Here's a veritas about vino: Some grape varieties almost always taste best on their own. Take pinot noir, nebbiolo or riesling. Each was pretty much born to sing a cappella. Try squeezing them into a tank with other grapes and they fold their arms and go mute, or start singing off-key.
Yet, a lot of other varieties know how to get along in a group. Some even beg for backup depending on how and where they're grown. Producers in Bordeaux know this as well as anyone. It's sometimes said of cabernet sauvignon, the region's noblest grape, that it symbolically resembles a doughnut – lots of chewy goodness around the edges but something missing in the middle. That's where plump, smooth merlot can help, fleshing out the centre of the palate.
Usually, the grape choice in a blend will adhere to long-established regional norms, such as cabernet sauvignon with merlot (and possibly cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot) in Bordeaux. Or syrah with grenache and mourvèdre in the southern Rhône. Or touriga nacional with touriga franca and tinta roriz in Portugal's Douro Valley. But increasingly, producers around the globe have been mixing things up, so to speak. Jazz-style, they're playing with unconventional combinations and in some cases venturing into uncharted terrain.
It's not an entirely new phenomenon, to be sure. Many Australian producers in particular have long thumbed their noses at tidy French rules by mashing together shiraz and cabernet, for example. Nor are the new cuvées all liquid gold. I was not too impressed with Bonfire Hill Extreme Vineyards Red, a South African minestrone of a red that includes shiraz, malbec, pinot noir, barbera and cinsault (but, oddly, leaves out the kitchen sink). As with many mass-market-driven red blends popular today, it is smooth and jammy in a slightly confected way. Conceptually, it reminds me of an after-school snack that I invented in my youth: mayonnaise and jam on white sandwich bread. But some rules indeed were meant to be broken. I was reminded of this while previewing a red from Sting, the rock star, and his wife, Trudie Styler. It's from the couple's Tuscan estate, Villa Il Palagio, and goes by what might seem like an inevitable name, Message in a Bottle. That's a reference, of course, to one of the British musician's biggest hits, the one where he sends "an SOS to the world."
The pair bought a centuries-old, run-down property in 1999 and restored it to splendour, now selling not just wine but also olive oil, honey and local salami by mail order (products are available through palagioproducts.com). And they hired a couple of seasoned consultants to help craft some impressive wines, including a rosé by the magnificent name of Beppe.
Message in a Bottle red (there's a white, too) is really good. A blend of 70-per-cent sangiovese, the main grape of chianti, with equal amounts of French varieties syrah and merlot, it's sort of like Tuscany meets Côte-Rôtie meets Pomerol at a surprisingly reasonable price. The unusual label depicts the sort of SOS scroll you'd find inside a bottle that had washed up on shore, the image running vertically as it would if it were actually contained inside the bottle. Call it a celebrity wine if you like, but it would be inapt to call it a mere novelty. In fact, you'd tend to pay more for most Tuscan reds of this quality produced by non-celebrities. The wine is available starting today in Ontario Vintages stores in limited quantities.
It's one of several wines in today's theme: new-wave red blends. Or mashups in a bottle.
Wines to try
Quintarelli Primofiore 2014, Italy
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $74
The late and esteemed Bepi Quintarelli helped elevate wines from the Veneto region with stellar and expensive amarones and turbocharged valpolicellas. Primofiore is his French kiss, a blend of local corvina and corvinone grapes with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. The winery's signature evolved-fruit style – an acquired taste, to be sure – is on display, yet this red is well-structured and (relatively) fresh. The flavours hint at chocolate, leather and plum, with tangy, grippy, earthy support. Drink it within six years. Available in Ontario.
Rutherford Hill Merlot 2014, California
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $39.95
The front label says "Merlot," but winemaker Marisa Taylor has added splashes of syrah and cabernet sauvignon in concentrations too small to require official billing by California laws. One suspects those support players are keys to the structure here, which is firm and muscular. This is packed and stacked Napa "merlot," with luscious cassis-blackberry fruit, dark chocolate, cedar and mint set against conspicuous, powdery tannins. Decant it now and serve it with rare lamb or steak, or let it improve with up to 15 years in a cool cellar. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Emiliana Coyam 2013, Chile
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95
I've reviewed this vintage before, but it's coming around again in limited quantities after selling out the first time. Good thing. The winemaker threw a lot in here: syrah, carménère, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, mourvèdre, malbec and petit verdot. That combination may defy conventional – which is to say French – blending rules, but so what? Made from organic and biodynamically farmed grapes, it's luscious and intriguing, with concentrated fruit and a big savoury quality that hints, among other things, at charred red peppers, espresso and mint. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $30 in Manitoba, $29.95 in Quebec, $35.80 in Nova Scotia.
Il Palagio Message in a Bottle 2015, Italy
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $23.95
Tuscany's 2015 growing season was very good, and the weather displays its sunny warmth in this red blend of 70-per-cent sangiovese, 15-per-cent syrah and 15-per-cent merlot from the Tuscan estate of Sting and wife, Trudie Styler. The typically fragile sangiovese grape compellingly retains its earthy essence and salty edge in the commanding company of peppery syrah and fleshy merlot. Medium-full-bodied, the wine is ripe with blackberry jam and currant-like fruit joined by chocolate and subtle spices. Solid and serious, with chewy-chalky tannins. A luscious yet structured and well-priced modern Tuscan red. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Huarpe Agrelo Terroir Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Argentina
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $23.95
Full, chunky and smooth, with dark chocolate, plum and espresso. Malbec's cuddly fruit is set against cabernet's firmness and tannic backbone. Available in Ontario.
Caliterra Edicion Limitada M 2015, Chile
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.95
What is the white marsanne grape doing in bed with three reds, syrah, carignan and grenache? They're all southern Rhône varieties, true enough. But if one must ask in the first place, it only misses the point of Caliterra's experimental series, which is about trying new things. Full-bodied yet energetic, this red is tangy-bright, with plum and sour cherry joined by mint and subtle pepper. Available in Ontario.
Ernie Els Big Easy 2016, South Africa
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Full, dense and tight. A blend of 60-per-cent shiraz, 20-per-cent cabernet sauvignon, 7-per-cent cinsault, 5-per-cent grenache, 5-per-cent viognier and 3-per-cent mourvèdre. Like game meat roasted on an open fire, served with plum compote and drizzled with dark chocolate. A people-pleaser from the great golfer. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $20 in Nova Scotia.
CedarCreek The Senator 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $18.99
The name is a tribute to Ross Fitzpatrick, the former senator from British Columbia, who in 1986 bought a small vineyard in his Okanagan homeland that would become CedarCreek. This is an uncommon B.C. blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. Full and pleasantly chalky, it displays plum, currant, herb and pepper notes as well as fine-grained tannins, with syrah supplying a juicy squeeze to firm cabernet and mellow merlot. Available at the above price in British Columbia and direct through cedarcreek.bc.ca.
Tommasi Poggio Al Tufo Rompicollo 2015, Italy
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17.95
Sangiovese with 40-per-cent cabernet sauvignon. The sangiovese retains its snappy acidity and dried-cherry character, while the cabernet supplies weight and depth as well as a pleasant minty note. Smart blend. Available at the above price in Ontario, $21.49 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $17.99 in Manitoba, $19.99 in Prince Edward Island, $18.99 in Nova Scotia, $19.93 in Newfoundland (on sale for $18.83).
Coriole Sangiovese Shiraz 2016, Australia
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $17.95
Full, very dry for an Australian, with smoky plum, salty cherry and grippy tannins. Bright and tight. Available in Ontario.