Welcome to Last Week's Column: The Sequel. If you missed the earlier instalment, here's a recap: wines under $20. Today's selections, however, skew more toward the mainstream – no roussannes or aglianicos, in other words.
I remember when, in the 1980s, $10 was the great divide between the rich and the rest of us.That psychological price barrier persisted for a long time. But the quality pickings below $10 have grown slim. That's especially true in British Columbia, where import prices give new meaning to "Rocky Mountain high." (Note that one red listed here sells for $16.95 in Ontario and $21.99 in B.C.) On the bright side, we have learned a few tricks over the years to enhance the flavour of bargain bottles, however one might define "bargain." Among them are:
Big glasses: A large bowl that tapers inward at the rim helps amplify aromas and focus nuances into the nasal cavity, where most of the "tasting" takes place.
Decanting: Contact with oxygen softens harsher elements and brings out the fruit. But you don't need a decanter; just swirl in a (big) glass for a similar effect.
Chilling your reds: This can make a huge difference. A quick detour in the fridge (say, 15 minutes) suppresses hot alcohol and astringency and lifts acidity. Much more than 15 minutes and most reds become muted.
Warming your whites: We drink most whites too cold. Pull chardonnays and other fuller-bodied varietals from the fridge 20 minutes before pouring. Warmth brings out the complexity hiding below.
Revelling in the deal: Keep reminding yourself that the qualitative difference between most $15 bottles and most $30 bottles is much less than a factor of two.
Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2011 (South Africa)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $14.95
The Porcupine is a monster for value, as many Canadians have discovered. It's made by a great South African estate with the tongue-twisting name of Boekenhoutskloof. On the label is an artist's sketch of the crested porcupine, the local inhabitant presumably forced to live life without ever getting a hug. The 2011 syrah is terrific, packed with dark fruit, black pepper, bacon drippings and spice – like a northern-Rhône syrah with more fat on its bones. Try it with stewed red meat. $17.99 in B.C., $13.99 in Alta., $17.30 in Que.
De Martino Legado Reserva Carmenere 2010 (Chile)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
Ripe, with a raspberry core, this is well-crafted carmenere from a dependable producer, showing lots of herbal and earth tones and a smoky quality on the finish. Chunky and ideal for robust red-meat dishes.
Small Gully Mr. Black's Little Book Shiraz 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
A crowd-pleaser, to be sure. And at 15.2-per cent alcohol, one bottle might suffice for a crowd. Expect a mouthful of cherry juice, raspberry jam, vanilla and chocolate from this rich red, which finds good acid grip – and a whiff of not-so-welcome alcoholic heat – toward the finish.
Fleur de Coucou Touraine Sauvignon 2011 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $11.90
Touraine lies west of famed Sancerre in the Loire Valley and excels with the same white grape, sauvignon blanc, at typically half the price. This gem is more exuberantly fruity than most Sancerres, with silky lemon and melon flavours leading the charge, but it delivers a strong essence of that prized flinty character for which Sancerre is famous. Try it with light seafood or young cheeses, particularly chèvre.
Bellingham Chardonnay with a Splash of Viognier 2010 (South Africa)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $13.95
The name tells the tale. Chardonnay provides medium-full body and sweet apple, while viognier works its floral magic. A touch of spice and tangy acid give it lift.
Tommasi Poggio al Tufo Sangiovese Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
Tommasi is based in Veneto in the north, but the family bought an estate in the trendy Maremma district of Tuscany, from which they make this fine red, in 1997. There's admirable tannic edge here in spite of the screwcap seal, which telegraphs early drinkability. I like the initial softness, which carries plum, spice and tobacco before the astringent tannins kick in. Try it with rare lamb, beef or duck. $21.99 in B.C.
Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir 2011 (Chile)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $10.95
Vineyard workers get around by bicycle at Cono Sur, hence the name of this line of well-priced wines. The 2011 pinot is among the best – and one of the few drinkable – pinots you will find at this price. It's light-medium-bodied and silky, with fresh cherry and plum jam flavours enhanced ever so subtly by baking spices. Pair it with pork, poultry or grilled salmon. $11.49 in B.C., $11.99 in Sask., $11.99 in Man., $12.99 in N.B., $12.99 in N.S., $13.99 in PEI.
Santa Rita 120 Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (Chile)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $10.95
Richly fruity and concentrated for the money, this Chilean red displays a smooth core of cassis, then works in spice and charred cedar, with lively grip and a slightly dusty texture through the finish. Try it with rare beef or lamb. $12.99 in B.C., $11.24 in Sask., $12.99 in N.B., $12.99 in N.S., $13.99 in PEI.
Tinhorn Creek Merlot 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $18.99
From a cold year but admirably ripe, this full-bodied red offers plum-like fruit, vanilla and satisfyingly savoury complexity in the form of cedar and tobacco against a firm acid backbone. Good for beef or lamb.
Castillo de Monseran Garnacha 2011 (Spain)
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $9.99 in B.C.
On the sweet side, this soft, round red comes across with more of a gummy-bear, fruit-chew quality than in previous vintages, which I have liked. If you're new to wine or simply like it sweet and cuddly, the price is right.