Of the 100 or so new products I sample each week (sometimes less, sometimes – ouch – considerably more), just a small fraction see the light of print or make it into my e-mail newsletter. The dreck obviously falls by the wayside. But so, too, do some high-scoring wines and spirits. Choosing what to cover is a balancing act – between the great (and usually expensive) and the pretty good (but much more affordable). And, frankly, many great wines are, while tasty, plainly and ridiculously overpriced.
Occasionally, though, I like to let the high scores rip. Here's my latest 90-plus column. The wines are highlights of just two weeks of sampling recent new releases, not the best of the year by any means. Remarkably, while not cheap, they're not what I'd call offensively priced, given the quality.
Kumeu River Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2009 (New Zealand)
Score: 95 Price: $41.95
Michael Brajkovich, the winemaker at this ambitious family estate on New Zealand's North Island near Auckland, is one of the sharpest vintners I've met.
A master of wine who also has a university degree in oenology, he makes no secret of his passion for great white Burgundy, the ultimate expression of chardonnay, which happens to be one of my great passions. This gem of a white displays Burgundian finesse in spades. Medium-bodied and lively with zippy acidity, it unfolds with layers of subtle flavour, including tropical fruit, green apple, citrus, toasted nuts and a chalk-like mineral quality. Talk about precision – like a superbly engineered opera recording. Ideal for simple, mid-weight proteins such as roast chicken or grilled salmon. $41.21 in Man., $40 in Que.
Catena Alta Malbec 2010 (Argentina)
Score: 93 Price: $49.95
There is a world of difference between this sort of malbec and the decent $10-to-$15 bottles that brought Argentina to global attention. Well, perhaps not a world but a mountain. Great malbec tends to be grown at high elevation, where cool nights impart acidity, phenolic ripeness and structure to the grapes, as well as on well-drained slopes rather than valley floors. This one comes from vineyards ranging from about 1,000 metres to 1,500 metres high. Catena was a high-altitude pioneer and treats this superpremium bottling with care, using wild yeasts and small fermentation bins for each vineyard lot, among other measures.
And the wine is bottled without filtration or the use of clarifying agents, so no flavour or texture has been stripped out. The 2010 Alta is rich and jammy, but, in contrast to many of those cheap-and-cheerful malbecs, not grapey. Smooth and structured, it shows concentrated black fruits and a kick of spice, with very fine, sticky-but-friendly tannins. Perfect for grilled red meats. $49.95 in B.C., $52.29 in N.B., $54.79 in N.S., $56.39 in Nfld.
Cave de Beblenheim Heimberger Les Origines Gewurztraminer 2011 (France)
Score: 94 Price: $19.95
Co-operative wineries – which press and bottle juice for dozens or hundreds of growers – get a bad rap.
Certainly there are some, notably in France's south, that prefer to focus on quantity rather than quality. But some aim high, as does Cave de Beblenheim with this opulent, multilayered white. If you like gewurztraminer – a love-it-or-hate-it spicy and floral grape – don't overlook this one. Made from the concentrated fruit of vines aged 30 years or older, it's sweeter than off-dry but well-balanced. Rich apricot-like flavour mingles with heady rose-petal perfume and a hint of ginger. Silky, soft and long on the finish. Great for dishes featuring lots of aromatic spicing such as light curries.
And ideal for liver pâtés or cheeses, especially pungent blue varieties.
Stags' Leap Winery Petite Sirah 2009 (California)
Score: 93 Price: $39.95
The name petite sirah was adopted mainly in California for the French grape durif, likely a twist on syrah, the far more common grape that is said to be one of its parents (along with the obscure peloursin). It produces big, bold, dense reds with a small cult following, as evidenced by the amusingly named website www.psiloveyou.org, run by a group of California producers that specialize in the variety. Stags' Leap does a great job with petite sirah. The 2009 is classically huge, with perfectly ripe, succulent raspberry-blueberry fruit complemented by an earthy, slightly funky undercurrent. The tannins are fine-grained and offer satisfying grip.
Cellar it for up to eight years or drink it now with big steaks or braised red-meat dishes. Expensive? Not when you compare it with the $45 (U.S.) price for the 2010 vintage at the Napa winery. $49.99 in B.C., $39.99 in Sask., $40 in Que., $43.79 in N.S.
Carpineto Farnito Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (Italy)
Score: 93 Price: $29.95
Carpineto was founded in 1967 with a focus on high-quality Chianti, which wasn't too common in those days of straw flasks and sharply acidic quaffing reds. Here's an untraditional, thoroughly modern Tuscan red based not on the local sangiovese grape of Tuscany but on French import cabernet sauvignon. Full-bodied and concentrated, it's very dry, with a dusting of fine, elegant tannins and flavours suggesting blackcurrant and, ever so slightly, roast-beef jus. It could improve with a decade in the cellar, though it would be lovely now with medium-rare steak. $28.90 in Que.
Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (California)
Score: 93 Price: $147.95
This is a Napa estate with history.
It produced the chardonnay that defeated France's best in the famous 1976 Paris Tasting that vaulted California wine to prominence. Ironically, Montelena's growing reputation for most of the years since has been with cabernet more than chardonnay. This 2009, from a decent growing season troubled by autumn rains, is superb.
Far from the standard, heavy-fruit cabernets for which the state is best-known, this Bordeaux-styled red displays exceptional finesse, with bright blackcurrant and raspberry embraced by mint, spice and – praise be – graphite. The acidity and tannins pull it all together and supply the structure. It should age gracefully for 15 years. Try it now with roast beef. $121.49 in N.S.