This will come as no surprise to most of you: Wine columnists are biased.
Some have a special fondness for smooth oak and high alcohol. Others delight in herbaceous cabernet francs, still others in the sweat and guts of an old-school Barolo. As readers, we adjust, mentally deducting or adding a few points here and there when we're wise to the critic's unbridled enthusiasm for a particular style. Taste is taste, and sometimes that's a critic's biggest draw (depending on the reader).
But too often the bias is political. It's clear to me that many wine scorers give too much credit (read inflated scores) to products from their own countries. We seem to appreciate the problem in other fields of adjudication – sports, say – but not so much in wine. The world would cry foul if the International Olympic Committee were to let a panel of all-American judges score gymnastics. Yet when a U.S. wine critic scores a California wine, it's taken in stride.
The problem seems to me especially acute in cases where critics are based in countries with monolithic wine markets, such as the United States and Australia. In the U.S., about three out of four bottles consumed come from California.
That sets a tone of expectation. It's not much different in Australia, where the local critics seem to dole out high scores for the home team as though 15-per-cent-alcohol shirazes were models of potable elegance.
The problem is less pronounced, I think, with British critics, because England, lacking a significant grape-growing industry, has long been a cosmopolitan wine market. British supermarkets – and consumers – scour the world for variety, though they retain a slight historical bias for nearby France, especially Bordeaux, a region that flourished under ship-based trade with England.
That's why I have always deployed a demerit scale when shopping for my own cellar. When forced to buy based on a U.S. or Australian critic's scores (and not having had the luxury of tasting the wine beforehand), I automatically lop off a deuce from the 100-point scale for U.S. and Aussie wines, respectively. A 93, for example, drops to 91.
I was reminded of this arithmetic when sampling the (very expensive) California wines below – all recently released, mainly in Ontario – for holiday gift-giving. On average, my own scores came in at roughly two points below those of American critics, in some cases much lower. In at least one instance, Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon, I was more generous, awarding it 95 versus the esteemed American critic Robert Parker's 93.
But I love Togni and 20 years ago made a pilgrimage to his estate in Napa Valley. That – the hazardous nostalgic connection – is another form of bias, I suppose, but I'm offering full disclosure.
Yes, I too am a nationalist. I think our domestic wines often fail to garner due credit from international critics (when they bother to review them at all). I know many of you do as well. But I've tried to keep my prejudice in check with the British Columbia wines below. That, after all, is what Canadians do, isn't it? We're harder on this country than we probably should be. If you're a B.C. booster, I won't be offended if you add two points to my B.C. scores.
Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (California)
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $123.95
Togni has a knack for crafting Bordeaux-style elegance and cellar-worthiness in a state that often falls short of that mark. This cab shows textbook cassis-like purity and vigour despite its expansive frame. The joy here is in the mineral quality behind the fruit. Still tight, it could blossom with at least 10 years in the cellar.
L'Aventure Estate Cuvée 2009 (California)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $94.95
French-born Stephan Asseo moved from Bordeaux to start this property in Paso Robles. He also left France far behind stylistically, putting proud emphasis on massive reds that play to the sunny district's strengths. But there's complexity here: A blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, this wine sports 15.9-per-cent alcohol and teeth-staining concentration, with rich, dark fruit, vanilla and coffee flavours and a busload of tannins. Give it five years in the cellar if you can.
Kistler Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay 2009 (California)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $72.95
The texture is gorgeous, like fine chalk, which keep this full-bodied white lively on the gums as it reveals nuances of spiced pear, apple, wet stone and smoke through the long, balanced finish. A gem.
Cuvaison Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (California)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.95
This is a bargain next to the other California reds here, offering classic cabernet flavours of blackcurrant and black olive framed by fine, dry tannins and a lick of tangy mineral.
Jonata El Alma de Jonata 2007 (California)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $143.95
Other offerings from this esteemed new estate have been more to my liking, but there's much to recommend this Bordeaux-style blend. Massive and astringently tannic, it shows rich dark chocolate, pipe tobacco, blueberry, mineral and a nicely bitter edge.
Burrowing Owl Meritage 2008 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $59.95 in Ontario
A smooth texture carries flavours of berry, vanilla and baking spices and fine-grained tannins lifted by juicy acidity. Decant it if you can or cellar it for four to six years. In B.C., it's $45 and is available direct from the winery (www.bovwine.ca).
Peter Michael l'Esprit des Pavots 2006 (California)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $144.95
This is a Bordeaux-style red blend from an iconic Sonoma producer perhaps best known for comparably expensive chardonnays. I love the smooth, fruity core and notes of graphite and spice, but it's hobbled slightly by a hot medicinal note from its 15.5-per-cent alcohol.
Burrowing Owl Athene 2009 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $35 in B.C.
A new blend of syrah and cabernet sauvignon, this full-bodied red is intense and succulent, with ripe plum, tobacco and lavish, toasty oak. Nuances of coffee and vanilla make an appearance, too. Big but bracing and never too heavy. Available in the West direct from the winery.
De Martino Legado Reserva Carménère 2008 (Chile)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
This is a standard-bearer for affordable carmenère, Chile's signature red, which in lesser renditions can taste too bitter or stalky. Juicy dark-skinned fruits get attractive support from coffee, mint and dry tannins in this full-bodied bargain. In B.C., look for the very good De Martino Legado Reserva Chardonnay at $17.99.
Bowmore Darkest Aged 15 Years Islay Single Malt (Scotland)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $89.95
Charred wood, earth, iodine and maritime saltiness pierce through the dried fruit and luscious sherry characters of this robust scotch. Impressive for the money. The B.C. price is $89.99.
The Balvenie PortWood Aged 21 Years Single Malt (Scotland)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $224.95
Rich and succulent, this super-luxe old Speyside spirit starts out friendly, with burnt honey, dried fruit and cashew flavours, before delivering a backslap of spice and seductive nuance of damp earth.