Air travel sure sucks the joy out of wine tourism. The nuisance began with post– 9/11 restrictions against carry-on fluids, which I grew to accept along with the ban against corkscrews (several of which I forfeited at the X-ray machine before learning my lesson). But for me, the big blow came with the more recent crackdown on checked luggage. A second piece now costs me $100, so I no longer take along my empty wine case, which I used to fill with special bottles purchased on the road in Europe or California. Customs duties never gave me pain (at least that cash helps pave roads), but the money-grab at the check-in counter is an insult I can't bear.
If there's room left in my single suitcase, I now fill it with small food items, such as the bottle of truffle oil I recently brought back from northwest Italy. Fresh truffles, in season from October till December in Italy and France, are beyond my budget – at several hundred dollars an ounce. But an infused oil, at about $15 for a small bottle, makes a fine surrogate, especially when it's as fresh as the kind you can find near the source. Pungently earthy and musky, a few drops drizzled over mushroom risotto or fresh egg pasta is a rocking house party of the nostrils. There is a wine connection, too, because truffle marries beautifully with earthy, woodsy reds, particularly those of Italy's Piedmont region as well as southern France, where the lumpy mushrooms grow wild below ground in the root systems of trees.
Most of the wines here qualify, I think, especially the Barolo and Barbarescos, based on Piedmont's woodsy-scented nebbiolo grape. They're not all cheap, but even the pricey ones will set you back less than a fresh white truffle and less than a second piece of Samsonite at the Air Canada check-in.
Renato Ratti Marcenasco Barolo 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $49.95
Barolo tends to be highly astringent, designed for long-term cellaring, but this glorious 2007 is ready to drink, with sumptuous balance and freshness. Classic nuances of cherry, rose petal and tar leap from the glass, supported by fine-grained tannins and lively acidity. Drink it now or let it improve for up to 15 years. $65.95 in B.C.
Fratelli Giacosa Barbaresco Basarin Vigna Gianmate 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $38.95
Like a heavyweight boxer, Barbaresco delivers power with elegance – when it's good. That's the case here. It starts smooth, with seductive cherry liqueur, then evolves with flavours of damp earth and mineral, pulled together on a tight backbone of grippy tannins. Though accessible now, it should improve over the next decade. Available in Ontario.
Marziano Abbona Cerviano Barolo 2004 (Italy)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $47.95
Eight years old, it's showing attractive age, with earth and underbrush, as well as a not-unpleasant note of house paint, mixed into the berries. The tannins are still dry and tough, though, and it would make a good candidate for a decade in the cellar. Available in Ontario.
Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2010 (France)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $53.95
The Rhône Valley's Châteauneuf-du-Pape district was blessed with superb weather in 2010, yielding one of the finest-quality harvests of the past three decades. Le Vieux Donjon, a solid producer, worked magic with this big red. It's silky and perfectly ripe, with a sumptuous mix of berries, licorice and southern-French wild herbs. Drink it now or let it gain complexity over the next decade. $59.94 in B.C.
Giacomo Borgogno Barbera d'Alba Superiore 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $19.95
If Barolo and Barbaresco are the king and queen of Italy's Piedmont region, barbera, based on the grape of the same name, is the blue-collar red. But there's regal blood in this outstanding example from Borgogno. Mediumfull– bodied and juicy, it's exceptionally ripe, with fresh berries and violet and a tamer acid bite than most barberas. Suitable for truffled risotto, it would also match well with grilled sausages or roasted meats. Available in Ontario.
La Casa in Collina Barbaresco 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
Medium-bodied, this is a drink-now red, with cherry, vanilla, spice and floral nuances lifted by bright acidity and moderate tannins.
Lafond SRH Pinot Noir 2010 (California)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $26.95
Lafond, in the Santa Rita Hills just inland from the Pacific Ocean, is closer to Los Angeles than to Napa and Sonoma, which are north of San Francisco. Pinot gets very ripe at that latitude – too ripe in the eyes of some red-Burgundy fans accustomed to pinot's ultimate, elegant expression. But the cool ocean breezes impart welcome acidity, and Lafond knows how to turn out great wines for the money. This dark-hued effort shows rich berry and vanilla flavour along with a subtle woodsy character. It's smooth, complex and very satisfying. Available in Ontario.
Poderi Colla Nebbiolo d'Alba 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.95
Baby brothers to Barolo and Barbaresco, reds labelled simply "nebbiolo" tend to be crafted for more immediate consumption than the nebbiolos of those two elite towns. This one's got cellar ambitions. It's medium-bodied, tight and very dry, but it should soften and improve in four or five years. $24 in Quebec.
Château de Gourgazaud Minervois 2010 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $12.95
A reliable bargain brand from southern Languedoc region, Château de Gourgazaud scores with this fine 2010 red. It's smooth and supple at first, with notes of cherry, subtle herbs and tar, then turns lively with spice and acidity. $12.50 in Quebec.
Bosco Eclipse Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $7.60
Supple and soft, this medium-bodied red delivers remarkable character for the bargain-basement price, with bright cherry-like flavour, balanced acidity and a light tannic tug. Available in Ontario.