Two things grow conspicuously well in Bordeaux. You've heard about the grapes. And if you've followed the international wine media over the past dozen years, you'll also know something about the hype. It started with the 2000 harvest, dubbed by many as the vintage of the century for its quality. The buzz grew louder with 2005 as critics – after slurping their way through the annual barrel tastings – outdid themselves with more hyperbole, in the process helping drive up prices to silly extremes.
Then came 2009, a harvest so "stunning," "magical" and "exceptional" that the reviews began to sound like satire worthy of This is Spinal Tap. "Hey, if you thought 1982, 2000 and 2005 were perfect 10s, this one goes to 11," one could almost hear them thinking.
It rains a lot in Bordeaux. This helps explain why in most years many of the cheaper, economically farmed reds taste thin, stalky and under ripe. With the exception of top-end estates blessed with good land and the resources to thwart nature with intensive, hands-on farming practices (the Moutons, Lafites, Cos d'Estournels and so on), the region has been kicked in the teeth by a world now chockablock with riper, more crowd-pleasing big reds from such reliably sunny climes as California, Chile, South Australia and Argentina.
But when the skies over Bordeaux co-operate, typically three times in a decade and less frequently for "vintages of the century," even the humbler wines can exhibit enviable elegance and the appealing structure that comes with solid tannic grip. It's the sort of profile that cellars well and pairs beautifully with appropriate food, notably juicy beef and lamb. Red Bordeaux – exceedingly dry and based mainly on cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc – is not for cocktail hour; it's for dinnertime.
The weather did indeed co-operate splendidly in 2009. With rest time completed in barrel and bottle, many fairly priced wines are moving through Canadian stores. Today, Ontario Vintages locations roll out 16 offerings between $16.96 and $54.85. Think of them as little stars from the Spinal Tap vintage.
La Dame de Malescot 2009 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.95
This is the baby brother (or, with a name like La Dame, perhaps "sister") of Malescot St-Exupéry, one of the great values among the region's super-luxury reds. Expect succulent maraschino cherry and good fruit concentration here, with hints of plum, chocolate and spice culminating in a crisp finish. Nice for current consumption and up to five years in the cellar.
Hauts de Pontet-Canet 2009 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $54.85
Fruit not fit for the main Château Pontet-Canet blend goes into this "second wine" at about half the price. This is crafted in a drink-now style, with luscious fruit-forward cassis flavour, chocolate and subtle herbs. Round, ripe and very attractive.
Château de Cruzeau 2009 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $27.95
André Lurton, whose name graces this label and that of several other chateaux, knows Bordeaux as well as anyone. At 88, he should. He has been active in wine and local wine politics most of his adult life, even serving as part-time mayor of his home village, Grézillac, for more than 40 years. Cruzeau is a benchmark for quality in the midrange of Bordeaux's hierarchy, and the 2009 is impressive. Juicy, bracing and brimming with blackcurrant, it delivers the invigorating mineral-like character so treasured by fans of the region. Drink it over the next six years.
Château Teyssier 2009 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39.95
From the St-Émilion district, where merlot figures prominently in the blend, this wine certainly achieved full ripeness, pushing 14-per-cent alcohol. I think it's a tad overripe, actually, with sweetness and a whiff of cooked prune that threaten to nudge it over the ledge. It's a Bordeaux merlot trying to imitate a warm-climate southern-Rhône grenache, but it qualifies as a crowd pleaser. Drink now or over the next eight years. $28.95 in Que.
Christian Moueix Pomerol 2009 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
Profiles don't get much higher in Bordeaux than that of Christian Moueix, whose company has been the management and marketing marvel behind Petrus, one of the world's most expensive wines, based in the commune of Pomerol. Moueix also owns the acclaimed Dominus in Napa Valley. This is a ripe offering, with plum-jam and mocha flavours answered by refreshing acidity and tannic backbone. Drink it over the next four years.
Château La Gravette Lacombe2009 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $19.95
Juicy acidity and soft-but-dry tannins act like bookends to the pure cherry and subtle-spice flavours. It's very good for the money and should improve with up to five more years.
Château de L'Estang 2009 (France)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $18.95
Relatively soft and accessible, this offers up rich cherry and cassis along with a faint note of boiled meat. The tannins are fine and light. Drink it over the next three years.
Château Lalande Mausse 2009 (France)
SCORE: 84 PRICE: $16.95
At 14-per-cent alcohol, this wine might be expected to deliver a riper-fruit character. I like the lively acidity, just not the stalky bitterness that suggests a lesser vintage than 2009.