Autumn is upon us, the formal arrival marked this year at 4:02 p.m. Eastern Time, Sept. 22. Does your wine palate begin to crave specific grapes or flavours at periods like this?
Me, I'm an underbrush kind of guy – those notes of moist leaves and earth – probably in part because it gets me out into the forest without having to tie my shoes and leave the house.
But chilly weather and longer nights also amplify my fondness for such savoury flavours as cedar, leather, tobacco, smoke and spice (notwithstanding the fact I'm still enjoying the rosés I recommended in a column a couple of weeks ago). I also won't turn my nose up at a hint of cured meat, especially when it's delivered in the form of a well-cellared northern Rhône syrah.
These preferences help explain the selections below, which are pulled from my sampling of recent releases in Canada. (Insider tip: If you can afford it, go straight to the Cahors, a French red from a district specializing in malbec. I wouldn't normally think of malbec as autumnal, at least not the generally fruit-forward, soft style popularized by Argentina, but this is savoury and stellar – and not as angular as your typical $20 Cahors.)
I suspect most imbibers with an opinion on the topic would cite pinot noir as a fine post-summer transitional beverage, with its often earthy essence and moderate weight. Tuscan sangiovese? Rioja? Nebbiolo? All good choices. But I'm devoting extra space today to cabernet franc, a grape too frequently overshadowed by its more lavishly flavoured genetic offspring, cabernet sauvignon, with which it is usually combined, along with merlot, in red Bordeaux and countless New World blends that ape that French model.
To be frank, a lot of pure, unblended franc is excessively green or weedy, certainly when it's overcropped or grown in overly cool or wet conditions. When done right, as in the better – and I stress better – reds of the Loire Valley's Chinon and Bourgueil appellations, or in many examples from Ontario and British Columbia, it can be a charm. The wine tends to be medium-full-bodied and crisp as well as intriguingly savoury, and that trademark weedy note becomes more of a smoky-herbal essence. It's a fine red for substantial fish dishes as well as meats or tomato-sauced vegetarian fare.
Cabernet franc may not be right up there on my list of favourite grapes in general, but I do miss it most of all, as the great jazz standard goes, when autumn leaves start to fall.
Château Haut Monplaisir Pur Plaisir Cahors Malbec 2012, France
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $51.95
Made from organic grapes, this is unusually approachable yet firmly structured and complex. Plum sauce, blackberry syrup and a heaping helping of Provençal herbs mix with a woodsy-smoky essence and mineral nuance, lifted by a tingle of acidity. The ripe tannins are well folded in. Crazy-good Cahors. Match it with big hunks of meat. Available in Ontario.
Black Sage Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $25.99
Ripe and round, with big fruit and a chunky chocolate essence, yet also intriguingly herbal and smoky – in a more New World than Old World way – as in grilled jalapeno. There's a black-tea note in there somewhere, too. Terrifically franc. Available in British Columbia and Alberta.
Adriano Marco e Vittorio Sanadaive Barbaresco 2013, Italy
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $33.95
Medium-full, tight and harmonious nebbiolo from Piedmont. You can smell the shoe polish. On the palate: dried cherries, dried flowers, tar and shoe leather set against tangy acidity. It's just starting to reveal graceful age in an earthy way. Porcini-mushroom risotto would be grand. Available in Ontario.
Podere La Berta Solano Sangiovese Superiore 2013, Italy
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
A sangiovese, not from Tuscany, but from Emilia-Romagna (so it's almost bound to offer better value). This delivers considerable depth without heavy weight. It's like cherries and salt with a subtle, roasted-meat essence. The satisfying dryness comes in part from sticky, refined tannins. Available in Ontario.
Redstone Cabernet Franc 2013, Ontario
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39.95
Medium-full and juicy, still youthful at four years of age. Plummy and grapy, with a hint of blueberry, it dishes up secondary notes of cedar, cigar tobacco and earth, with gently dusty tannins. Well cut with acidity. Serve it slightly cool. Available direct from the Niagara winery, redstonewines.ca.
Two Tails Pinot Noir 2015, New Zealand
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
Medium-bodied, with impressive depth and tension. A Marlborough-region pinot that fuses satisfyingly jammy New World fruitiness with Old World-style earthiness, showing hints of beetroot and baking spices as it moves to a harmonious finish. Good value for pinot noir. Available in Ontario.
Scacciadiavoli Montefalco Rosso 2012, Italy
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $20.95
From Umbria, here's a blend of mostly sangiovese with merlot and the local sagrantino grape. Medium-full and very dry, it exerts an assertive tug from chalky tannins and offers hints of dried cherry, licorice, charred leaves and meat. Very nice for grilled red meats. Available in Ontario.
Bench 1775 Cabernet Franc 2013, British Columbia
CORE: 90 PRICE: $27.90
Gutsy and dry, this plays up cabernet franc's savoury side, with notes of beef broth, herbs and spices supported by light, grainy tannins. Sharply and smartly chiseled with acidity. Perfect for foods in tomato sauce or grilled sausages. Available direct from the winery, bench1775.com.
René Bouvier Chapitre Suivant Bourgogne 2014, France
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.95
It's light-medium-bodied yet this is relatively concentrated pinot for an entry-level Burgundy. Juicy and chewy, with a gentle tannic backbone and notes of raspberry, spice and happy, gamay-like bubblegum. Burgundy-freaks, you're "cheap" Tuesday-night house red has arrived. Available in Ontario at the above price, $23 in Quebec.
Planeta Frappato Vittoria 2015, Italy
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.95
Planeta is the producer, Vittoria is the place and frappato is, yes, a grape. It's a wonderfully obscure Sicilian specialty, producing light-hued, crisp reds that might be considered the Beaujolais of the Mediterranean's largest island. This one's juicy and almost salty, with a strong mineral note and smoky essence. It put me in mind of volcanic soil, though it comes from a region well to the south of Sicily's famous and furious volcano, Etna. Treat it to some eggplant parmesan or other tomato-sauced dishes. Available in Ontario.
JoieFarm PTG 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $26
Joie's homage to the obscure Burgundian category called passe-tout-grains, this is a blend of 70-per-cent pinot noir and 30-per-cent gamay. It's medium-bodied, seductively silky, almost pasty in texture, with bright, youthful berry fruit in balance with earthy notes and peppery spice. Meaty for an unheavy red, and – as the winery suggests – it would pair well with charcuterie. Available in B.C. private stores and direct, joiefarm.com.
Cave Spring Cabernet Franc 2015, Ontario
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17.95
Gutsy and juicy, with a solid acid spine holding up flavours of plum, blackberry, subtle toasty oak and a sprinkle of herbs. Moderately tannic. Available in Ontario LCBO stores and direct from the Niagara winery, cavespring.ca.
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