal.