With the mercury falling, I've cranked up the wine-score thermostat. It's a dog-days-of-winter, 90-points-or-better column.
Seasons should have no bearing on wine scores, of course. But sometimes you'll find a loose correlation. Canadian retailers often skew their premium selections in favour of bigger-bodied (read: heartwarming) wines in winter. Since big, showy beverages generally garner higher critical marks, the numbers can edge upward.
This past week's launch at Ontario Vintages stores is a case in point. The selections are heavy on Australia, chiefly massive, high-alcohol reds. Most have already garnered scores in the 90s from foreign critics, including Australian James Halliday.
I've included a couple of my favourites from the Australian releases, but I've placed a premium on finesse and food-friendly balance rather than sheer power. And I've looked further afield, to France, Italy, Ontario and Hungary, for a few 90-plus gems.
Seguin-Manuel Meursault Vieilles Vignes 2009 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $56.95
Founded in 1824, Domaine Seguin-Manuel in Burgundy was bought in 2004 and revamped by Thibaut Marion, a member of the family that owns better-known Chanson Père & Fils. The former Paris ad man has gone all-organic and crafts wines with a bare-bones, back-to-the-land approach. This chardonnay is a model of elegance, silky, buttery and nutty, with a perfectly tuned fruit-acid mix. Serve it slightly warmer than fridge temperature to bring the flavours into balance. Try it with simple roast chicken or fish seared in butter. Available only at select Ontario stores (check www.lcbo.com for locations or contact Allegro Wine Imports, 416-466-2720).
Louise Brison Brut Champagne 2005 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.75
Ontarians will have to work a little to land this wine. It's available only by the six-bottle case direct from the importer. But it's worth seeking out and more interesting than most big-brand champagnes that dominate retail shelves. A vintage-dated blend of pinot noir and chardonnay, it's bone-dry, with well-layered flavours that include red apple, toasted bread, mineral, citrus and mushroom. It would develop complexity with three to five years in the cellar. Contact Le Caviste at firstname.lastname@example.org, 647-344-4326.
Pirramimma Petit Verdot 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $26.95
Petit verdot, typically a supporting grape in Bordeaux blends, produces dark, jammy reds. Pirramimma always does a splendid job with this variety. This one's intense, with big cherry, chocolate and coffee flavours that might put you in mind of something from Starbucks. Great acid lift on the juicy finish. Grilled rib-eye or barbecued ribs would work nicely.
Penfolds Bin 138 Grenache Shiraz Mourvèdre 2009 (Australia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $34.95
Where many other Aussie blends based on these three grapes veer into jammy territory, Penfolds aims for a livelier profile. Berries, creamy oak, herbs and – surprise – minerals mingle beautifully. It would improve with up to 15 years in the cellar. (I recently uncorked a 1994 from my cellar and was impressed.) Nice for herb-crusted pork roast.
Domaine Beau Mistral Saint Martin Rasteau Côtes du Rhône Villages 2009 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $22.95
An overachieving Côtes du Rhône, this red is fullbodied and shows dark fruit, licorice and mineral, built on a firm tannic spine. Decant it and serve it with lamb shanks or cellar for four to six years.
Torbreck Cuvée Juveniles 2009 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $29.95
Named after one of my favourite wine bars in Paris, Juveniles, here's a big Aussie red inspired by the southern Rhône, blended from grenache, shiraz and mourvèdre. It's more concentrated and sweeter than the French archetype, but the chewy texture finds balance in lively acidity. Game meats such as roast venison would do it proud.
Closson Chase Churchside Pinot Noir 2009 (Prince Edward County)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $49.95
A tribute to the cute church house that was beautifully restored and relocated to the winery property from down the road, this pretty, light red genuflects toward Burgundy, with perfumed cranberry and candied-cherry fruit Its zippy edge is enhanced by delicate spice and smokiness. Available direct from the Ontario winery, www.clossonchase.com. It's a splendid red for fish.
La Madonnina Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95
Medium-bodied and very dry, this is well-priced for a riserva, offering dried cherry and earth and wood flavours laced with fine-grained tannins. It should improve in three to five years, or try it now with mushroom risotto.
Wakefield Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
The creamy texture carries flavours of cassis, chocolate and a hint of menthol, and it's impressive for the money. Minor quibble: The alcohol peeks through in the form of heat, and I'm guessing there's more than the stated 14 per cent in this bottle. Steak would work well.
Henry of Pelham Reserve Off-Dry Riesling 2009 (Niagara)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
This is fine riesling, so expect off-road flavours, such as sweetness (it's off-dry) and a hint of heating oil (in that good way that riesling geeks enjoy). But mainly expect orange and mineral flavours and a fine match for smoked fish.
Puklus Pinceszet Tokaji Yellow Muscat 2010 (Hungary)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $14.95
Considerably sweeter than off-dry, this seductively smooth white offers up classic white-tablegrape muscat flavour along with peach and apricot. It would make a swell partner for foie gras.