You love wine but have zero time for pedantic grape nerds. I hear you. It would all be so much easier if the world contained just a few grape varieties, the way the soft-drinks world rests on just a few globally dominant brands. In a Coke-like wine world, there would be no learning curve, no need to think about your next bottle. Just an easy-breezy industrial pinot grigio, creamy chardonnay or mouthfilling cabernet sauvignon (plus a couple of other mega-popular styles).
But it's a richer world than that, thank goodness. Wine's complexity has a glorious upside in the form of diversity and discovery. In that spirit, I'm leading off the reviews with an oddity based mainly on nero di Troia, a grape deserving wider recognition.
It's a specialty of Puglia, Italy's stiletto-heel region better known for primitivo (a.k.a. zinfandel) and negroamaro. Nero di Troia is different from those generally jammy reds, mainly in a couple of regards. It tends to be firmly tannic and earthy – against the grain of today's preference for smooth textures and gobs of fruit.
Rivera Il Falcone Riserva Castel del Monte, which also contains splashes of montepulciano and other southern Italian varieties, happens to be quirky in another way. I suspect that more than a few sommeliers would dismiss it for being less than squeaky clean. There was a distinct whiff of barnyard in the bottle I sampled, the sort of funky aroma commonly associated with brettanomyces yeast. In heavy concentrations it can be considered a technical fault. Short of that, it can be grand – the sort of thing many winemakers the world over would love to (and are trying to) capture without letting things get out of hand.
This is a sexy, sweaty wine, not as freshly showered and shaved as the typical $20 California merlot, but it's seductive nonetheless. Who's with me?
Rivera Il Falcone Riserva Castel del Monte 2011, Italy
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
Full-bodied, round, smooth and chunky, this is a raw taste of southern Italian winemaking. It offers up chocolate, plum, cherry and a pronounced, funky-barnyard essence, with traces of damp forest floor, licorice and graphite. Such complexity for the money. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $23.45 in Quebec.
Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2015, Ontario
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95
Full-bodied and rich, this is well-ripened and smartly oaked chardonnay from an exacting boutique producer in Niagara. Tropical fruit coated in farmhouse butter. Delicately spicy-toasty oak, with vanilla softness and a firm acid spine. Available in Ontario.
La Crema Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2014, California
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $45.95
It's ripe, for sure, with a brambly-fruit base and 14.5-per-cent alcohol for body, but on balance this is an enticingly earthy-spicy style from Sonoma County, with vibrant acidity supplying tight structure. Perfect for medium-rare duck breast or grilled lamb chops. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $42.75 in Quebec.
Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, California
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $184.95
Here's a big red that's catnip for many collectors. For others, I dare say, it might prompt a heartening feeling that says, "I'm not missing much by not being rich." Silver Oak is a California icon, and this Napa Valley bottling (not to be confused with the less-expensive but fine Alexander Valley edition) certainly makes a statement. It's a textbook example of big oak (you could teach a sensory class with it at an enology school). And we're talking strongly flavoured American oak, not the more subtle French variety, with 85-per-cent new barrels and 15-per-cent once-used. I'd enjoy a hearty glass or two of this clove-cedar-plum-flavoured red with, say, a caribou steak or roast lamb. But, as a veteran colleague of mine agreed, it comes across like a Spanish Gran Reserva Rioja, and one can find good examples of such wines for $40. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Jerzu Marghia Cannonau di Sardegna 2014, Italy
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $16.95
Grenache, a grape popular across Spain, southern France and Australia, is known as cannonau on the island of Sardinia. This is a standout, with an uncommon aromatic quality wonderfully reminiscent of cola crossed with the Italian soft drink chinotto. Full-bodied, showing perfect ripeness and succulent, supple fruit suggesting plum and currant jam, with a vermouth-like herbal-spice overtone. Excellent mid-palate weight and a welcome tickle of acidity. Good choice for roast lamb. Available in Ontario.
Yalumba The Scribbler 2013, Australia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23.95
A Barossa blend of 59-per-cent cabernet sauvignon with 41-per-cent shiraz, this is the baby brother to Yalumba's flagship Barossa red called The Signature. Youthful it is, relatively speaking. Full-bodied but juicy, with currant and plum flavours joined by chocolate, lively mint and black-olive tapenade. The ripe tannins are gently grippy, adding structure that bodes well for perhaps as much as eight years in the cellar. Steak or lamb chops would be nice. Available in Ontario at the above price, $24.49 in British Columbia (or hurry – it's on sale for $21.99 until Nov. 25), roughly $25 in Alberta, $24.99 in Manitoba, $25.55 in Newfoundland.
Gérard Bertrand Cuvée Thomas Jefferson Brut Crémant de Limoux, France
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
Curious name. Great wine for the money. Bertrand dedicated this sparkling cuvée to what the southern French winery describes as "the most French of American presidents." True enough. Before his presidency, the U.S. founding father was his nation's minister to France and had developed a storied thirst for French wine, including the great and still-underappreciated bubbles of Limoux. This bargain wine is done in the Champagne style, using a variety of grapes including local mauzac. Bone-dry, chalky and tightly structured, it shows good autolytic depth and flavours of pear, brioche and lemon flan set against a fine mousse and a Champagne-like stony, mineral-like essence. Available in Ontario.
Mazzei Ser Lapo Riserva Chianti Classico 2013, Italy
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $22.95
Super Chianti. Elegant label. A smart gift for the Ital-oenophile. Medium-full and seamlessly textured. Bright, tangy cherry fruit with hints of leather and licorice. Harmonious. Able to cellar well for perhaps eight more years. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Whitehaven Pinot Noir 2013, New Zealand
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95
Impressive texture, polished and silky. A fine canvas for the well-proportioned flavours in this pinot noir from Marlborough. Sweet-ripe cherry-raspberry fruit opens up, just barely, to reveal whispers of damp earth and smoke. Lively spice makes a strong showing on the bright finish. Available in Ontario at the above price, $22.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $27.40 in Saskatchewan, $22.99 in Manitoba, $24.95 in Quebec, $25.20 in Prince Edward Island, $24.99 in Nova Scotia, $27.98 in Newfoundland.
Domaine de la Chaise Touraine Sauvignon 2016, France
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
Here's a good value from the same region responsible for the much more expensive Loire Valley sauvignon blancs of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. It's light-medium-bodied, softer and riper-tasting than many wines based on grassy sauvignon blanc, with a glossy texture and notes of lemon and grapefruit. Available in Ontario.