When it comes to most crops, sunshine is the answer to a farmer's prayers (unless we're talking, say, mushrooms). So it is with wine grapes. More sun means riper berries. On balance, that's a good thing because ripeness delivers fruity concentration. It goes a long way toward explaining the mass appeal of mouth-filling reds from such clear-sky places as southern Australia, Chile and California.
But there can be a trade-off. Like people, grapes can get lazy when they bake in the sun for too long. Jammy ripeness in a wine may overwhelm prized savoury characters that add complexity and interest. It could be the beetroot essence of a delicate Burgundian pinot noir. Or the graphite zing of a red Bordeaux from cabernet sauvignon grown in the Medoc. Or the peppery verve of a northern Rhône syrah.
I'm generalizing, to be sure, and I'll allow that it's a debatable point to a degree. So debatable that I'd like to offer a classic counterexample. All over southern France, in the (mainly) sunny crescent that hugs the Mediterranean shore, savouriness tends to stand its ground against the odds. Whether it's a humble Pays d'Oc or a Corbières, Minervois or Saint-Chinian from the Languedoc or a southern-Rhône red from Vacqueyras, Gigondas or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the wines are an herb-and-spice lover's dream.
Some say it has to do with the aromatic influence in the air of the local scrub of wild herbs, such as lavender, rosemary and thyme, collectively known locally as garrigue, to which some of the wine flavours bear an uncanny resemblance. I'm not so sure about the perfumed-breeze theory. Wine chemistry is much more complicated than that. More likely it has to do with the grape varieties themselves – mainly grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and carignan for the reds, to name the big four – and how the vines interact with the local soils and climate.
Whatever the reason, southern France tends to dish up ample character for the money even if the Châteauneufs can get rather pricey. The wines also are versatile at the table and pair particularly well with roasted meats (lamb is perfect, though poultry is nice), sausages, lamb shanks, duck confit, shepherd's pie and such local staples as braised rabbit and cassoulet.
Consider these well-prices choices – mainly reds except for one excellent white viognier and a decent chardonnay. Most were just released in Ontario Vintages stores, though a couple are available elsewhere as indicated.
Manus Dei du Château Sixtine
Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $38.95
At 15-per-cent alcohol, it's big – a hallmark of grenache-heavy blends such as this from a superior, sunny growing season. That potency does peek through on the faintly bitter finish. But let's not quibble. This is a polished and approachable beast, showing notes of maraschino cherry, fig, plum jam and, if my childhood memory serves, chewy Eat-More candy bar. Good now and worth cellaring for up to 10 more years. Available at the above price in Ontario. A few bottles available in select British Columbia stores for $43.99.
Domaine de la Baume Elisabeth Viognier
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $16.95
Viogniers of this quality often cost three times as much, particularly those of Condrieu in the northern Rhône. This Pays d'Oc bargain captures the aromatic grape's spicy character with compelling verve. Full-bodied and fleshy, it delivers luscious apricot-like fruit and honey infused with a strong suggestion of ginger. Excellent depth of flavour and balance. Ideal for Indian curries. Available in Ontario.
Domaine Les Yeuses Les Épices Syrah
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $15.95
This is syrah in the classic French style: firm and tight. Though it's a relatively lowly Pays d'Oc, it could be confused with a northern Rhône example costing twice as much. Polished in texture, it's juicy, with nuances suggesting dark-skinned fruit, lavender, licorice, espresso and white pepper. Available in Ontario.
Château Saint-Roch Chimères
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
A substantial, mouth-filling red based on grenache, carignan and syrah from the Côtes de Roussillon-Villages appellation. Ripe, dark fruits and raspberry syrup with hints of licorice, coffee grounds and leather carried on a supple texture. The 15-per-cent alcohol comes through with a prickle of heat on the finish. Available in Ontario.
Domaine des Terrisses Grande Tradition
Gaillac 2012 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
Stump your wine-geek friends. They're not likely to guess the grape mix in this offbeat red from Gaillac near Toulouse, one of the first spots in France to flourish with wine grapes 2,000 years ago (thank you, Romans). It's a blend of the local, peppery duras and soft, smoky braucol (a.k.a. fer servadou) along with syrah. Smooth, luscious and ripe, it suggests dark fruits and chocolate infused with baking spices and smoke, finishing with a pleasantly chalky grip. Available in Ontario.
Pierre Amadieu Vacqueyras
La Grangelière 2014 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.95
Pierre Amadieu, grandson of this estate's founder, is no fan of what he calls "overextracted" (read: jammy and overripe) reds, which have become something of a fashion in the Vacqueyras appellation. He prefers the freshness that acidity brings to the table. One can certainly taste that essence in this grenache-syrah blend, a successful effort from the relatively cool and wet 2014 growing season. The wine is full-bodied but far from heavy, with juicy cherry-raspberry fruit enlivened by peppery spice. Approachable now, it could improve with up to four years in the cellar. $31.49 in Nova Scotia.
Domaine de L'Alba l'Ermite
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17
Made from carignan, grenache and syrah in the Languedoc's Corbières appellation. It's medium-bodied and polished in texture, with juicy cherry fruit that gains complexity from hints of licorice and spice. Available in Ontario.
Laurent Miquel Chardonnay
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.10
A medium-bodied, crisp Pays d'Oc white showing fresh apple, subtle butter and a touch of spice. Straightforward yet smartly balanced and well-priced. Available in Ontario.
Perrin Réserve Côtes du Rhône
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $14.95
What a marvel for the money. The 2013 edition of Perrin's popular Côtes du Rhône Réserve is worth buying in bulk while supplies last. It's full-bodied and smooth, with ripe berry and plum jam fruit brimming with lavender and pepper notes. If you don't consume an entire case in the coming months (or days), it should cellar well for up to five years. Available at the above price in Ontario. $15.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $17.97 in Saskatchewan, $16.85 in Quebec, $16.99 in Nova Scotia, $18.86 in Newfoundland.