It's beef time, but no need for vegetarians to tune out: I use the term in the meatless sense, as in gripes about wine. Specifically, I've got a bone to pick with a few reds I sampled recently.
Have you ever uncorked a bottle that was – how to put this – too smooth? Typically, when it comes to such things as alcoholic beverages, car suspensions and facial complexions, smoothness is considered a virtue. I'm all for it, don't get me wrong – but to a degree.
There comes a point, I think, when a wine's smoothness can smack of artifice and excessive manipulation, as in the Hollywood stereotype of a used-car salesman in a loud, checked jacket.
That's the image that played in my mind upon tasting Folie à Deux Zinfandel 2012, a $25 California red that I don't doubt will give pleasure to a large constituency. Me? I felt taken for a ride – and not in a farmer's tractor, but in some wine executive's limo. I don't know about you, but when I sip wine, I like to imagine soil rather than newly paved urban thoroughfares.
The full-bodied red, from a winery that also makes a hugely popular $17 red blend called Menage à Trois, can seem as though it had been designed in a boardroom. There are no rough edges, and in this case that means scant peppery spice and acid lift that tend to give jammy red zinfandel its backbone and charm. I was reminded of chewy strawberry candy, a fine ballpark snack but not the sort of profile my palate seeks when the wallet's parting with $25.
Maybe the frigid February weather's got me cranky. Forgive me for citing another California example that's sure to sell well: J. Lohr Los Osos Merlot 2012. In the sphere of premium imported wine, the J. Lohr brand in this country is about as popular as Canada Goose winter wear. A quality brand, it is. But this $21.95 merlot from Paso Robles seems like it's trying too hard to taste "soft," as the back label boasts. Perhaps it's attempting to be as inoffensive as possible to the greatest number of consumers, the way all those "sweet chili" dressings at fast food joints today assuage mass-market fears while pretending to be spicy. Give me habanero heat any day. The wine, frankly, tastes like it wants to be a chocolate bar when it grows up.
European wines can annoy too, though often I find myself more put off by their sometimes unjustifiably high prices. I tasted a $45 Châteauneuf-du-Pape recently from Domaine Tour Saint-Michel that wasn't nearly as impressive as the $23 Cairanne below, which was made in the same year in the same region, the southern Rhône. It goes to show that you can't judge a wine by its lofty price or fancy French appellation designation. I also think the Cairanne would pair better with beef, or even a hearty vegetarian chili.
Fontodi Chianti Classico 2011 (Italy)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $34.95
A star producer in the Chianti Classico zone, Fontodi succeeded marvellously with its savoury 2011. The sangiovese grape's salty tang comes through clearly over notes of cherry liqueur and plum, held firm by a tannic grip. Very dry yet juicy, tangy and very alive. Perfect for Bolognese pasta or for cellaring up to 10 years. $40 (suggested retail) in Alta., $31.75 in Que.
Domaine Les Grands Bois Cuvée Maximilien Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne 2012 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $22.95
Full-bodied, rich and savoury, with a floral bouquet, this unoaked red blend of grenache, mourvedre and syrah mixes blackberry with pronounced notes of herbs, licorice and lavender, finishing long and spicy. Approachable now, it could cellar well for seven to 10 years.
Andrew Peller Signature Series Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $30.20
This has the makings of an iconic Canadian white. Peller treats this high-end wine differently from the norm with sauvignon blanc, which tends to be unoaked and fermented with designer yeasts. Here they use wild yeast found on the fruit to start fermentation, which imparts a layered texture. Then 85 per cent of the wine is matured in French oak barrels in contact with the spent yeast to lend richer mouthfeel (15 per cent is fermented in concrete). Soft and not as grassy as most sauvignons, yet still tangy and subtly herbal, it delivers tropical fruit enlivened by vanilla and smoke. Ideal for meditative sipping or as an accompaniment to simply prepared medium-weight fish. www.peller.com.
Château des Charmes Riesling Old Vines 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $16.95
Consistently one of the best-value rieslings made in Canada, Chateau des Charmes' Old Vines pulled down two domestic gold medals for the 2012 vintage. Small wonder. It's light-medium-bodied and only subtly sweet yet perfectly balanced, offering a medley of orchard fruit framed by electric, lime-like acidity and a whisper of petrol. It should cellar well for five to seven years and pair well now with freshwater fish, lightly spiced Asian dishes or cheese. Available in Ontario stores or direct at www.fromtheboscfamily.com.
Foreign Affair Dream 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $29.95
Len Crispino, Foreign Affair's owner, has championed the dried-grape appassi mento style best exemplified by the reds of Italy's Veneto region. By letting grapes air dry for weeks after harvest, new, complex flavours develop along with additional alcohol from the concentrated sugars. This red blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot weighs in at a formidable 14.9 per cent, yet the alcohol is well integrated into the rich, dried fruit and chocolate characters, which get a kick from baking spices. Very compelling and a fine match for the cheese course. Available in Ontario.
Quails' Gate Chardonnay 2013 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.95
Full-bodied and balanced, Quails' Gate's 2013 chardonnay shows succulent tropical fruit flavour with subtle vanilla on a buttery texture that gets lively lift from acidity. $19.99 in B.C., various prices in Alta., $19.99 in Man., $21.50 in Que., $22.45 in P.E.I.
Bricklayer's Reward Block 7 Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
Such a pretty, floral nose on this one. Very dry, with chalky tannins, it hints at cassis, black olives and herbs, not unlike a mid-range red Bordeaux. My wine-writing colleague Steve Thurlow nailed the aromatic grapefruit note, a marker of cool-climate cabernet, though the wine achieved good ripeness in the warm 2012 growing season on Lake Erie's north shore. A good choice for medium-rare steak. Available in Ontario.