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Pick of the week

Sandalford Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 from Western Australia ($24.95, No. 022293) is full-bodied, savoury and Bordeaux-like, brimming with blackcurrant, mint and cedar, with just the right amount of lively, clean acidity on the finish


If Bordeaux wanted to buy a National Hockey League franchise, I'd suggest the Toronto Maple Leafs. The wine region and the team have lots in common: an illustrious history, a hopelessly devoted fan base, and decades of choking in the playoffs. Or, as we call them in the wine world, taste-offs.

Rarely does a month go by when I don't hear about some tasting somewhere in the world pitting the great reds of Bordeaux against upstart cabernets and merlots from such regions as California, Chile and South Africa. In virtually all those cases, the Bordeaux wines end up losing despite their generally higher price tags.

The whole business started back in 1976 with the famous Paris Tasting, in which an esteemed all-French jury, tasting from unmarked glasses, scored a California cabernet ahead of several of Bordeaux's most famous cabernet-based reds, including Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion. (Incidentally, you can read all about the tasting in a good recent book called The Judgment of Paris by George Taber, the Time magazine correspondent who covered the original event.)

Routine as such upsets have become, I was nonetheless taken aback by Bordeaux's latest flameout, which took place in Toronto last month. The theme was Ontario versus Bordeaux and the result straight out of Ripley's.

Yes, pigs can fly, unicorns prance the Earth and the Pope is Jewish. A Niagara red few people have heard of edged out an illustrious lineup of Bordeaux, including Château Lafite Rothschild 2001 ($349) and Châteaux Margaux 2001 ($339), two trophy labels venerated the world over by people with apparently more money than time to do comparison shopping.

For the record, I did not take part in the judging, but 12 respected local experts did, including Tony Aspler, a veteran consultant and author of The Wine Atlas of Canada, and Konrad Ejbich, a wine critic and author.

In top spot was a wine called Southbrook Winery Cabernet/Merlot Triomphus 2002 ($49.95), followed by Château Pouget 2001 (a $52 fourth-growth Bordeaux). In third place was the aforementioned Margaux, followed by Reif First Growth Cabernet 2001 (a $50 Niagara red) and, tied for fifth, the aforementioned Lafite and Niagara's Stoney Ridge Cabernet Franc Merlot 1995 (no longer on the market).

If you've been a Globe reader for some time, you may recall a feature I penned about Southbrook back in 1999. At that time, it was more quaintly called Southbrook Farm & Winery and was better-known for selling Halloween pumpkins and brambleberry pie through its road-side store.

Adding insult to Bordeaux's injury, Southbrook isn't even located in a wine region (though it is in the process of moving to Niagara). It's nestled in the much less bucolic environs of suburban Toronto, on Major Mackenzie Drive between Bathurst and Dufferin Streets, right around the corner from a shopping mall and down the road from the roller-coaster clatter of a giant amusement park.

Working since 1991 with purchased grapes from some of Niagara's best vineyards, owner Bill Redelmeier and his team have turned out some impressive wines over the years, notably a string of award-winning, oaky-smoky chardonnays. He's also turning the page on a bold new chapter, hiring distinguished Canadian winemaker Ann Sperling (ex of Malivoire) and getting ready to christen a flashy new winery facility in Niagara slated to open this fall (check for updates).

As for his Bordeaux-slaying Triomphus red, I found it quite impressive and exceedingly polished, with crystal-clear fruit flavours and aromas. The nose offers up blackberry, cassis and cherry cola, followed by subtle notes of earth and tobacco, which follow through on the palate. The oak is nicely integrated and all the flavours seamlessly woven together, with no ragged edges. Frankly, I don't think I would have confused it for a Bordeaux (though blind tastings are always a revelation). For one thing, it doesn't exude the classic mineral character of some top Medoc reds. But it's remarkable nonetheless.

The downside is that little was produced. Readers quick with the phone might be able to get their hands on three bottles each of what's left (as well as a supply of those oaky-smoky chardonnays), available direct from Southbrook's agent, John Hanna & Sons. Ltd. Call 1-800-337-7043 or e-mail . There will also be a few bottles for sale at the new Niagara winery when it opens, likely in September.

Of course, if you're a Margaux or Lafite collector, you will be asking yourself the $350 rhetorical question: Will the Triomphus continue to age as gracefully as its illustrious Bordeaux counterparts? Hard for me to say, of course, since it doesn't have much of a track record. I personally wouldn't bet the, ahem, farm on it, but I'm sure Redelmeier will hold back a few bottles in the hope of proving us all wrong in the coming years and decades.

Speaking of Redelmeier's cellar, there's also a delicious irony to this latest Southbrook triumph. Redelmeier was a big collector long before he got into the winemaking business and has a special fondness for expensive Bordeaux. Now he knows just how much he overpaid for those perennial-loser first growths.

Now let's turn to some more widely available wines released last week in Ontario.

Burgundy fans might want to check out the terrific Bernard Defaix Chablis Cote de Lechet 2004 ($28.95, product No. 950667), part of the LCBO's February spotlight on Burgundy. This light-bodied, classically styled Chablis (a.k.a. chardonnay from northwestern Burgundy) is deliciously complex, with nuances of flowers, nuts and minerals and a bracingly crisp finish.

Also excellent is Bouchard Pere & Fils Beaune Clos Saint-Landry 2004 ($54.95, No. 014902), a premier cru white that's full-bodied and impressively balanced, offering up a nicely measured combination of apple and pear-like fruit, spicy oak and acidity.

Among reds in the Burgundy spotlight, the best wine (after the Robert Arnoux Nuits-Saint-Georges 2004 that I mentioned last week) is Michel Bouzereau et Fils Beaune Les Vignes Franches 2004 ($63.95, No. 027771).

If you're in the market for fuller-bodied red fare, the big bruiser of the release is Bremerton Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 from South Australia ($29.95, No. 020271). Full disclosure: It's a little too loud and sassy and conspicuously oaked for my liking, more Broadway than opera, so to speak. But most consumers will probably appreciate its mouth-filling layers of plum, chocolate, vanilla and spice.

Slightly more to my taste is Sandalford Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 from Western Australia ($24.95, No. 022293). It, too, is full-bodied, but more savoury and, dare I say, Bordeaux-like, brimming with blackcurrant, mint and cedar, with just the right amount of lively, clean acidity on the finish.

Also worth the money are Frescobaldi Tenuta di Castiglioni 2005 ($22.95, No. 974394), a blend of cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese from Tuscany; Three Rings Shiraz 2005 ($21.95, No. 015495), a warm, faintly alcoholic, spicy big red from South Australia; and Miguel Torres Santa Digna Reserve Shiraz 2004 ($16.95, No. 016014), a full-bodied Chilean and probably the best value of the release.

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