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Young and earthy? Yes, some wines can be both

Where do you stand on tobacco? I'm all for it. How about underbrush, damp earth, cedar, ash, charred twigs? Cigar humidor? Some wine descriptors might sooner suggest the sullied flannels of a B.C. lumberjack than a suitable sip for tonight's pot roast. That's why a few wine glossaries feel obliged to stress that words like tobacco signify something attractive.

Often it takes just a modicum of attention or imagination to detect such qualities, which I tend to lump under the general heading of "earthy." They are virtues of many red wines pressed from such varieties as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, tempranillo, grenache and carmenere, though occasionally a fine white Burgundy or Loire Valley chenin blanc can play in the dirt and leaves, too.

Bottle age also can be a big catalyst for these qualities. The older the vintage, the more likely it is to veer away from pure fruit into the savoury realm, particularly dried leaves and even leather. That's why I tend to consider it a bonus when young wines, like the selections below, seem to subtly exude notes of tobacco and the like. (At least I think they do.)

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There's no tobacco in grapes, of course, as readers occasionally enjoy pointing out – with understandable condescension – to wine critics now and then. Skeptics thus conclude that Bordeaux or Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Chilean carmenere can't possibly smell or taste of Old Ports or Lucky Strikes. Well, not so fast. Humans don't smell tobacco leaves; they smell molecules in tobacco leaves. You need not be a tobacco plant to smell like one. Think of the artificial-flavouring industry. It doesn't rake in billions by using actual strawberries to create things like strawberry Jell-O. Besides, wine is not pure fruit. It's a product of fermentation. Yeast generates and leaves behind all kinds of flavours.

In fact, according to recent research out of the University of California, Davis, that heady note of cigar box might be a sign that your wine has been infected with a "spoilage" yeast called brettanomyces, another source of pleasantly earthy (and sometimes putrid) aromas.

The tobacco and dirt roads are also sometimes paved with wood. Oak barrels, which are charred to varying degrees prior to use, contribute all sorts of non-fruity nuances. I guess you could say that a lot of wine is not that far removed from the lumberjack world after all.

Paul Autard Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2010 (France)

SCORE: 93 PRICE: $49.95

Typically made mainly from supple grenache, with splashes of peppery syrah and counoise also in the mix, this southern Rhône blend offers up full-bodied succulence associated with the Châteauneuf district. But the stars of this exciting show, from the good 2010 vintage, are wild herbs, underbrush, beef jus and – most intriguingly – smouldering twigs. Enjoy a campfire in the city just by popping the cork. Pair it with roasted red meats, such as leg of lamb. Various prices in Alberta.

Château Saint-Roch Chimères 2011 (France)

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SCORE: 91 PRICE: $18.95

Mostly grenache and syrah, this full-bodied red from a fine producer in the southern French Roussillon region is an old private men's club library of leather and tobacco, with a core of smooth strawberry offset by powdery tannins. The 15-per-cent alcohol stays in bounds, registering more as spice than bitter medicine. Try it with big chunks of grilled red meat. Available in Ontario.

Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Merlot 2011 (Chile)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $21.95

This premium bottling from a huge producer of more affordable fare delivers better structure than most merlots near its price. Rich plum and dark chocolate welcome eucalyptus and tobacco to the party. There's a satisfyingly astringent pull on the long finish. Steak would be grand with it. $22 in Quebec, $25.99 in Nova Scotia.

Vina Tarapaca Gran Reserva Carmenere 2011 (Chile)

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SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95

Chile's signature red grape, carmenere, is something of an acquired taste, with its oftenbracing, herbal punch. It's worth acquiring that taste because the grape is capable of great complexity and structure. This is a fine example for the money, full bodied and fully ripe, with sweet berries on a polished texture that also reveals intriguing smoked herbs, jalapeno, cedar and cracked pepper. It's perfect for charred meat off the grill. Various prices in Alberta.

Candor Lot 5 Zinfandel (California)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $21.95

For a premium-priced product, this is unusual in carrying no vintage date. Hope Family blends fruit of two or more harvest years to come up with added complexity, and that precludes it from printing a date on the label. As such you can't readily tell how old each bottle is, which makes it less of a collector's item and more of a drink-now proposition. Full-bodied, chunky and ultra-smooth, this red zin seems aimed squarely at the mass market, with its sweet cherry and vanilla lusciousness. Expect a suggestion of chocolate-coated cigar, too. Various prices in Alberta.

Château de Nages Vieilles Vignes 2011 (France)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95

The Costières de Nîmes appellation in the southern Rhône yielded this grenache-syrah-mourvèdre red blend that is sure to please fans of ripe fruit – as in Amarone and red zinfandel. It strikes me as a tad overripe, with its 15.5-per-cent alcohol and slightly prune-like character. But it's got raspberry and lots of underbrush, too, like wild fruit that had fallen on a forest floor. Introduce it to pork ribs. Available in Ontario.

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