My tasting notebook has begun to read like a West Coast road-trip diary. I've been on a journey of sorts, though I've not left town. Wine can be that way. It takes you places even when you're standing still.
My first stop was California, transported by a preview of Golden State wines rolling out in Ontario Vintages stores today (some are available in some other provinces). The glossy retail catalogue makes the most of the vicarious-travel theme, with references to the Beach Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers along with photos of sunny vineyards and tables strewn with plates of guacamole and grilled scallops.
Then I zipped briefly through Oregon and Washington before landing in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley (by way of my kitchen tasting counter). The Okanagan has come alive not just with vineyard greenery but with new bottled releases from recent vintages. Some have been shipped to stores, some are available only directly from wineries.
So, here are some highlights of the road trip. It's a selective sampling, to be sure, with an emphasis on reds for backyard barbecues built around hearty meats. But I hope it captures a spirit of the West regardless of where your backyard happens to be.
Seghesio Zinfandel 2011 (California)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
Seghesio's 2011 red zin from Sonoma County achieves ideal balance, with full ripeness that stops short of zinfandel's sometimes syrupy thickness. Full-bodied and intense with sweet raspberry and plum jam flavours, it's weighty but not flabby, with spicy lift on the finish. Ideal for ribs. $32.99 in B.C., $28.37 in Nfld.
Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (California)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.95
Drawn from grapes grown across the vast North Coast viticultural area, which encompasses much of the vineyard area north of San Francisco, Hess's cabernet sauvignon overdelivers for the price. Full-bodied, with raspberry and cassis flavours enriched by dark chocolate and vanilla, it's smooth and well-structured, with an undercurrent of earth and toasty oak. It's ideal for steak. $29.49 in N.S.
Kunde Sonoma Valley Zinfandel 2008 (California)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $21.95
Smooth, rich and nicely balanced, this well-priced red zinfandel is brimming with cheerful, candy-store fruit and a hint of Big League Chew. A fine choice for grilled pork chops. $25.87 in Sask.
Ghost Pines Winemaker's Blend Merlot 2010 (California)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $19.95
Blended from fruit grown in Napa and Sonoma counties, this full-bodied red plays to the crowd, with easy-drinking smoothness, very ripe fruit and lavish vanilla and chocolate pulled in by vigorous spice. Treat it to well-charred red meat. $22.36 in Sask., $19.99 in Man., $20.25 in Que.
Rainstorm Pinot Noir 2010 (Oregon)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
An arresting label – displaying a cartoon montage with a purple whale and guitar, green hills and yellow rain – might suggest a cheap-and-cheerful experience. But this is serious pinot and a bargain by Oregon standards. Medium-bodied, it shows a core of strawberry ice cream attractively balanced by cigar-tobacco and forest-floor earthiness. It's perfect for grilled salmon. $24.99 in N.S., $22.47 in Nfld.
Château Ste Michelle Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Washington)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $24.95
There is a dollop of spicy syrah mixed in with the cab, enough to add peppery vigour to cabernet's dark-berry essence. You might also detect a nuance of dark-roast coffee (this is the home state of Starbucks, after all). It's suitable for marinated, well-seared beef. Available in Ontario.
Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $33
Full-bodied and more generous in the mouth than classic cabernet franc from the Loire Valley, this comes across with currants, blackberry and smooth vanilla, framed by peppery spice, dried herbs and fine-grained, grippy tannins. It would be ideal with roast or grilled lamb. Consult www.bovwine.ca for availability.
Hillside Estate Syrah 2009 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $30
On the site of a former apple orchard, this estate was transformed into a winery in the 1980s by Bohumir and Vera Klokocka, Czech immigrants who had fled communism. Now owned and managed by a new team of capitalists with extensive winemaking experience, it has been excelling with a variety of offerings, including this syrah. Full-bodied and juicy, the wine is delectably balanced, with succulent black-skinned fruit embraced by tobacco, cedar and lively acidity. Excellent for grilled lamb. Consult www.hillsidewinery.ca for availability.
Poplar Grove Merlot 2009 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $30
Poplar Grove likes to sell no wine before its time. The reds get ample rest in wood and bottle before release. The oak is well-integrated here, revealing a velvety, polished texture that carries flavours of blackberry, coffee and chocolate. At 15.4-per-cent alcohol, it shows a hint of spicy heat on the finish, but that should disappear in the presence of seared duck breast or grilled pork tenderloin. Consult www.poplargrove.ca for availability.
Haywire Gamay Noir Rosé 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
A fetching rosé, this has the colour of Pacific salmon with orange highlights. Made from the grape that made Beaujolais famous, it is refreshingly dry, with notes of strawberry and orange zest and a wonderfully faint smoky quality. I love the depth of flavour and food- and summer-friendly tartness. Consult www.okanagancrushpad.ca for availability.
Meyer Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $24.90
The entry-level red from a superb pinot-noir producer in Okanagan Falls, this red was sourced from fruit across the valley. It is medium-bodied, tight and chewy, with soft raspberry fruit, zippy spice and a whisper of beetroot. It is a great choice for grilled salmon or poultry. Consult www.mfvwines.com for availability.