Skip to main content

Good day, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for tuning into Pavlovian Wino, the thirst-inducing wine game you can play at home. The rules: I utter common red-wine descriptors; you raise your glass as soon as you hear the adjective that best captures your favourite style. Ready?

"Oaky." Whoa, not all at once. I've got other possibilities. Let's continue. "Smooth?" Yes, I thought that would grab many of you. Nice to see all those merlot and shiraz fans in the crowd. But the game's not over. How about "jammy?" Less than a groundswell but still impressive. "Bracing?" Hello? Is this microphone working? No takers for bracing?

Actually, it's not a real game show. There are no right or wrong answers and no boozy prizes to be won. (If there were, I'd be arrested in Canada for operating an alcohol-gaming enterprise.) It's a mental exercise. My point is that certain verbal cues can get the salivary glands flowing, which at least partly explains why some people actually read wine reviews rather than just skim the point scores.

If I were to play along, I would say that my own biggest weaknesses are best captured by the terms peppery and herbaceous. All wines taste of fruit – or at least they should. But I think things start to get interesting when they move into the savoury realm. Maybe I was born with a pepper mill in one hand and a mint sprig in the other, I don't know. You'll find traces of one or both of those elements in the reds below, some excellent, some just decent but fairly priced. And just so as not to leave others completely wanting, I have chosen a few that could also be described as smooth, jammy or crisp.

Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Chile

Score: 91 Price: $19.95

Taste this and tell me you don't get a strong impression of cappuccino. The espresso-mocha flavour is uncanny. Full-bodied, grainy-textured and very dry, it also comes with nuances of dark berries, chocolate, toasty oak and – hurrah – mint. $24.99 in B.C., $22.45 in Manitoba, $25.88 in Newfoundland.

Château Dalem 2009, France

Score: 91 Price: $33.85

Poor Fronsac. The Bordeaux appellation doesn't get the attention it sometimes deserves. That's understandable given that winemakers in the district toil in the shadows of such vaunted neighbours as Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, the two greatest names in the merlot firmament. But the fine 2009 vintage was a tide that lifted all boats, including Château Dalem in Fronsac. This blend of 90-per-cent merlot with 10-per-cent cabernet franc displays a luscious core of cassis and chocolate enhanced by spice and a mineral tingle, supported by very dry, structure-imparting tannins. Cellar it for up to a decade or decant it, if you can, for current pleasure. $33.50 in Quebec.

Tawse Laundry Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2010, Ontario

Score: 90 Price: $31.95

Few are the New World estates that produce cabernet franc the way they do in the Loire Valley, the grape's spiritual homeland. Tawse hits the mark and also works a bit of cool Niagara character into the mix. This is a cheerful red, ripe enough to deliver sweet fruit yet invigoratingly herbal. Where the Chinons and Bourgueils of the Loire veer strongly toward bell pepper, this medium-full-bodied effort serves up an intriguing note of jalapeno, with good acid support. Elegance trumps power. Available in Ontario.

Château Puygueraud 2009, France

Score: 90 Price: $22.85

Go, Bordeaux! From the superior 2009 vintage comes this well-priced offering from one of the region's underappreciated addresses, a place called Francs – Côtes de Bordeaux, formerly known as Côtes de Francs. It's just east of vaunted Saint-Émilion, where merlot reigns supreme, and shares a similar soil composition. A blend of mostly merlot with cabernet franc and malbec, it's full-bodied, silky and juicy, with hints of mineral and spice, served up with fine-grained tannins. Drink now or cellar for up to eight years. $28.05 in Quebec.

Altivo Balance Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Argentina

Score: 90 Price: $21.95

Such an oddity, this one. It's a cabernet sauvignon that tastes an awful lot like herbaceous cabernet franc. But, then, read the fine print and one discovers there's 5-per-cent cab franc in the mix, so I'm not deducting too many points for varietal misrepresentation. Black currant mingles with cracked pepper, bell pepper and mint to achieve an uncharacteristically bracing style for Mendoza. Available in Ontario.

D'Arenberg The High Trellis Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Australia

Score: 90 Price: $19.95

There is no trellis in this curiously named vineyard. When there was (before rust claimed the wire and ants gnawed out the fence posts), it was high only in a relative sense. Back in the 1880s, vines at d'Arenberg were trained to a mere 30 centimetres off the ground, which permitted the grapes to absorb ground heat but made harvesting a pain in the rear. In the 1920s, the shoots were lifted to about one metre high, still low by today's standards. So much for nomenclature. This cab, which contains dollops of merlot and petit verdot for smoothness and spice, offers up attractively sweet, candied fruit and whispers of mint and peppery spice on a satisfyingly dry texture. $24.48 in Newfoundland.

Brunel de la Gardine Crozes-Hermitage 2010, France

Score: 88 Price: $22.95

I would be remiss in speaking of pepperiness without mentioning the Rhône Valley, particularly the northern reaches, where syrah is king. Make that a chessboard king, the kind shaped like a pepper mill. This is not blow-your-socks-off Crozes-Hermitage, but it offers a decent snapshot of how satisfyingly tense and spicy syrah can be when grown in a relatively cool climate. Medium-full-bodied and very dry, it's soft on entry but cranks up the licorice and pepper in the second act. Available in Ontario.

Korta Reserve Syrah 2010, Chile

Score: 87 Price: $15.95

Not the best syrah to emerge from Chile, where the grape is making quality gains, but it's attractively priced. On the soft side for the variety, it tastes a little confected, though not in an unattractive way. Think wine gums dusted with cocoa powder and herbs. Available in Ontario.