There are wine adjectives that draw a line in the sand, triggering anticipation or aversion depending on one's disposition. Certainly "oaky" is a biggie. People tend either to love or loathe it; few wine enthusiasts seem to sit on the oak fence. I can think of others: "natural," "off-dry," "tannic." Maybe you can, too.
My own list of red flags is very personal, and it includes "jammy," a term I found myself jotting down repeatedly at a tasting the other week. If you're expecting something sweet, like port, jammy can be just the thing. When it comes to dry wine, the quality can be off-putting, a possible sign of over-ripeness.
Pushed by a modern obsession with big-bodied wines, producers are increasingly letting grapes hang longer on the vine to develop high sugars and, thus, more alcohol (which contributes the full-bodied weight many consumers today find pleasing). Too often this obsession yields wines that careen over the edge, the oeno-equivalent of overacting, like Al Pacino in Scarface. Good winemakers, like good directors, know when to step in and dial it back.
When does fruit become too sweet – or at least too sweet to make satisfyingly dry wine? It depends on the beholder. The wines below, all quite ripe, seem to strike a balance to me. They're jammy but stop short of stewed fruit, and most deliver savoury overtones that keep things interesting, like the spices that give lift and depth to an otherwise heavy plum pudding.
Thorn-Clarke William Randell Shiraz 2010 (Australia)
SCORE : 93 PRICE : $43.95
Thorn-Clarke is the winery. William Randell is the family's 18th-century ancestor who designed a paddle-steamer to navigate the Murray River. Good thing the watercourse was not as thick as this shiraz, a luscious liquid of currants, plum jam and vanilla nuanced with pipe tobacco and black pepper. It would be perfect for rich, stewed-meat dishes. Available in Ontario.
Saltram Limited Release Winemaker's Selection Shiraz Tempranillo 2010 (Australia)
SCORE : 93 PRICE : $44.95
This is an uncommon blend: classic Barossa shiraz with the Spanish variety tempranillo. While it's no Rioja – it's far too concentrated and squeaky-clean – it offers wonderful overtones of cigar tobacco and earth over the chunky, luscious fruit. Available in Ontario.
Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Australia)
SCORE : 92 PRICE : $21.95
A venerable old family firm (yes, there are still plenty of family-run estates in Australia's highly corporate wine jungle), Tahbilk is located 120 kilometres north of Melbourne in a place called Nagambie Lakes. Admirably, they've kept the alcohol content relatively moderate for Australia, at 13.5 per cent. It's a sign this was not crafted from excessively sweet fruit. At almost five years of age, Tahbilk's cab remains youthful, with a juicy lift to the succulent plum jam and cassis fruit, complemented by notes of spice and cedar. It should evolve well for more than a decade. Available through Fluid Imports in Alberta.
MacRostie Wildcat Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 (California)
SCORE : 91 PRICE : $51.95
To aficionados of red Burgundy, pinot noir's highest expression, "jammy" tends to be a pejorative term. Pinot should be delicate, crisp and light on its feet, the thinking goes. But sometimes a big, thick pinot can be a good pinot. Here's an almost syrupy example that manages to speak clearly of the grape – a bushel of berries enlivened by baking spices and earthy, dark-roast coffee. It's a fine red for robust, gamey meats, such as duck breast. Available in Ontario.
The Foreign Affair The Conspiracy 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE : 90 PRICE : $19.95
Niagara winery The Foreign Affair employs the ripasso method of northern Italy for this cabernet sauvignon, refermenting the wine with the addition of dried grapes to goose up the mouth feel and add complexity. The result is unusually velvety for a Niagara cab, though it exhibits a firm spine of acid and tannins. Great for slow-cooked red-meat dishes. Available in Ontario.
Clos Du Val Zinfandel 2011 (California)
SCORE : 90 PRICE : $24.95
Here's a well-restrained red zin that stops short of the full-tilt jamminess exhibited by many of its kin. It's medium-full bodied, with a juicy-dusty yin-yang and savoury hint of tobacco. It's great for ribs. Distributed by Free House in Alberta.
Mission Hill Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE : 89 PRICE : $24.95
On the fuller side of medium-bodied (which makes it big for a pinot), Mission Hill's 2011 Reserve pumps out the sweet berries. But there's admirable balance thanks to the tannic grip and earthy underpinning. Pair it with game, duck breast, pork tenderloin or grilled salmon. $24.99 in B.C., distributed by Mark Anthony Properties in Alberta, $24.99 in Manitoba, $25 in Quebec.
Tasca d'Almerita Cygnus Nero d'Avola Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Italy)
SCORE : 88 PRICE : $19.95
Smooth and chunky, this full-bodied southern Italian red suggests marinated cherry, spices and a pronounced herbal-floral aroma reminiscent of good hotel soap. I like the way the luscious core is framed by juicy acidity and dry tannins. $29.99 in B.C., distributed by Authentic Wine and Spirits in Alberta, $24.50 in Quebec.
Jip Jip Rocks Shiraz 2011 (Australia)
SCORE : 88 PRICE : $16.95
Soft on the inside, it shows chewy blackberry and plum jam fruit with a hint of candy-store wine gum and notes of vanilla, chocolate and espresso bean. In short, it's a full-bodied crowd-pleaser (assuming there are no die-hard Euro-wine fans in the crowd). Fun on its own or suitable with lamb chops. Distributed by Artisan Wines in Alberta.
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The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol was named best Canadian Food & Drinks Book in the 2014 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. It's published by HarperCollins.