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Red, red wines to get you through the worst of winter

Got the winter blues? Here's a suggestion: winter reds.

February is the month from hell as far as I'm concerned - and not just because of Valentine's Day and the fact that neither New England nor Buffalo will play in tomorrow's Super Bowl. If I had been Pope in place of Gregory XIII, the calendar would jump straight from January to March. Leap years were invented by Satan.

Thank goodness for wine. Deep reds for deep winter can level the playing field of even the nastiest Canadian weather. In recent years, liquor stores have clued in, filling out their inventories with rib-sticking cabernet sauvignons, velvety merlots, jammy shirazes, hearty malbecs and broad-shouldered Barolos.

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All of the following wines would warm the heart on their own, but they also pair well with hearty meat dishes, including stews, roast beef, steak and even meat loaf.

One of the better buys in today's release at Ontario Vintages stores is Zolo Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($16.95, product No. 54098). It hails from Argentina, a land that specializes in full-bodied reds that partner perfectly with the country's beefy cuisine. This one has lots of classic oak-aged cabernet flavours, including plum, vanilla, black currant, cedar and chocolate. It's chunky and well-balanced with well-integrated tannins - a smooth winter warmer.

For $2 more, you can move up a notch to an excellent Vintages offering from Argentina, Luigi Bosca Single Vineyard Malbec 2006 ($18.95, No. 74922). The plum-like fruit is ripe and almost sweet, supported by a silky, succulent texture and dry, spicy finish.

From neighbouring Chile comes the very good Arboleda Merlot 2007 ($18.95, No. 45864). The dark, opaque-purple colour presages a full-bodied flavour, rich with dark-berry nuances and classic Chilean overtones of eucalyptus and spice.

Malbec is the signature red grape of Argentina, but it thrives nicely in Chile, too. Chocalan Gran Reserva Malbec 2006 ($24.95, No. 144394) is superb, delivering an intriguing hint of espresso coffee over flavours of plum and blackberry. I suggest decanting this one and sloshing it around to expose it to air; this will soften the firm texture and unleash more fruit.

Today's Vintages release features a wine I referred to in a column last month on the rise of alcohol levels. Small Gully Wines The Formula Robert's Shiraz 2005 from Australia ($16.95, No. 142935) weighs in at 16.7 per cent. That's remarkable for a dry red, but the alcohol is well-integrated and remains enveloped by the rich fruit, so it doesn't taste "hot" or bitter. The flavour suggests berry syrup and the texture is smooth.

Also from Australia is The Black Chook Shiraz Viognier 2008 ($16.95, No. 66738) from a company called Woop Woop. Juicy and luscious with a core of berry flavour, it has a smooth texture and, thanks to the smidgeon of white viognier, a floral nuance.

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Perhaps the best value in today's Vintages release comes from France. It's called Le Secret des Capitelles Saint-Chinian 2007 ($14.95, No. 156299) and is laced with typical southern-France notes of lavender and fresh herbs. I love this style of wine, but I'd venture that many people would prefer it paired with braised meats or herbed chicken instead of on its own.

Also from France is a terrific syrah called Delas Frères Les Launes Crozes-Hermitage 2007 ($19.95, No. 701359). The large Crozes-Hermitage district of the northern Rhone Valley is hit-and-miss, with quality varying greatly from producer to producer. This one hits the mark with a focused plum-blackberry core, hints of licorice and herbs and a satisfyingly dry finish.

The other winners from France are very expensive but still not unreasonable. Sadly, for high-quality red Bordeaux, Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste 2006 ($85, No. 564302) is a fine claret that deserves a higher-ranking than its fifth-growth status in the Bordeaux classification system. Smart collectors will zero in on Grand-Puy-Lacoste at auctions because it represents good value for its laudable track record as a cellar-keeper. This 2006 is drinking smoothly now, with notes of cassis, earth and graphite, but will likely age well for 10 to 15 years. Château Léoville Poyferré 2006 ($99, No. 564302) is slightly tougher in structure than the Grand-Puy-Lacoste and will yield more rewards with five to 10 years in the cellar. There's a good cassis core here, but the chalky tannins are slightly astringent and will soften with time.

The big splurge-worthy standout in today's Vintages release is Renato Ratti Marcenasco Barolo 2005 ($49.95, No. 713479). Barolos are always expensive, but this is a relative value from northern Italy, subtly layered with classic cherry, tar and rose-petal flavours. It's warm, with a tug of tannin and acidity on the finish. Perfect for braised meats, it should improve with five to 10 years in the cellar.

Another good candidate for braised meats is Quails' Gate Old Vines Foch 2007 ($24.99, available in the West through Big and meaty, it shows flavours of wild game, boiled beef, black pepper and plum.

I published a column earlier this week on Sandhill, the B.C. winery that is enjoying wider distribution thanks to bigger volumes and the efforts of the LCBO to source more high-end B.C. product for Ontario. While some of the $15 to $20 wines have been granted general distribution to stores, several of the winery's limited-production offerings have been made available as Web exclusives through One noteworthy listing is Sandhill Small Lots Barbera 2006 ($30, No. 143800). Berries and smoked meat lead the flavour profile in this Italian-grape red, followed by coffee and a classic barbera kick of acidity.

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Beer is a fine beverage for slaking an Olympic thirst, but I'd like to suggest Sumac Ridge Tribute ($29.95 in Ontario, No. 169508; $30 in B.C., No. 289215) for celebratory Canadian moments in front of the television (and let's hope there are many). This dry sparkling wine from one of B.C.'s bubbly leaders offers up notes of green apple and citrus, a lively froth and crisp finish. It's not a deep red, but it, too, might help rid the winter blues.

Picks of the week

The deal

Perhaps the best value in today's Vintages release, Le Secret des Capitelles Saint-Chinian 2007 ($14.95, No. 156299) is laced with typical southern-France notes of lavender and fresh herbs.

The splurge

Subtly layered with cherry, tar and rose-petal flavours, Renato Ratti Marcenasco 2005 ($49.95, No. 713479) is warm with a tug of tannin and acidity on the finish.

The domestic

For celebratory Olympic moments try Sumac Ridge Tribute ($29.95 in Ontario, No. 169508; $30 in B.C., No. 289215). This dry sparkling wine offers up notes of green apple and citrus, a lively froth and crisp finish.

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