My credit-card company sent a payment-due alert to my cellphone the other day. How handy – and oddly embarrassing. Some people get to enjoy the naughty thrills of sexting; I get finger-wagging from bank robots. The bill, which I would normally have paid promptly, had gone ignored because it was my annual post-holiday whopper. I was in denial. But the helpful alert served as a reminder that we are in the season of restraint and that, in many homes, the first casualty of thrift is discretionary spending on "optional" consumables, such as wine.
For a grape nut feeling the pinch, there are two choices: Drink less or drink smarter. The suggestions that follow, all $16 or less based on Ontario prices, are intended for readers who are inclined to choose the second option. It's by no means a definitive bargain list, merely a summary of wise buys from among new releases that I was able to sample in recent weeks. May one or more help you keep the bank robots away.
Le Gravillas Sablet Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2014, France
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
Grenache-syrah blend from a solid producer. Juicy berries mix with classic southern French overtones of licorice, lavender and black pepper. Seriously crafted Rhône red at a hard-to-resist price. Available in Ontario.
Baronia Del Montsant Flor d'Englora Garnatxa 2011, Spain
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $13.95
Grenache from 35-year-old vines in the Montsant region that surrounds the hoity-toity grenache hotspot of Priorat. Rich and almost sweet, with the supple seduction of a $25 French Gigondas. Available in Ontario.
Argento Reserva Malbec 2014, Argentina
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $13.95
Malbec with more detail and intrigue than one might expect for less than $14. The non-reserve malbec from the same producer, at $9.95, is pleasantly chuggable, too. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $15.99 in Nova Scotia.
Cantina Sanpaolo Aglianico Campania Rosso 2015, Italy
SCORE: 89 PRICE $13.95
Exciting to encounter a delectable example of southern Italy's ruggedly handsome aglianico grape for under $14. Full, fleshy, leathery and spicy. Back up the Fiat 500 hatchback, Fabrizio. Available in Ontario.
Cuvée Jean Philippe Blanquette de Limoux 2014, France
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
Made in the labour-intensive Champagne style from a region that was producing bubbly long before Dom Pérignon found religion. Excellent sweet-tart tension revealing crisp apple, cherry and bread-dough flavours. Available in Ontario.
MAN Free-Run Steen Chenin Blanc 2015, South Africa
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $13.95
Smells and tastes like a more expensive Vouvray, the French wine made from chenin blanc, or "steen" as it's widely known in South Africa. Dry but with a judicious hint of sweetness to underscore the orange and apricot notes. Good white for curries. Available in Ontario.
Gérald Talmard Mâcon-Uchizy 2015, France
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Respectable Burgundian chardonnay at an attractively un-Burgundian price. Soft tropical fruit mashed with cold butter, honey and vanilla, all in smart balance. Available in Ontario at the above price, $19.45 in Quebec.
Sterling Vintner's Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, California
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16
Easygoing, lipsmacking California cabernet with solid density and tidy structure. Napa-based Sterling sources the fruit here from the less-expensive Central Coast. Available in Ontario at the above price, $13.99 in British Columbia, $16 in Alberta.
Montes Twins Red Blend, Chile
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $12.95
A 50/50 malbec-cabernet sauvignon blend. The former's soft, grapy quality is disciplined by the stern, tannic quality of the latter. Creamy and jammy yet structured and interesting. Available in Ontario at the above price, $16.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $15.10 in Saskatchewan, $14.99 in Manitoba.
Château du Chatelard Les Chalandières Beaujolais 2014, France
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
Light yet with laudable density for a generic Beaujolais. Chewy raspberry with hints of white pepper and ballpark bubblegum. Good red for fish. Available in Ontario.
Heartland Stickleback Red 2013, Australia
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
Offbeat Bordeaux-meets-Rhône blend (by way of Australia's Langhorne Creek), combining cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, grenache and merlot. Cherry jam, licorice, black pepper and smooth tannins. Much better than your average $15 Aussie fruit bomb. From the fine winemaking hands of Ben Glaetzer. Available in Ontario at the above price, $15.49 in British Columbia, $14.50 in Manitoba.
Noble Vines 337 Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, California
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17
A chalky, grippy texture holds together flavours of currant, roasted nuts, caramel and herbs. Well-balanced cabernet from sultry Lodi. Available in Ontario at the above price, $18.49 in British Columbia, $20.89 in Saskatchewan, $19.99 in Manitoba, $21.99 in New Brunswick, $21.11 in Newfoundland.
Deakin Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Australia
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $9.95
Smooth yet admirably dry. Delicate lemon, and herbal notes without the assertive grassiness that is the grape's southern hemisphere hallmark. Available in Ontario at the above price, $13.79 in New Brunswick, $14.63 in Newfoundland.
Casal Thaulero Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Italy
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $7.95
Crisp and cheerfully light yet flavourful. Bring on the pizza. Available in Ontario.