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Pick of the week

Beronia Rioja Reserva 2001 ($20.99 in B.C., product No. 216770; $18.95 in Ont., No. 50203). The wine is medium full-bodied and velvety, with hints of cherry liqueur, cigar box and spice. The fruit is fresh and the acidity, vibrant.

I like Rioja, I really do. There should be more Riojas mentioned in this column more often. But here's the thing: To the uninitiated, it can taste, well, old.

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Rioja, a region of northern Spain, is best-known for red wines based mainly on tempranillo, one of the country's finest grapes. It's also known for oak, and not the new, voluptuous, creamy oak that gets U.S. wine critics, the ones raised on milkshakes, all hot and bothered. I'm talking aged oak redolent of church pew. Some producers mature their wines for six or more years in barrel before release. That's considerably longer than the typical 12-to-18 months that a typical full-bodied red might see.

Extended wood contact tends to impart a sweet, vanilla note. It also allows the wine to slowly oxidize, lightening its hue and resulting in more of a dried, rather than fresh, fruit flavour. When I think of Rioja I tend to think of dried cherries, prunes, soft vanilla and, well, the confession box at Holy Rosary church. It's a style, as they say. Just not one that a generation of Canadian wine drinkers raised on squeaky-fresh Australian shirazes and Okanagan merlots might fully appreciate.

Today, many Rioja producers are dialling down the oak as a way to broaden their appeal. Many wines taste fresher, more in keeping with modern tastes.

But too fresh and Rioja loses its Rioja-ness. Why not drink a garden-variety tempranillo from somewhere else in Spain or even a fine tempranillo from less-expensive Argentina instead?

Somewhere, of course, there's got to be a middle ground. And there is. One good example, I think, is Beronia Rioja Reserva 2001, which is widely available in British Columbia as well as several other provinces, including Ontario and Alberta ($20.99 in B.C., product No. 216770; $18.95 in Ont., No. 50203). The wine is medium full-bodied and velvety, with hints of cherry liqueur, cigar box and spice. A warm red for cold nights.

It was aged for 18 months in a combination of French- and American-oak barrels, not a short time but also not excessive by Rioja standards. After several more years in bottle, the wine is showing some age, but not to the extent of most eight-year-old Riojas. The fruit is fresh and the acidity vibrant.

The Beronia brand is owned by Gonzalez Byass, the 170-year-old company best known for Tio Pepe, a classic wine for tapas and the world's bestselling fino sherry. The company also makes a slew of smaller-production sherries coveted by connoisseurs. Among them is one product now available in half-bottles in Ontario called Gonzalez Byass Apostoles Palo Cortado Viejo ($33.95 for 375 ml, No. 969527). I love this wine. But, as with a lot of Rioja, it's old-school. For one thing, it's a dry sherry, not very much like the Harveys Bristol Cream many people of English descent like to enjoy in winter. For another, the sherry components in this bottle are on average more than 30 years old.

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Beautifully balanced, the Apostoles combines the attractive qualities of luscious Oloroso-style sherry with dry amontillado. It's richly fruity and nutty, yet brimming with salty tang. The label recommends serving it at room temperature, but I prefer it slightly chilled. It's also delicious with a variety of foods, including cheeses and patés. One tiny sip and its bracing acidity cleanses and invigorates the palate.

Let's look at some other warm reds available in various parts of the country. De Bortoli Vat 4 Petit Verdot 2006 is available in British Columbia ($18.99, No. 80358) and displays that clean, fresh, fruit-forward Australian style. It's packed with juicy blackberry-like fruit, accented by notes of vanilla and spice, largely the product of 12 months in toasty American-oak barrels. It's rich and soft enough to sip on its own but also delivers a nice grip of food-friendly acidity.

It's hard off the top of my head to think of a more crowd-pleasing, seamlessly made wintertime red than Peter Lehmann Clancy's Legendary Red 2005, also from Australia ($19.99 in B.C. and $18.95 in Ont., No. 611467). A multi-year finalist in Wine Spectator magazine's top-100 ranking, this blend of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and merlot is full-bodied, smooth, rich and creamy, with hints of tobacco and earth embellishing luscious dark berries. No food necessary.

Also from Australia and fairly priced is McWilliam's Hanwood Estate Merlot 2007 ($15.99, No. 92825). It's full-bodied, with almost sweet cherry-like fruit and chocolate and fine, integrated tannins.

New to the LCBO's Vintages Essentials program is Esporao Reserva red ($24.95, No. 606590). Previously available only in very limited quantities, this popular, modern-styled Portuguese red is now on regular order. If it sells out at your store, you can at least put your name down for a few bottles when the next delivery appears. And, yes, you'll conceivably want to order several bottles of this ripe, luscious, full-bodied wine.

And pinot noir lovers should appreciate a fabulous new offering called Wooing Tree Pinot Noir 2005 ($39, No. 60574). It's only available in Ontario as a Vintages online exclusive ( From the emerging pinot hotbed of Central Otago in New Zealand, it's medium-bodied, silky and round, with succulent cherry-pie fruit, faint spice and juicy acidity. Great pinot flavour and balance.

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The beer I'm drinking this week: Cameron's Auburn Ale from Ontario ($15.95 for a 9-pack). Medium full-bodied with a dark amber colour, it's round and creamy, with fine, subtle effervescence, an almost sweet core of fruit, nutty-malty flavours and a dry, bitter finish. Perfect for frosty


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