André Simon, a prominent French-born wine importer and writer active in England during the first half of the 20th century, left behind many pearls of wisdom about his beloved beverage. I suspect a lot of people would endorse this one: "Food without wine is a corpse; wine without food is a ghost; united and well matched they are as body and soul, living partners."
Okay, okay, wine needs food, and vice versa. As a child of European immigrants, I heard the same gospel growing up, if uttered not always so graphically. It was beyond dispute, like the inevitability of death, taxes and the Leafs blowing another season. But let's be real. Are all wines truly ghostly without grub? As I enjoy a glass of sumptuous Châteauneuf-du-Pape at the keyboard (yes, I get to drink on the job), I beg to differ.
The wine, Clos du Calvaire Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2010 ($28.95 in Ontario), is rich and velvety, with heartwarming alcohol and plump fruit interwoven with nuances of licorice, smoke and cracked pepper. One could call it a meal in itself, and I want for nothing else as I savour it on this cold February eve (though roast leg of lamb would not be out of place if I were hungry for a match). If this wine is a ghost, I'm Patrick Swayze.
Not all bottles taste this good on their own, to be sure. A tannic young Barolo or cabernet-based Bordeaux begs for food. A crisp, light Beaujolais might be fine on the summer porch but lacks the stuffing and flannel-like texture that satisfies in winter. I got to thinking about the criteria – at least my criteria – for a great non-food red for cold-weather sipping because, for some of us, the pop of a cork is not in all cases a call to the table.
"It's not real life in North America," says John Clerides, owner of Marquis Wine Cellars, a store in Vancouver. "We've got hockey games in background. We socialize differently than the French."
Like me, Clerides is a fan of grenache, my go-to grape for couch quaffing. It's a supple, strawberry-like variety that often dominates southern French blends, such as those of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Côtes du Rhône, all of which basked in near-ideal weather in 2009 and 2010, two vintages widely represented on store shelves. It also features prominently in the gutsy, value-priced wines of the neighbouring Languedoc-Roussillon region, such as Minervois and Corbières.
The grape excels in warm climates, including Spain and Australia, where lower acid levels stand in contrast to the crisper, food-clamouring fruit of cooler Northern Europe. Clerides also favours syrah, grenache's frequent blending partner, which adds a layer of peppery verve and structural support to grenache but which also shines on its own.
For non-meal sipping, he recommends Domaine de l'Hortus Clos du Prieur 2010 ($30 at Marquis), a syrah-grenache Languedoc blend. "With every sip, you go, 'I'm going to get something else.' And by the end of the day you've finished the bottle and have to have another the next day to figure it out."
Wines without food demand that multidimensional quality, with flavours that unfold in waves to retain our interest. That's why I'm left cold by the ocean of corporate-crafted "cocktail" wines designed with inoffensive smoothness, and not much else, in mind. "Great wines for me have an edge, a personality," Clerides agrees.
To my Southern-French list of big-personality wines, I'd add the firm, spicy Hecht & Bannier Côtes du Roussillon-Villages 2010 ($23.95), another broad-shouldered grenache-led blend that includes spicy syrah and tannic mourvèdre, as well as Domaine Grand Veneur Les Champauvins Côtes du Rhône 2010 ($18.95) and the bargain-priced Les Jamelles Merlot 2011 ($12.95).
Rae Holland, general manager and sommelier at Rush restaurant in Calgary, shares our affection for Southern France. Holland says her lounge area regularly buzzes in the afternoon with patrons accustomed to sharing bottles of hearty red in lieu of predinner cocktails. When asked, she might recommend Ortas Rasteau Côtes du Rhône Villages (about $20 retail) or Chateau Ollieux Romanis Cuvée Prestige Corbières from the Languedoc (about $16).
She also likes the chunky Australian rendition of the style, often labelled GSM for grenache-shiraz-mourvèdre. "I went on a kick (with those wines) a few years ago and I haven't been able to stop," she says. "They're so rewarding." Among her other New World favourites is Mission Hill SLC Syrah from British Columbia (about $30), with its voluptuous fruit yet tight backbone.
In fairness to André Simon, wines around the world are less harsh these days. A growing emphasis on full ripeness in the vineyard has tamed acidity and eliminated harsh tannins, resulting in wines that don't necessarily demand food to soften the rough edges. And many sunny growing regions and wine styles simply were off Simon's radar, if they existed at all.
That's the case with ripasso, a suitable Hockey Night in Canada quaff for the beer-averse crowd. Essentially a concentrated version of crisp-and-cheerful valpolicella, it retains valpolicella's lively acidity while adding raisiny opulence and earthy complexity. "I get people coming in and asking for them now," Holland says. "They offer more structure than most fruit-juice bombs." My affordable choice: Pasqua Villa Borghetti Passimento ($12.95 in Ontario).
Though generalizations are hazardous with wine styles (quality varies significantly from producer to producer) my list includes such value propositions as Chilean merlot, Portuguese reds from the Douro, Dao and Alentejo regions, nero d'Avola from Sicily and, when grown on cooler, well-drained hillsides, Argentine malbec.
At Obladee Wine Bar in Halifax, co-owner Heather Rankin clearly knows how to pick her malbecs. She's currently featuring Trapiche Broquel from Argentina ($7.50 a glass and about $15 to $18 retail around the country). "It's such a great little wine," she says. I agree, though by "little" she means price, because the Broquel is one rich, creamy, mocha-charged Hummer of a red. She is considering adding another of my reasonably priced Argentine favourites to the mix, Catena Malbec ($20 to $23 retail).
From Portugal, Caves Alianca Dao is another popular choice on her list ($11.99 retail in Nova Scotia), while I'd recommend Tinto da Anfora 2010, another Portuguese red that's a big bargain at $11.95 in Ontario.
"Just because a wine is not a, quote-unquote, 'food wine' doesn't mean it can't be interesting," Rankin says. It need not be a ghost either.