Vine growing can be a tense race. Plants must warm up substantially to emerge from winter dormancy, then grow new shoots, bloom flowers, set down fruit and ripen berries, all in the span of a few months. The pace is largely set by the sun. But for growers, it's hands-on work. Assiduous pruning can accelerate ripening, diverting resources to the grapes (rather than foliage growth) before cold autumn temperatures and rain put the brakes on the process.
In warm regions, where dependable sunshine ensures a smoother ride to the finish line, there's another hazard to contend with: excessive sugar. Sun and heat may yield sweet juice too early in the season − before the grapes can develop complex flavours and the skins and seeds lose their green bitterness. Pick a grape when it's merely sweet rather than fully ripe and the resulting wine can taste confected (and have a nasty tannic backbite). Alternatively, if you dig in your heels to wait for physiological ripeness, you might end up with high-alcohol raisin syrup. The winemaker must make a tough call.
Two wines launched today in Ontario as part of a Vintages spotlight on California – one good, one not so good – underscore the mixed blessing of glorious sunshine. They're both based on zinfandel, a grape notoriously tough to get right. With zinfandel, you'll often find ripe-purple berries next to hard, green marbles on the same bunch. Wait for the green ones to turn purple and the others may shrivel. Elegant zin is especially dependent on proper pruning, the location of the vineyard and when you decide to harvest.
The wine I like is Ravenswood Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel 2009 ($23.95) from Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. It's a serious, full-bodied red, not one of those candypink examples called "white" zinfandel. It's concentrated and almost sweet, but it stops short of dessert, with complex layers of chocolate and cigar lending interest to the rich, dark fruit. The one I'm less fond of is Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandel 2008 ($25.95) from Paso Robles, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It will have its fans, I am sure, because many people like syrupy-thick reds; it might also match nicely with sweet barbecued ribs. I, however, prefer my raisin pie on a plate with whipped cream, not in a "dry" wine with 15.2-per-cent alcohol.
Ravenswood Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel 2009 (California)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $23.95
Ripe but just short of prune-like, this big red offers up concentrated flavours of dark-skinned fruit, chocolate and spice, with a backbone of astringent tannins and fresh acidity for lively balance. Pair it with braised red meats such as beef stew, though it could also improve with two to four years in the cellar. The previous vintage, 2008, is slowly being replaced by the 2009 in provinces outside Ontario. $24.99 in B.C., $26.29 in N.S., $30.99 in Nfld.
Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (California)
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $144.95
Beautiful and with a price to match, this wine is mouth-watering, offering big cassis, earth and spice flavours pulled together on astringent, fine-grained tannins. It would be best in eight to 10 years, though roast beef could flatter it now.
Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (California)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $54.95
Not as painfully priced as more famous California cabernets in its league (see above), this elegant, layered release offers up cassis and chocolate nuances mixed with earth, tobacco and spice, gliding along on smooth tannins and lifted by lively acid. It's ideal for steak.
Roger & Didier Raimbault Sancerre 2010 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $22.95
This elegant sauvignon blanc is light-medium- bodied with good flavour concentration for its weight. All is in balance: tangy lemon, peach pit, a hint of grass and enticing mineral spine. Try it with light shellfish preparations or young cheeses.
San Fabiano Calcinaia Chianti Classico 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
An excellent Chianti for the money, this medium-full-bodied red shows succulent cherry, creamy cocoa and tobacco framed by bone-dry tannins. Great for braised pork.
Sols & Sens Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudun 2010 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
Red wine is king in the Rhône Valley, but the whites, infrequently seen on shelves here, are worth seeking out. They're usually medium- to full-bodied, silky, delectably bitter and refreshingly devoid of chardonnay-style oakiness. This one, made from grenache blanc, viognier and roussanne, is midweight, with subtle pineapple, honey and orange-rind flavours carried on a slightly waxy texture. It would pair well with substantial fish dishes.
Angels Gate Mountainview Chardonnay 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $18.95
Medium-full-bodied and round, with alternating flavours of baked apple and candied pineapple, along with a hint of baking spices. Good for grilled salmon or chicken in cream sauce.
Hartley Ostini Hitching Post Cork Dancer Pinot Noir 2009 (California)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $34.95
Sideways made Hitching Post famous, though the popular film's pinot-infatuated protagonist, Miles, seemed to enjoy anything that came from a small winery and wasn't merlot. There's rich, berry-like fruit here, which is nice, and it may be a crowd-pleaser. But it's heavy for a pinot, at 14.2-per-cent alcohol, and it lists strongly to the sweet side. It's a tad too ripe for a higher score. One glass might be nice; two and you could find yourself sideways, snoozing off the calories. Pair it with rich food, such as duck breast.