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Rhône Valley wines: from ruin to raves for superb recent vintages

I like wines that lurk in the shadows. If nothing else, an obscure grape or out-of-the-way region usually represents good value. Lirac, a French appellation in the southern Rhône Valley, is not exactly off the beaten path. But it doesn't get the attention it deserves. Directly across the river from well-known Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it's like an independent bookseller struggling next door to an Indigo. Once distinguished for rosés, Lirac, one of the elite villages that form part of the Côtes du Rhône vineyards, now excels in red wine, mostly based on grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, the principal Châteauneuf-du-Pape grapes. I think some of the wines, with their succulent berry-like fruit and herbal character, taste as good as many Châteauneuf-du-Papes at half the price.

So much for hierarchy. To students of wine history, Lirac also carries a rather dubious distinction. It was there, precisely 150 years ago, where a wine merchant in the sleepy town of Roquemaure unwittingly set in motion a catastrophe that would wipe out virtually every vineyard in Europe.

Gifted with a bundle of American vines shipped by a friend across the Atlantic, the merchant, a certain Monsieur Borty, gleefully planted 10 rows in his garden for fun. The vines thrived, but, within a year, leaves in neighbouring vineyards mysteriously yellowed and fell off prematurely. The plague spread and, by the early 20th century, the European wine industry was toast. The culprit: phylloxera, a sap-sucking insect carried on the rootstocks of American vines, which – unlike Europe's quality vitis vinifera species – had grown resistant.

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Salvation came gradually. What you see now in most fine-wine vineyards around the world is a botanical trick designed to outsmart the pest:a combination of American rootstocks grafted a few inches above ground with European vitis vinifera vine material.

I'm reminded of that tale, expertly told by British journalist Christy Campbell in his 2004 book Phylloxera, each time I come across a wine labelled Lirac, such as the excellent red that leads the reviews below. It's a product of the southern Rhône's superb 2010 vintage, made in small quantities. If you can't find it, I'd recommend scouring the shelves for other southern reds from 2010 or the equally fine 2009 harvest. Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras are good names to look for, all suitable for hearty red-meat dishes and roast poultry.

Domaine Grand Veneur Clos de Sixte Lirac 2010 (France)

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $22.95

This is crafted by Alain Jaume & Fils, one of Lirac's best producers and also a maker of expensive Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Elegance trumps power here, though the berry-like fruit is rich and ripe. Rhône fans will be impressed with the classic savoury essence, suggesting lavender, flowers and licorice. Fragrant and fresh, it even hints at an aroma of pine forest. It should cellar well for five to eight years.

Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du–Pape 2010 (France)

SCORE: 93 PRICE: $89.95

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The most famous Châteauneuf, Beaucastel comes at a scary price, but it tends to age beautifully, developing glorious complexity with 15 to 20 years, a big reason for the premium. The ripeness here is perfect, and there's no trace of the love-it-or-hate-it funky barnyard quality that has come to typify the organically farmed brand. It is handsomely structured, with cherry and licorice up front and nuances of herb and beef jus.

Domaine La Roquète Châteauneuf-du–Pape 2009 (France)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $46.95

The Brunier family, which owns this property, is better known for the more expensive Châteauneufs of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe. I'm a fan of La Roquète, which often strikes a good balance between concentration and poise. Expect a mouthful from this 15.4-per-cent-alcohol red, which shows currant flavour and a hint of raisin along with spice and damp earth. Seven to 10 years in the cellar will pay dividends.

Domaine Michelas-St Jemms Sainte Epine Saint-Joseph 2009 (France)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $31.95

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Saint-Joseph, a district in the northern Rhône, specializes in syrah, and this red deftly exhibits the grape's more attractive qualities. A polished texture carries nuances of raspberry, white pepper and stone. Drink it sometime over the next decade.

Brotte La Fiole Côtes du Rhône 2010 (France)

SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.95

A bargain brand, it's got more character than might be expected at the price. But don't expect a smooth ride from this grenache-syrah blend. It's bracing, with raspberry fruit set against palate-tensing acidity and a smattering of herbs.

Volpaia Chianti Classico 2009 (Italy)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23.95

Volpaia produces top-notch Chiantis, and this 2009 is superb. Medium-full-bodied, it comes across like cherry liqueur balanced with juicy acidity and lively baking spices. The tannins are dry and fine-grained. Try it with roast veal or cellar it for up to seven years.

Canonica A Cerreto Chianti Classico Riserva 2007 (Italy)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $18.95

From vineyards in the warm south of the Chianti Classico zone, near Siena, this medium-full-bodied red contains small proportions of cabernet sauvignon and merlot to add weight and roundness to the dominant sangiovese. Eighteen months in French oak gives it a smooth feel and undercurrent of vanilla, complementing the cherry-plum fruit and whiff of violet. This bargain, cellar-worthy riserva should reward five to 10 years of patience and pair nicely with grilled red meat.

Musella Vigne Nuove Valpolicella Superiore 2009 (Italy)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95

One of the best reasonably priced Valpolicellas I've tasted in a long time, this medium-bodied red combines suggestions of cherry and earth with a soft, supple texture. Great for grilled pork.

Nk'Mip Qwam Qwmt Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $28.95

For those who like them smooth, this red from North America's first aboriginal– owned winery delivers. Luscious blackcurrant, vanilla and chocolate mingle with notes of espresso and cigar tobacco. Ideal for steak.

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