It must be that time of year. The weather's crisp and I can smell rarefied air. My nose has been spending much time with new products, many of them quite expensive. Stores are laying out the pricey gift-giving fare and will soon cue up – barring a holiday miracle – Rod Stewart's Merry Christmas, Baby to lull us into comatose submission.
This will explain the preponderance of high scores below. (My keyboard was not stuck on 93; the ratings simply turned out that way.) The theme: big reds and bright bubbles. I lead off with three relatively new California cult labels that have been turning out superb wines. They're expensive, yes, but cheaper and better than a lot of other, higher-profile California gold.
Jonata, which I've raved about before, is billionaire juice. Located in the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara, it's owned by Stan Kroenke, a property developer who also heads the company that owns the Colorado Avalanche, the Denver Nuggets and the St. Louis Rams. (He also owns about 30 per cent of England's Arsenal soccer team and is married to Ann Walton Kroenke, billionaire daughter of Walmart co-founder Bud Walton.) Jonata's wines are meaty and strong. If they wore "eye-black" grease paint and shoulder pads, they could play on the Rams's defensive line.
Adaptation was launched as a second brand of PlumpJack, the excellent winery co-owned by two prominent Californians. One is Gordon Getty, billionaire philanthropist, classical composer and son of iconic oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. The other is Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco and California's current lieutenant governor. Adaptation departs from PlumpJack's main offerings by relying on purchased fruit, which is blended from various California vineyards rather than sourced from a single site.
I love the spirit of L'Aventure as well as its wine. Exuberant owner and winemaker Stephan Asseo grew up in France, studied in Burgundy and acquired a fine reputation as a vigneron in Bordeaux before deciding in 1996 that French appellation laws – which, among other things, dictate grape varieties that can go into a bottle – were a thorn in the side of his creativity. The French cowboy pulled up stakes and moved to Paso Robles, where he now crafts sumptuous, unconventional blends of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, among other things. They are showstoppers and unapologetically high in alcohol, a natural product of the mountainous region's intense, grape-ripening sunshine – and of its rarefied air.
Jonata Todos Red 2010 (California)
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $67.95
"Todos" means everyone or everything, a Spanish reference to this Heinz 57-like blend. The 2010 is mostly syrah, with sangiovese, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, viognier, grenache, cabernet franc, petit verdot, sauvignon blanc and semillon. It's a mouthful in more ways than one. Carrying 14.9-per-cent alcohol, it's dense and meaty, with dark plum and blackberry liqueur laced with suggestions of roast beef and cracked pepper, set against big, chewy-chalky tannins. It's like a northern Rhône red with a Gold's Gym membership. Try it with braised beef short ribs. Available in Ontario.
Adaptation Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (California)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $49.95
Smoother than Barry White's baritone and almost as rich as Bill Gates, this full-bodied red oozes cassis, vanilla and dark chocolate, wrapped in well-integrated tannins. It's just the thing for juicy grilled beef. Available in Ontario at the very fair price above (it sells for $46 U.S. at the California winery).
L'Aventure Optimus 2011 (California)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $63.95
Chunky and chewy, Stephan Asseo's blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot is intensely ripe, measuring 15.1-per-cent alcohol. But it's remarkably balanced, like a good Amarone, with succulent raisin and plummy fruit infused with aromatic tobacco. Try it with hearty stews or as an accompaniment to a cheese plate. It should cellar favourably for a dozen years at least. $61.25 in Quebec.
Le Pupille Poggio Valente Morellino di Scansano Riserva 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $29.95
The German connoisseur magazine Der Feinschmecker named Elisabetta Geppetti its winemaker of the year eight years ago, the first time the honour was bestowed on a woman. They chose well, judging by the marvellous wines coming out of Le Pupille on the Tuscan coast. Morellino is the local name for the sangiovese grape also responsible for Chianti. Here it unfolds with layered complexity, hinting at cherries and prunes along with earthy-woodsy notes and baking spices. The texture is dusty-dry and the structure elegant and extraordinary. Already five years old, it's evolving beautifully. If you can find a plate of wild-boar pappardelle, introduce it to this red. Various prices in Alberta.
Alvaro Palacios Camins del Priorat 2013 (Spain)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $25.95
It's an unconventional blend of carignan, grenache, cabernet sauvignon and syrah and the great Spanish producer Alvaro Palacios pulls it off suavely. Full-bodied but not heavy, this is strawberry jam and plums dusted with thyme and crumpled, dry leaves. Earthy! Match it with roast leg of lamb. $24.99 in Manitoba.
Blue Mountain Blanc de Blancs R.D. 2007 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $39.90
Bone-dry and razor-sharp with acidity, this all-chardonnay beauty displays great depth of flavour, hinting at lemon pastry, green apple, honey and classic champagne-style tangy-toasty autolytic character. www.bluemountainwinery.com.
Bollinger Brut Rose Champagne (France)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $101.95
The colour is a pretty shade of light salmon and the palate very dry. Notes of tart raspberry, apple and crisp peach give way to toasty baguette and a chalky finish. $125 in B.C.
Megalomaniac Bubblehead 2011 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $28.95
A delicate hue of light coppery pink seems to say "drink me." And when you heed the imperative, it can seem not so much like drinking as biting – into a fresh apple. Bone-dry and juicy at the same time, it also reveals a nuance of bread dough. www.megalomaniacwine.com.
Fantinel One and Only Single Vineyard Brut Prosecco 2012 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
Drier than most proseccos, this zippy, elegant Italian sparkler offers up green apple and pear flavours and a lively, floral finish. Available in Ontario.
The Flavour Principle, co-written by The Globe and Mail's Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Featuring delectable recipes, enticing beverage pairings and entertaining food lore, the book has garnered several distinctions this year.