In this space a couple of weeks ago, I vaulted over the $100 price fence to feature a couple of splurge-worthy bottles aimed at the Tiffany crowd. To keep things real, I also offered a few worthy choices for much less. This is the second instalment in that Downton Abbey, patrician-versus-plebeian theme. Only this time I'm setting the upper cap at $70 while confining the smart buys to below $20 (based on Ontario retail prices).
Despite the lower ceiling, I managed to sniff out a couple of superb, family-made premier-cru Champagnes, including a vintage-dated 1996 marvel that, incidentally, was far better than a big-brand bottle from 1996 worth $200 that I recently pulled from my cellar to mark an otherwise modest birthday (my own). I also came across a splendid Châteauneuf-du-Pape that would flatter almost any holiday roast, whether turkey, lamb or beef. And if organic is your tonic, consider the excellent Emiliana Coyam red from Chile for a not-unreasonable $29.95.
It's not every week that I find a compelling pinot noir for less than $20, but this week I'm suggesting one from New Zealand that also happens to be made with certified-organic grapes. For crowd-pleasing fullness and outstanding value, there's also a fine malbec from Argentina that's more elegant and complex than most costing under $17. If you want to dress it up as a fancy-looking gift, put it in a baby-blue Tiffany bag; that's what I do with socks.
Louis Brochet Cuvée HBH Champagne Premier Cru 1996 (France)
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $68.95
Most Champagnes that dominate store shelves come from big companies that source grapes from dozens of contract growers. Louis Brochet is a family operation that grows everything it makes. So-called "grower Champagnes" are all the rage among connoisseurs, and this well-aged, vintage-dated example is fit to win over more converts to the cause. Very dry, yet with a honeyed richness, it's creamy and layered with suggestions of apricot, roasted nuts, underbrush and toasty bread. Twenty years after harvest, it's showing beautifully, as a great vintage-dated bubbly ought to. Available in Ontario.
E. Guigal Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2010 (France)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $63.95
Guigal is justifiably famous for majestic, $300-plus single-vineyard syrahs from the winery's home base in the northern Rhône. But the high standards are also evident in this red blend from the southern Rhône appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Made mainly with grenache, syrah and mourvèdre from vines averaging 45 years of age, it's full-bodied and perfectly ripe, displaying notes of sweet cherry jam, licorice, lavender and tobacco. Meaty, earthy and profound, it's approachable now yet should improve with up to a decade more in the cellar. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $54.79 in Manitoba, $45.99 in New Brunswick.
Marc Hébrart Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne (France)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $48.95
The silky, slippery little bubbles bring to mind miniature caviar eggs (without the fishy essence). Creamy lemon curd and juicy green apple flavours mingle with bread dough, with firm acidity to tighten up the generous flavour. Available in Ontario.
Blue Mountain Reserve Brut R.D. 2008 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $39.90
Blue Mountain invests much time and expense crafting its sparkling wines. This gem, made from equal parts pinot noir and chardonnay, spent six and a half years resting in the bottle in contact with yeast followed by another year prior to release. That's how rich, layered flavours develop, and here's clear evidence: The wine is bone dry, with high-voltage acidity powering flavours of green apple, berries, lemon pastry and toasty, yeasty bread. Available direct through www.bluemountainwinery.com.
Emiliana Coyam 2012 (Chile)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95
Emiliana's Coyam is a throw-out-the-rules red blend of syrah, carmenere, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, mourvèdre and malbec. Pressed from organic grapes, it's big on flavour and smooth yet simultaneously firm, suggesting blackberry liqueur, plum, cocoa, vanilla and coffee, pulled together by gently sticky tannins. Available in Ontario at the above price, $27.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $29.99 in Manitoba, $35.79 in Nova Scotia.
Momo Pinot Noir 2014 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Produced from organic grapes and fermented with wild vineyard yeasts versus the more common industrial strains, this bone-dry pinot from cinematographer Michael Seresin's New Zealand estate has a core of berry jam infused with an autumnal, earthy essence, backed by fine, chalky tannins. Intriguing, high-quality pinot at a sensible price. Available in Ontario at the above price, $22.60 in Quebec.
Zuccardi Serie A Malbec 2014 (Argentina)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $16.95
Would that all malbecs at this price could exhibit such harmony and layered detail. Full-bodied and succulent, it's smooth and supple, with rich plum and blueberry-jam fruitiness set against a backdrop of tangy herbs and moist forest underbrush. Available in Ontario.
Wakefield Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Full-bodied and velvety, with sweet berry intensity supported by chocolate-mocha and vanilla characters. Imagine a cappuccino-and-blackberry cheesecake. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $17.99 in Nova Scotia.
Kew Soldier's Grant 2013 (Niagara)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
The name pays tribute to Richard Kew, the winery's namesake and the man who, following the War of 1812, was granted the land on which it sits. This is local wine but also, in two senses, global. Philip Dowell, a native Australian, is the talented winemaker here. And the 15-per-cent cabernet franc grapes in this mostly cabernet sauvignon blend were dried in the Italian appassimento style to concentrate flavour. Full-bodied, it tastes precision-ripened, with flavours of currant, bitter cocoa, smoky cedar and a hint of mint. Available in Ontario.
Flor de Vetus Verdejo 2015 (Spain)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Medium-bodied and silky, with a fruit-and-mineral yin-yang that's like sweet-tart peaches on hot stones. Aromatic overtones of lemon zest, dried grass and herbs provide aromatic lift. Clean and seductive. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $20.22 in Newfoundland.
Quinta das Setencostas Alenquer 2012 (Portugal)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.95
For trivia's sake (not that most North American drinkers will remember or care), the grapes here are castelao, camarate and tinta miuda. It all adds up to one smooth package. Lush dark-fruit characters mix with spices and leather, wrapped in soft tannins, with a salty edge on the finish. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $15.05 in Quebec.