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Gift-worthy wines – whether you want to splurge or save

The Dow Jones has been setting records this year like Gretzky in the 1980s. Bordeaux and Burgundy prices have been soaring. Clearly, there's more loose cash in the world than my bank balance would suggest. For those with crazy money to lavish on loved ones this season, I offer a few suggestions below (and hope I'm on your list). Most wines are from today's "Our Finest" feature at Ontario Vintages stores, though some are available elsewhere, as indicated.

For readers in a tighter snack bracket, I've included other fine, gift-worthy selections. They come with a consolation, too. Price is a wholly unreliable indicator of wine quality, if that were not already clear to you. I'm reminded of this constantly, never more poignantly than when I taste in the company of other seasoned critics and sommeliers, who often guffaw at stunningly overpriced trophy wines crafted for the cellars of the rich, famous and, in some cases, gullible.

One example from the aforementioned "Our Finest" selections: Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 from California, which will set you back $109.95 in Ontario. It's a very fine wine, do not get me wrong. Some years it's a great wine. But I believe the 2009 vintage would easily be trounced in blind tastings by a few Chilean cabernets costing less than $40. In the wine's defence, I should point out it garnered a 96-point score from international critic Antonio Galloni, who used to write for Robert Parker's famous Wine Advocate newsletter.

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Antinori Solaia 2010 (Italy)

SCORE: 96 PRICE: $251.95

The Antinori dynasty of Florence, 26 generations strong, might declare this its crown jewel. Produced in the heart of Tuscany, Solaia is based mainly on cabernet sauvignon, a French variety, not the sangiovese grape of local Chianti fame. And it's crafted to compete head on with the great cabernet-based grand crus of Bordeaux. Italian wine may get more idiosyncratic and, well, Italian, but this is hard to beat. Expansive and concentrated, it is loaded with ripe dark berries, chocolate and prune, with baking spices and roast beef in supporting roles. The chalky tannins are bracing. Decant it now to soften the astringency or cellar it for up to 25 years.

Ornellaia 2010 (Italy)

SCORE: 96 PRICE: $189.95

Owned by the holding company of the famed Frescobaldi family, this iconic red marks its 25th anniversary with the 2010 vintage. It is, I think, the most consistent of the great "supertuscans," which emerged over the past 40 years to show that Italy could produce stunning wines based on non-Italian grapes. A blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot – following the Bordeaux formula – the 2010 is rich and very ripe, with a whisper of raisin amid the luscious fresh berries. I particularly love the uncanny espresso note (how Italian) and the angular tannins that boldly declare its European pedigree. This begs for at least five years in the cellar and should improve with up to 25. $185 in Que.

Masi Mazzano Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2006 (Italy)

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SCORE: 95 PRICE: $99.95

Amarone pioneer and leading light Masi makes several top bottlings. They are thunderously powered, like a Ferrari F12 Berlinetta. The Mazzano is always the biggie. Dense and luscious, this 2006 comes across with fig, plum, prune and chocolate flavours, backed by a firm tannic spine and perfect, mouthwatering acidity. Drink it now or cellar it for up to 20 years. Available in Ontario.

Ambullneo Vineyards Fang Blanc 2007 (California)

SCORE: 93 PRICE: $62.95

Students of dog breeds may recognize ambullneo as the name of a mastiff. This wine brand was named after a particular member of that breed, a dog named Rockne, late-departed pet of winery's founder Greg Linn. The canine got his name from Knute Rockne, Notre Dame football's legendary late coach. I don't know if that qualifies this as a "critter label," but I suspect the high price would disqualify it from the field. The wine, from Santa Maria Valley, is superb. Full-bodied but with impressive balance and relatively low alcohol for the sunny region (at just 13.2 per cent), it is brimming with ripe fruit, soft buttery texture and excellent tangy-acid lift. Think of buttered toast with stone-fruit preserves and honey. Available in Ontario.

Montecillo Gran Reserva Rioja 2005 (Spain)

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SCORE: 92 PRICE: $30.95

Why is the word "odour" so often preceded by "bad." I'd call the smell of this terrific Rioja as much an odour as an aroma because it's got just the right amount of something I love in certain great reds, a scent that suggests barnyard manure. If you don't like that smell, then get off the farm and leave this wine to the rest of us, city slicker! It's medium-full-bodied, with perfectly ripe plum and cherry at its core, supported by woody spice and a floral quality. The tannins are gently dusty, lending good support to a wine that should continue to improve for up to eight years. $34.86 in Man., $33.75 in Que., $36.99 in N.B., $39.99 in N.S.

Versado Reserva Malbec 2010 (Argentina)

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $59.95

Niagara-based couple Peter Gamble and Ann Sperling own this fine estate in Mendoza, where they conveniently harvest and press grapes in spring while in the northern hemisphere vines are just starting to emerge from winter dormancy. Gamble is a veteran consultant to several Canadian wineries. Sperling's chief gig is with Southbrook, the biodynamic estate. This is very fine, serious malbec, hardly your run-of-the-mill $12 fare. Full-bodied and intense, it shows luscious berry fruit, dark roast coffee and spice, with juicy acidity. It's got great structure for the cellar. Available in Ontario.

D'Arenberg The Footbolt Shiraz 2010 (Australia)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23.95

All the berries in the forest, or garden, seem to make an appearance here, including jammy blueberries. So does my favourite cocktail garnish, maraschino cherry. Herbs and cracked pepper supply intriguing complexity. $23.99 in B.C., $24.48 in Nfld.

Château d'Anglés Grand Vin 2008 (France)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $20.95

From southern France, this is a blend, in order percentage, of mourvèdre, syrah and grenache, with the proportions in the reverse of most southern French reds. Mourvèdre, a tannic grape, gives this red solid structure. Full-bodied and intense, it's packed with raspberry, dark chocolate, lavender, thyme and rosemary, pulled in tight by those chalky tannins. Give it a year's rest if you can or decant it for current drinking. Available in Ontario.

Black Sage Vineyard Merlot 2011 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.99

Smooth but with structure – that's what merlot should be but mostly isn't. This shows plum, chocolate and nuances of tobacco, cedar and herbs, with very good structure. Available from the vineyard (

Jerzu Chuerra Riserva Cannonau di Sardegna 2008 (Italy)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $16.95

Terrific value from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, this is made from grenache (known locally as cannonau), medium-full-bodied and succulent, with notes of cherry and dark chocolate supported by dusty tannins. Available in Ontario.

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