Is it too early to toast spring's arrival? I think not. I was ready for it in January. Plus, I'm thinking astronomically, and in that sense, this will be the earliest spring in Canada since Charles Tupper was prime minister. You probably don't remember Tupper from grade school or citizenship class. He ruled for a mere 69 days in 1896 – our 19th-century Kim Campbell.
Contrary to popular assumption, the vernal equinox moves around. It varies with leap-year quirks in the Gregorian Calendar, shifts in the Earth's axis relative to the sun and other cosmological details that make sense pretty much only to Stephen Hawking.
The official start to spring this year is not March 21, as they used to teach us in school. In British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, it will happen March 19 (9:30 p.m. Pacific, 10:30 Mountain and 11:30 Central, to be exact). In most of Ontario and Quebec, it occurs on March 20 at 12:30 a.m., and in the Atlantic at 1:30 a.m.
With this year's event falling on a Saturday night, you might want to haul out the stemware and celebrate with a suitable wine. Maybe a zesty Canadian riesling, like Culmina or Charles Baker, or an invigorating French bubbly like Ribeauvillé Giersberger. Galileo, that Chianti-quaffing astronomer from Tuscany, wrote that "wine is sunlight held together by water." For my part, this weekend I'll be drinking less water and more wine, hoping to bring on the sunshine.
Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2012, Ontario
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $35.20
There are not many riesling producers in the New World able to fetch $35-plus a bottle (not too many in Germany or Alsace, either). Niagara's Charles Baker, a missionary for the grape, has managed to do it through the combination of high quality, scarce production and passionate, personal salesmanship. The 2012 vintage is superb. On the dry side, but with enough sweetness in the middle to satisfy his cult following, it's splendidly balanced and complex, with aromatic green apple and lime fruit and a stony-mineral essence. Available in Ontario.
Culmina Decora Riesling 2014, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
Donald Triggs, the former Canadian wine-industry executive who co-founded the Jackson-Triggs brand, produces this from his adopted Okanagan home. It's a beauty. Dry yet with impressive weight – thanks, no doubt, to that fruit-ripening Okanagan sunshine – it's like a cross between lush German riesling and the bone-dry style of Australia. I suspect it will develop complexity with up to eight years in the cellar. Available in Ontario at the above price; $20 direct in British Columbia from culmina.ca.
JCB No. 21 Brut Crémant de Bourgogne, France
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $27.95
The initials stand for Jean-Charles Boisset, the Frenchman who runs one of Burgundy's – and France's – largest wineries and who married winemaker Gina Gallo, granddaughter of the late California wine pioneer Julio Gallo. Bone-dry, this excellent sparkler from Burgundy rivals entry-level Champagne, with medium body, crisp green apple, lemon and yeasty-dough layers set against a tart, chalky texture. $30.50 in Quebec.
Rosehall Run JCR Chardonnay 2013, Ontario
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $29.95
Medium-weight, crisp and bright, showing pineapple, lime and subtle buttery notes. From Prince Edward County, this is almost like Chablis mixed with Aussie riesling. Wonderful for a plate of oysters, lemon chicken and a whole lot more. Available at LCBO "Our Wine Country" boutiques in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Windsor.
Haywire Canyonview Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $39.95 in B.C.
Produced entirely in concrete vats, with no oak influence. Splendidly crafted and nuanced, with jammy, sunny fruit and none of the syrupy thickness of so many Californian counterparts. There's a pleasantly evolved, leafy quality along with savoury herb-spice complexity. Not your typical New World pinot. Bravo. okanagancrushpad.com.
Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, California
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.94
Wow, is this really from California? It tastes like Medoc cabernet, super dry and chalky, with deft balance and a mineral-like essence. Being from California (the North Coast, mind you), it's ripe, but the attraction here is as much the savoury mint and tobacco and smoky notes as the fruit. Available for $21.49 in British Columbia (on sale for $19.99 until March 31), various prices in Alberta, $30.91 in Newfoundland.
Cave de Ribeauvillé Giersberger Brut Crémant d'Alsace, France
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
The nose is all about green apple and bread, and that usually is a harbinger of fine things where sparkling wine is concerned. Bone dry, it's crafted like Champagne, with good depth of flavour suggesting apple, lemon, yeast and toast. Available in Ontario.
Le Gravillas Côtes du Rhône-Villages Séguret 2014, France
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
Medium-full-bodied. A blend of grenache and syrah, with black cherry, currant and plum against a spicy backbone, smoked lavender and solid acidity. Well-priced red Côtes du Rhône. Available in Ontario.
Monasterio de las Viñas Reserva 2006, Spain
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
The winery has coasted on a reputation burnished by the popular newsletter of American critic Robert Parker, whose most recent 90-point score appears on the neck capsule. It's a well-deserved reputation for the most part. And this 2006 is very good, though I'm inclined to be a tad less generous than Parker. Medium-bodied and supple, it tastes like something out of southern France, with chewy cherry fruit, lively cracked pepper and fragrant herbs – and a smidgen less concentration than I'd prefer. Good choice for roast lamb; $13.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $14.99 in Manitoba, $16.96 in Quebec.
Chasselay Quatre Saisons Beaujolais 2014, France
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $18.95
Light, bright and relatively supple, this is Beaujolais that seems to want to be taken seriously rather than seen as cheap and cheerful. I'd carve it down the middle; it's a fine and simultaneously fun red, and obviously not entirely cheap. Sour cherry, strawberry, traces of pepper and bubble gum in a tangy package. Available in Ontario.
Olivares Altos de la Hoya Monastrell 2013, Spain
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.95
Medium-weight, juicy and peppery, with slightly firm tannins, a smoky overtone and moderately chalky texture. Introduce this red, from the trendy bargain land of Jumilla, to grilled red meat. Various prices in Alberta, $16.60 in Quebec.