There has always been a line dividing the wine market in two. It's the dollar figure between affordable and expensive, or in the minds of some, between sensible and stupid. To speak of a single line is an abstraction, of course, because it varies from person to person, and it has risen over time. But if you had to guess at an average number, where would you draw the line today?
I performed that thought experiment while perusing a sales promotion concocted by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. It's dubbed "The $17 Solution," a spotlight on two reds in its biweekly launch of wines through the premium-product Vintages department. "The resourceful buyers at Vintages," the catalogue blurb reads, "remove the guesswork from your entertaining equation with two smooth reds whose provenance, quality and character make them superb values at this price."
I'm leading the reviews below with one such wine, Xavier 100 per cent Côtes du Rhône, from this Saturday's Vintages release. In part it's because I agree that it represents a fine value. I also think the merchandisers are right on the money in making a case for 17 as a magic number, at least when it comes to Ontario street prices, all taxes in. That figure certainly is close to the current tipping point for most consumers when it comes to splurge-worthiness; to justify a much higher spend, the wine had better promise nirvana.
At the same time, the feeling cuts both ways. There are those who almost always instinctively plunk down more cash on a bottle and who would not dare dip south of $17 unless, say, they were trying to economize while bankrolling an annoying stepchild's wedding.
You'll notice some pricier wines here, as well as some that fall below $17. This column's for both sides of the divide. But if you do the math, I think you'll find it all averages out – to precisely $17.14.
Xavier 100 per cent Côtes du Rhône 2012, France
SCORE: 90 PRICE : $17
Celebrated southern Rhône oenologist Xavier Vignon has worked for several properties in the storied Châteauneuf-du-Pape district, but this is a "100-per cent" personal wine from his own label, pressed from grapes in the surrounding Côtes-du-Rhône appellation. It contains several regional varieties, led by grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. With just a small component matured in wood, it's a succulent and juicy red blend with notes of chewy cherry, strawberry and smoked meat, pulled together by sticky tannins. Very good value. Available in Ontario.
Domaine Lafage Cuvée Centenaire 2014, France
SCORE: 91 PRICE : $19.95
This is from southern France's Roussillon region, a value destination for decades but still essentially unknown to most wine drinkers, at least when it comes to white wine. Cuvée Centenaire is made mainly from the underappreciated grenache-blanc grape along with a splash of the local and highly regarded roussanne grape. It's medium-full bodied and serves up an uncanny essence of tinned fruit salad, with a rounded, fleshy core, nuances of smoky minerality and sea salt and balanced acidity. Various prices in Alberta. The equally excellent 2013 vintage sells for $21.99 in British Columbia and $19.30 in Quebec.
Peter Lehmann Layers Shiraz Tempranillo Mourvèdre Grenache 2012, Australia
SCORE: 90 PRICE : $17.95
Spain meets France in Australia. Is there another country that would have the iconoclastic guts to blend tempranillo with mourvèdre with grenache (a.k.a. garnacha)? The fine winery named after the late, great Peter Lehmann deserves a nod here. Sweet in the middle yet firmly structured, this full-bodied red blend dishes up lots of dark berry fruit, licorice and pepper. Available for $16.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $16.99 in Manitoba, $17 in Quebec, $19.99 in New Brunswick, $19.99 in Nova Scotia, $20.27 in Newfoundland, $19.99 in Prince Edward Island.
Rosehall Run The Righteous Dude Riesling 2014, Ontario
SCORE: 90 PRICE : $19.95
Rosehall Run, in Eastern Ontario's Prince Edward County region, sources the fruit for this splendid white from Niagara. Call it a Highway 401 wine, well worth the truck miles. Light-bodied, extremely pale in colour and sweeter than off-dry, this would – and should – appeal to fans of Mosel riesling. Pretty lime, green-apple and floral characters get a proper lift from tangy acidity. Available in Ontario.
Los Clop Malbec Reserva 2010, Argentina
SCORE: 90 PRICE : $18.95
Sweet, soft plum is answered by cigar tobacco, cedar, smoke, a grainy texture and a soft-but-not-lame tannic handshake. Not your usual $19 Argentine Malbec. Various prices in Alberta.
Coli Chianti Classico Riserva 2009, Italy
SCORE: 89 PRICE : $16.95
One does not find good, cellar-worthy chianti on the shelves at this price often. And this one comes with a bonus: It's already almost seven years old, showing some fetching cellar characters. If you're curious about what a slightly mature red tastes like, give this a whirl. Medium-bodied and very dry, it's pleasantly chalky in texture, with pretty dried-cherry fruit, plum jam and earthiness enhanced by a floral overtone. Available in Ontario.
Antaño Rioja Reserva 2009, Spain
SCORE: 89 PRICE : $16.70
Aromatic, balanced and classic rioja at an attractive price. Medium-full bodied, very dry yet juicy and smooth all at the same time, with sweet fruit and a touch of vanilla complemented by leathery depth. Various prices in Alberta.
Château Larroque 2010, France
SCORE: 89 PRICE : $15.95
A decent 2010 Bordeaux doesn't come much cheaper than this. It's more than decent, in fact. Full-bodied yet vibrant, this red blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc displays dark-berry and plum notes along with a dry, earthy, mineral-like character against fine but firm tannins. Available in Ontario.
Casa do Arrabalde Avesso Alvarinho Arinto 2014, Portugal
SCORE: 88 PRICE : $14.95
Light-medium bodied, with a pulpy, soft core, here's a seductive Portuguese white that offers up delectable plum-lemon fruit supported by bright but friendly acidity. A nice balancing act. Available in Ontario.
Thelema Mountain Red 2012, South Africa
SCORE: 88 PRICE : $13
A perennial value from a fine South African producer, this is an unusual Bordeaux-meets-Rhône blend of syrah, petit verdot, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, grenache and cabernet franc. How does one say "minestrone" in French? Full-bodied, gutsy and admirably dry given the ripe fruit, it's big on blackberry, blueberry and spice. Available for $17.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $14.60 in Manitoba, $17.49 in New Brunswick, $16.98 in Newfoundland.