Baffling as it can seem to the rest of us, there are people who really like raisins. I'll grant that chewy, dried grapes have their appeal in desserts, such as butter tarts and plum pudding. I like them in trail mix and under the chocolatey shell of Glosettes. But I'm no fan of raisiny sweetness in savoury foods, like the curried-chicken pasta salad I mistakenly bought at Loblaws recently.
This is a bias, I know. But it may help explain why I recoil at overripe red wines that masquerade as dry. The current obsession with full ripeness in the vineyard – a pillar of the wine-quality revolution of the past 40 years – has been generally laudable. But growers frequently take things too far, either by design or mistake, letting the sun cook the freshness out of the berries. Too much syrup, not enough zing.
It is critical to let clusters hang long on the vine to develop full complexity, as with a vine-ripened tomato versus a cardboard supermarket disgrace that is picked while still green and hard. Wait too long, though, and the fruit becomes cloying, better suited to syrupy port or sweet sherry.
It's a big hazard, especially in balmy climates, such as southern France, southern Italy, parts of Spain, Portugal and California. As one top California producer said to me when I marvelled at the elegance of his big, ripe but elegantly restrained reds: "We don't make raisins." Which was to say, many of his competitors do.
Certain grapes and wine styles are more problematic than others. Red zinfandel is a prime example, frequently too saccharine to be satisfying. So is Amarone, the Italian red based on grapes left to dry for months after harvest.
I tasted a slew of reds recently from the places noted above, and about 25 per cent pushed ripeness too far for my liking. They were flawed wines. The highlights below strike the right balance. Some offer a whisper of raisin-like flavour, but just enough to make them pleasing. Glosettes they're not.
Masi Serego Alighieri Vaio Armaron Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2005 (Italy)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $69.95
Expansive and rich, this expensive cuvée from Amarone leader Masi finds its mark beautifully. There are suggestions of prune and raisin in this 15.5-per-cent-alcohol powerhouse, but it's far from syrupy, with impressive balance coming from tight acidity, grippy tannins and spice. It would be superb with aged cheeses. $83.75 in Quebec.
Inglenook Cask Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (California)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $89.95
Francis Ford Coppola, who bought the famed Inglenook property in the 1970s with proceeds from the Godfather movies, has been restoring it ever since to its early 20th-century glory. He told me he transferred ownership to his children (a little-known fact), but he remains the guiding light and last year hired former Chateaux Margaux winemaker Philippe Bascaules to oversee operations. If Bascaules can improve on this 2009, I'll be impressed. It is glorious, the best Inglenook (formerly called Rubicon) I've tasted, with broad shoulders and a solid spine, brimming with textbook cabernet flavours of cassis and black-olive tapenade complemented by dark chocolate and jaw-twisting tannins. Sunny California fruit with Bordeaux structure. It would sing with rare beef and improve with up to 20 years in bottle.
Baron de Ley Gran Reserva Rioja 2001 (Spain)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $29.95
A previous shipment to Ontario of this same vintage sold out quickly. This second lot is bound to do the same. Sublime Rioja for the money, it's remarkably fresh for an 11-year-old, the product of 36 months in oak, with rich, round, chocolate-like flavour over succulent fruit. Try it with grilled lamb chops or roast pork. $27.35 in Quebec.
Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2010 (California)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95
Here's a full-throttle zin that manages to stay on course. It offers up fig and raisin, but the finish is dry and satisfying, with berry-jam and layered nuances of spice and leather. A fine partner for sticky ribs. $32.99 in B.C.
Pierre Amadieu La Grangelière Vacqueyras 2010 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
Powerful and concentrated, Amadieu's Grangelière had no trouble reaching full ripeness in the Rhône Valley's ideal 2010 season. Low in acidity, it remains well-focused, with dark fruit enlivened by savoury herbs and spice as well as an attractive mineral-like tingle. Pair it with braised red meats such as short ribs.
Quinta Dos Quatros Ventos Colheita 2008 (Portugal)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
From the Douro region, famous for fortified port, this blend made from port grapes is perfectly pitched, with luscious black-skinned fruit, spice and toasty oak pulled together with satisfying acidity and lots of fine-grained tannins. Roast lamb would flatter it.
Beronia Reserva 2007 (Spain)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Medium-full-bodied and plummy, Beronia's classic reserve shows a nicely evolved tobacco character over sweet berries, vanilla, toasted coconut and spice. Herb-crusted leg of lamb would suit it well. $24.99 in B.C., $21.93 in Manitoba, $19.50 in Quebec.
Nekeas El Chaparral De Vega Sindoa Old Vines Garnacha 2010 (Spain)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.95
This medium-bodied red from the Navarra region south of the Pyrenees, famous for its rosés, evokes the Rhône Valley. Soft berries mingle with dried herbs and cracked pepper, brightened up by fresh acidity. Nice for grilled pork chops or vegetarian dishes based on tomato sauce.