The Farmers' Almanac is a wonderful thing. It predicts weather, marks moon phases and offers advice on such things as when to plant tomatoes and corn and when to castrate farm animals (apparently Jan. 17 is a good time for the latter). I just took down my trusty 2014 Farmers' Almanac wall calendar and made a note to buy the 2015 edition that Santa forgot to put under my tree.
I wish there were a Drinkers' Almanac. It could help sort sort out which wines to buy and when. There might be vintage ratings and predictions about harvest qualities around the world, even recommendations for sipping various wine styles according to season. May, for example, would be bursting with a selection of great rosés. July? Perhaps some zesty New Zealand sauvignon blancs.
And January would offer shopping clues for the most popular wine of all: the cheap stuff. Those post-holiday credit statements have a way of turning even free-spending connoisseurs into temporary bargain hunters. This is a prime season for value. You'll find proof of that on various liquor-board websites, which beckon with the promise of seasonal savings. There's the "Savvy Shopper" feature in British Columbia, "Value Picks" in Quebec and "Smart Buys" at Ontario Vintages stores.
I've assembled a few of my own selections from newly released vintages. It's by no means comprehensive, just a few solid under-$15 values (based on the Ontario price) to look for this month – and to sip until the Farmers' Almanac people get in the game.
Rabl Kittmansberg Gruner Veltliner 2013 (Austria)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $14.95
If you love quality white wine at a very fair price, get to know the gruner veltliner grape, Austria's signature variety. It's usually produced in a crisp, dry style. This one, from the excellent producer Rabl, is light-medium-bodied and silky, with succulent peach and apple fruit, soft and round yet very dry. Versatile at the table, it could pair especially well with delicately cooked seafood, sushi or spicy chicken dishes. Available in Ontario.
Heartland Stickleback Red 2012 (Australia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $13.95
Australia may frequently be maligned as a land of fruit bombs, but here's an affordable, full-bodied red that proves the sunny land Down Under can dish up impressive savoury elements amid all that ripe fruitiness. A rich berry core comes laced with notes of vanilla tobacco, black pepper and bitter chocolate. A blend of firm cabernet sauvignon, luscious shiraz and crisp dolcetto, it's juicy and lively and would pair well with burgers, pork roast or grilled sausages. $16.99 in B.C., $13.97 in Man.
Lafage Cotê Sud 2012 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
For value-priced reds in France, no region stands out more than that vast swath of land around the Mediterranean called the Languedoc– Roussillon. This fine medium-full-bodied blend of grenache and syrah hails from a tiny corner near the Spanish border called Côtes Catalanes. And it's got the Mediterranean shore written all over it, with a prominent essence of the local wild herbs, notably lavender, coursing through cherry-like fruit, with an added nuance of black pepper and a lively acid spine. Perfect for rich, saucy red-meat dishes. Available in Ontario.
Rio Madre Rioja 2013 (Spain)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
Here's a treat for lovers of Rioja, Spain's best-known region. It's made not from Rioja's more prominent tempranillo and garnacha grapes but from graciano, a perfumed variety often used to contribute deep colour and firm structure to a blend. Full-bodied and plummy, the wine comes with a spicy, peppery spine and shows lively acidity. Ideal for roast lamb. $16.99 in B.C.
Monasterio las Vinas Crianza 2008 (Spain)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $18.85/1.5 litre
Scan that price closely and be not afraid; it applies to the double-sized 1.5-litre bottle, which is the going format in Ontario (equivalent to $9.43 for a regular 750 millilitre bottle). A blend of garnacha (a.k.a. grenache), tempranillo and syrah, this red is medium-bodied, smooth and redolent of cherry, with a backdrop of tobacco and cedar and lightly chalky tannins. Fine for herb-roasted lamb or meaty pizza. $22 in Que. ($12.50 for 750 ml). The very good, and more complex, "Reserva" edition of this Spanish value sells for $14.99 in B.C., various prices in Alta., $14.99 in Man., $14.95 in Ont.
Douglas Green Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (South Africa)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $10.80
Crisp and bright yet silky for a sauvignon blanc, this light white smiles with tropical and citrus fruit, revealing a delicate herbal note and satisfyingly chalky texture on the finish. Pair it with light shellfish dishes or crunchy winter salads starring kale or radicchio. Available in Ontario.
Beaulieu Vineyard BV Coastal Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (California)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $10.95
Classically punchy, zesty sauvignon blanc flavours here, with dried grass mixed into tropical fruit, citrus and green apple. Try it with salads or a cheese course. Various prices in Alta., $16.05 in Que.
Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Grigio 2013 (Chile)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $9.90
One can pay 50-per-cent more for a nondescript Italian pinot grigio, but why? Here's a well-made Chilean take on the fresh Italian style that shows ample character, offering notes of tropical fruit, pear and lemon against a crisp spine. Good for shellfish and medium-textured fish, such as halibut. Various prices in Alta., $11.99 in Man.
Published by HarperCollins, The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.