We're not out of the woods yet, economically speaking. But we may be stumbling in the right direction.
My favourite barometer of prosperity, fall wine-auction season (hey, it's more reliable than Mark Carney), is showing more strength than I'd expected. The Grand Cru Culinary Wine Festival, a three-day party that raised $2-million for Toronto General and Toronto Western hospitals, pulled in $750,000 from its auction. That figure is 50-per-cent higher than the estimated $500,000 value of the donated items, which included no shortage of trophy wines as well as a fancy Miele kitchen that, sadly, evaded my financial grasp.
The Liquor Control Board of Ontario Vintages Auction, meanwhile, saw some surprise windfalls.
A mere three bottles of 1990 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the most coveted red Burgundy, sounded the hammer at a higher-than estimated $38,000, though that was a relative bargain compared with $17,925 (U.S.) for a single bottle sold at a Chicago auction two weeks ago. But there was a softening in the heretofore spectacular highs for 1982 Château Lafite. A single case of 12 sold for a mere $42,000, down from a 2010 U.S. record of $58,080 (U.S.).
The numbers offer enticing context for today's Vintages release at LCBO stores, which shines the spotlight on "premium products" geared to holiday shopping. Some are very expensive, such as Rubicon Estate Cask Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 from Francis Ford Coppola's winery in Napa Valley, at $74.95. But most are more in keeping with the still-timid spending environment. If you shop carefully, you can find relative values. High-roller auction bidders will disagree, but some of the wines below deliver as much balance, complexity and pleasure as can be found in rare old expensive gems that have passed their prime. There's immense leverage in the $20-to-$30 range in particular.
It's the rewarding terrain of many, if not most, wine enthusiasts. When you're thirsty for something great and don't have thousands to spend on obvious, hoity-toity trophies, you're forced to look beyond the label and put your palate on the line.
E. Guigal Gigondas 2007 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $29.95
Here's a whole lot of wow for the price of a few Starbucks lattes. A red blend of grenache, mourvèdre and syrah from the Rhône Valley, it's full-bodied and juicy, with ripe fruit, herbal essence and fine, powdery tannins that will enable it to evolve nicely for 10 years. Try it with lamb.
Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $27.95
The riserva designation means it's more concentrated than a regular Chianti and is built for five to 10 years in the cellar. But it's juicy and seductive enough to enjoy now. Medium-full-bodied, it offers a dense core of plum and cherry syrup along with dark chocolate and espresso notes and solid tannic backbone. A fatty Berkshire pork chop or steak would suit it well.
Framingham Pinot Noir 2009 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95
This hails from the Marlborough region, a vast plain more famous for sauvignon blanc. Medium-bodied and jammy, with flavours of berry and plum, it finds complexity in a light suggestion of herbs and spices, namely rosemary and cinnamon. Acidity provides vigour. It would be lovely with grilled salmon or seared duck breast.
Cabriz Colheita Seleccionada 2008 (Portugal)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $14.95
What a bargain. It's full-bodied, with a glorious yin-yang of ripe dark fruit and savoury-wood notes. Think plums laced with herbs, flowers and tobacco. The finish is crisp and very dry. It would match well with pork roast.
Maipe Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Argentina)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
Close your eyes and you could almost be in Bordeaux – for half the money. It's unusually and pleasantly earthy for New World cabernet, full-bodied and ripe, with raisin-plum flavour, a whisper of graphite (there's Bordeaux again), warm alcohol and solid acidity. I suggest grilled beef.
Agriverde Riseis Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
A premium take on the great bargain red of central Italy, this montepulciano (that's the grape) is medium-full-bodied with pure cherry-like flavour, a silky middle and juicy acidity. Grilled sausages would make a fine match, as would many tomato-based vegetarian dishes. But it's nice on its own, too.
Casas del Bosque Reserva
Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (Chile) SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
Light-bodied with lots of lemon, green apple and refreshing wet grass, this lively white finishes crisp, with a hint of mineral. Pair it with battered shrimp or salads.
Rodney Strong Sonoma County Chardonnay 2010 (California)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $22.99 in B.C.
This smartly balanced white delivers full-bodied, tropical fruit and apple with support from vanilla and toasty oak enlivened by crisp citrus zing. A good choice for salmon, halibut or lobster. Unlike the other wines here, it's available only in the West.
Sampietrana Vigna Delle Monache Riserva Salice Salentino 2006 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
The heel of Italy's boot, Puglia, is evident in the sunny, extremely ripe, prune-like fruit, but this chunky red has other virtues, such as dark chocolate, dried herbs and a reasonably dry finish. Barbecued ribs would flatter it.