According to the romantic script of wine appreciation, the best place to enjoy a bottle is near the source. As in the region where it was grown or, better still, beside the winery itself, preferably on a picnic blanket next to the vines. I tend to concur. Those bottles we thirstily haul back from vacation often seem to lose their soul in transit. Or so the cliché goes.
But there's a contrarian and less-romantic script that I think holds equally true. Wines grown in warm regions tend to taste better in cool places, whereas cool-climate wines are often best flattered by warm surroundings.
It's a matter of biology – the vine's as much as the human's. Cool conditions preserve fruit acidity and hold the brakes on sugar development, resulting in lighter, more refreshing wines on the whole. Regions with intense sunlight and dry heat, in contrast, accelerate the ripening cycle, making it easier to farm berries with high sugar and flavour intensity. That translates into higher-alcohol wines with bigger body, the sort that can hold mighty appeal in the middle of a Canadian February. (The food on the table can, of course, change everything; I'm merely generalizing.)
So. how about some voluptuous "winter" wines from sunny climes?
Domaine de la Colline St-Jean Vacqueyras 2012, France
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $24.95
The Mediterranean scrub of wild herbs known collectively in France as garrigue comes through undeniably in this classic, succulent and bold southern Rhône blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. The wine is dark and concentrated, with blackberry and raspberry syrup flavours infused with lavender, thyme, leather and black pepper. Awesome for braised, saucy red meats. Drink now or let it appreciate for up to a dozen years. Available in Ontario.
Planeta Chardonnay 2013, Italy
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $44.95
The Mediterranean island of Sicily is home to many indigenous grape varieties. Chardonnay is not one of them. Yet the same grape that can yield nervy, flinty whites way up north in Chablis in France can shine in the southern Italian sun – at least in the right winemaking hands. Planeta, one of Sicily's modern pioneers, hits the mark with this full-bodied, smoothly oaked example. Rich tropical fruit and apricot notes are carried on a soft texture along with butter and vanilla. Food suggestion: creamy, buttery dishes. Various prices in Alberta, $40 in Quebec.
Cave de Roquebrun La Grange des Combes Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun 2013, France
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $18.95
Think of very fine Côtes du Rhône, then be glad you're not paying $25-plus for the pleasure. Located in the southern Languedoc region, Cave de Roquebrun crafts this medium-full-bodied red with 50-per-cent syrah plus grenache and mourvèdre, a classic Rhône combo. Concentrated yet juicy, with spice and bright acidity and more lavender in your face than a good scrub with fine hotel soap. Try it with anything involving lamb; $20.10 in Quebec.
Tinhorn Creek Gewürztraminer 2014, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Gewürztraminer calls Alsace its spiritual home. The French region is pretty far north, but it enjoys uncharacteristically dry, sunny conditions for its latitude. One can say the same of the south Okanagan Valley, where Tinhorn Creek ably teases out luscious flesh from this musky, aromatically exuberant grape. Medium-bodied, the 2014 is round and veers toward off-dry, with a sweet mid-palate of classic lychee and stone fruit joined by citrus, rosewater and gingery spice. Perfect for spicy stir fries or curries. Available for $15.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $19.98 in Saskatchewan.
Rustenberg RM Nicholson 2013, South Africa
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
One of South Africa's venerable estates, Rustenberg, founded in 1682, sadly suffered serious damage in January as wildfires raged through the drought-stricken Simonsberg district of Stellenbosch, destroying 12 acres of vines at the estate and potentially polluting more with smoke taint. This 2013 was picked long ago, of course, though you'll still find a completely coincidental, and pleasant, smoky note on the finish. The smartly blended mix of shiraz, merlot and cabernet sauvignon is full-bodied and polished in texture, showing jammy black currant, black pepper and charred-meat characters against dry, gently sticky tannins and fresh acidity. Outstanding for the money. Ready to drink now with steak, it should evolve well for at least six years – even under that handy screw cap. Various prices in Alberta.
Boutari Naoussa Xinomavro 2013, Greece
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $13.95
Under Greece's sunshine, the red xinomavro grape manages, unusually, to retain firm structure. Think of sturdy, earthy nebbiolo, responsible for the big reds of Barolo in Italy's Piedmont. This offering from a large, prominent producer is medium-full-bodied and very dry, with a chalky texture counterbalanced by mouthwatering acidity, revealing notes of cherry juice and leather. A fine, affordable match for the leg of lamb you splurged on; $15.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $16.99 in Saskatchewan, $15.05 in Quebec.
Tiago Cabaço Premium White 2014, Portugal
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
The full name of this enticing white from southern Portugal's Alentejo region is ".com Premium." The Internet-inspired suffix is our clue that the hands behind the bottle might be young. Tiago Cabaço, from a winemaking family, launched his own wine business and prides himself on being at the vanguard of his country's new age. Light and crisp, as one might expect from a Portuguese white, it's nonetheless surprisingly fleshy, an unusual blend of roupeiro, antao vaz, arinto, verdelho and the oily-textured French grape viognier. Ripe and mouthwatering, with suggestions of apple, peach and herbs – and much more interesting than most Italian pinot grigios at the same price. Available in Ontario.