What draws your attention to a wine bottle? The name of a reliable producer? A pastel vineyard landscape? Pencil sketch of a fancy château? Cartoon animals?
How about the name of a TV show? I expected to dislike The Sopranos Chianti. Novelty brands tend to be predicated on an insidious principle: People will pay a premium for a trophy they can show to others, maybe even get a chuckle out of. I've tried many, from Marilyn Merlot and Cabernet Frank (after Sinatra) to riesling in cat-shaped bottles. (Hey, it's my job.) Mostly they don't taste good and just bring new meaning to "wine and cheese."
Not entirely so with The Sopranos Chianti, named after the hit HBO series about a New Jersey mob boss. Part of a line that includes several red and white offerings, it was developed by U.S. wine-industry veteran Christopher Massie in association with HBO. Massie set up Vesuvio Import Co., based in New York, to work with existing Italian wineries, crafting his own cuvées from the regions of Tuscany, Veneto and Friuli for the North American market. Sopranos fans may recognize the name Vesuvio, too. It's a fictional restaurant in the TV series.
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Massie auditioned more than 100 producers before inking his deals with, presumably, offers those Italians couldn't refuse – shrewd American cross-marketing. The wines, with labels that evoke the TV series (the Chianti features a red silhouette of the New York skyline), have been selling briskly south of the border. Today the Chianti gets released in Ontario through Vintages stores at $14.95.
It's not what I'd call a killer, but it offers surprisingly decent quality for the money. Finding a good, basic Chianti for under $15 is a crapshoot. Massie has said he priced it at or below comparable wines in the North American marketplace, such as Ruffino ($14.95 in Ontario) and Da Vinci ($16.95), because he wanted it to be something people would drink and presumably keep buying rather than collect as a kitschy prop. I think this is worthy of that sentiment.
Made from 90-per-cent sangiovese and 10-per-cent merlot, it's the kind of affordable, cheerful red that would lend itself well to the kind of foods you'd expect to see Tony Soprano tucking into at Vesuvio, like spaghetti and veal meatballs. It pairs well with checked tablecloths and a slightly soiled napkin dangling from your collar. Sinatra probably would have enjoyed it more than any cabernet franc, uncomfortable mob associations notwithstanding.
Most of the products below are from today's vintages release at Ontario liquor stores. Some are available in other provinces.
The Sopranos Chianti 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $14.95
Classic cherry, strawberry and cedar notes come through in this very dry, medium-bodied red. Simple but well-structured, it's good for heavily sauced pastas and doughy pizzas – Italian-American classics like the show's characters.
Sélection Laurence Féraud 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $42.95
Full-bodied and succulent, this ripe red from a good Rhône Valley vintage is lavish with soft black- and red-skinned fruits, lavender and herbs, with a slight whiff of Vick's VapoRub on the long finish. Try it with lamb or cellar it for up to eight years.
Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Estate 2006 (California)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $44.95
The blue-chip California producer Ridge deftly combined cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot to come up with this harmonious blend. Expect flavours of cassis, pencil lead, bitter chocolate and earth. Full-bodied, it would pair beautifully with steak and easily evolve well for more than a decade. The price is $54.99 in B.C.
Maison Bertrand Ambroise Corton Le Rognet Grand Cru 2008 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $89
It was not a great year for red Burgundy, but in 2008 Bertrand Ambroise chucked almost 30-per-cent of the picked fruit that was supposed to go into this wine. The result shows some knife-edged acidity, but there's harmony and finesse here. Cherry juice harmonizes with subtle herbs and a whiff of stone, with very light tannins and juicy finish. A great wine for grilled salmon. I would drink it within five years. Available only in Ontario direct from the Vintages Classics department through www.vintages.com/classics, 416-365-5767 or 1-800-266-4764. Product No. 209486.
Twenty Twenty Seven Cellars Featherstone Vineyard Riesling 2009 (Niagara)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95
That's not a typo in the name – it's long hand for 2027. Winemaker Kevin Panagapka and wife Jody, who run this virtual winery by borrowing space in other facilities, own a pinot noir vineyard with the aforementioned registration number from the Grape Growers of Ontario. This is an impressive white, almost off-dry and bursting with tart peach, blossoms and fresh acidity. Great as an aperitif, it would pair well with pan-seared or smoked fish, ham or pork chops. Available through Ontario Vintages stores and direct from the winery through www.2027cellars.ca.
Domaine de La Tour Monts-Mains Chablis 1er Cru 2008 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
Here's a solid Chablis from a Burgundy vintage that was much kinder to whites than reds. Medium-bodied and creamy in the middle, it dishes up nuances of nuts, brown butter, citrus and mineral. Versatile with fish and poultry.
Chavet Fils Menetou-Salon Blanc 2009 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.95
Don't recognize the name Menetou-Salon? It's a Loire Valley district near Sancerre, home of the world's most renowned sauvignon blancs. They use the same grape for whites in Menetou-Salon and often the wines are very comparable – for slightly less money. This one's medium-bodied and peachy, with delicate bitterness and a crisp finish. It won gold at a big Paris wine show and would pair splendidly with delicate fish dishes, such as sautéed shrimp or pan-seared trout. The price is $23.20 in Quebec.
Château Haut-Chaigneau 2006 (France)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $27.95
From Bordeaux's Lalande de Pomerol appellation, this mainly merlot red is bone-dry and slightly dusty, not as rich as the saturated colour would suggest. The fruit is ripe but timid, letting minerals and a roasted note of coffee share the spotlight. Decant it to soften the slightly astringent tannins, and consider pairing it with rare or medium-rare red meats.
Malma Reserva Malbec 2007 (Argentina)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $15.95
Warning: dirt road ahead. This full-bodied red may leave you with the sensation of dusty earth hitting your tongue as a horse gallops past. Well, that and a combination of plum and berries. Let's call it rugged. Grilled or braised red meat is in order.
Pascual Toso Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (Argentina)
SCORE: 84 PRICE: $12.95
Argentina takes a big back seat to Chile in the sauvignon blanc department, but here's a crowd-pleasing style that's not too racy or grassy and may appeal to a lot of people. It's round in the middle but then turns slightly chalky in texture, with a nuance of herbs and bitter citrus peel. The price is $13.99 in B.C. and $14.40 in Quebec.