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Top Under-$20 Wines (June 29, 2010)

I had a dream recently that I was shopping at the LCBO's flagship Summerhill store. I picked up a bottle of something with a $19.95 price tag. I took it up to one of the wine consultants and said, "I'll give you $12.95 for it."

He looked and me and replied, "I can't accept anything lower than $17.95."

"Come on," I said, "you've got to move this stock. I'll make it $13.95."

"$16.95 - that's all I can do."

"My final offer or I'll walk out – $15.95."

"Listen," he said. "I've got a wife and two kids at home. Shoes are expensive. Especially my wife's. I can't let it go for less than $16.95."

"But it's not your money, it's the LCBO's," I protested.

"The LCBO is one big family," he said. "But I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll write down a figure on calculator."

"I'm not buying a car. I'm buying a bottle of wine."

"O.K. Since you're a regular, buy two bottles and you can have them for $15.95 each. That's my final offer."

Then I woke up. And it was raining.

It would be an interesting world if you could haggle with the LCBO like a Turkish bazaar; but that is not the universe we live in. So we pay the price.

You could, in these difficult economic times, shop at the low end of the market and load up on Fuzion or its under-$8 clones. But a steady diet of fruit bombs will, in the end, bore the palate. You will want to spend more on wine occasionally and venture into the $14.95 to $19.95 price bracket.

Naturally, you'll be wanting to get the best bang for the buck, so if the next time you visit the LCBO and find that the brass haven't allowed their staff to bargain with you, here are twelve wines under $20 that will satisfy your palate. All of the wines that follow are Vintages Essentials, which means that, in theory, they should always be available on the shelves of most Vintages outlets. I've chosen them for their track record from vintage to vintage and have weighted the selection in favour of red wines, since that's what the majority of wine enthusiasts head for when they shop in this price bracket. (Point scores are out of 100.)

White wines:

Malivoire Chardonnay (Niagara, Vintages #573147, $19.95 – or $1 less until July 18)
Consistently one of Ontario's best Chardonnays, this wine has great extract and depth; creamy on the palate with flavours of sweet apple and lemon with underlying minerality. The spicy, toasty oak is well integrated. (90) Match with salmon or a stinky Epoisses de Bourgogne.

Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand, Vintages #35386, $18.95 – or $1 less until July 18)
This is quintessential Kiwi Sauvignon, an intense nose of gooseberry, passion fruit and freshly cut grass with a lively spine of acidity. Full-bodied and richly flavoured. (91) Serve with seafood or goat's cheese dishes.

Lohr Riverstone Chardonnay (California, Vintages #258699, $18.95)
This is your big, mouth-filling New World Chardonnay, with evident oak on the nose but concentrated fruit flavours of apple, melon and pineapple. The oak is deftly handled and the flavour lingers on fresh acidity. (89) Pair with roast chicken or grilled tuna.

Roberto Anselmi San Vincenzo (Veneto, Vintages #948158, $14.95)
While it comes from the Soave region, Roberto Anselmi has defied convention by adding some Chardonnay to the traditional Garganega and Trebbiano grapes. Flavours of peach and pear float on fresh citrus acidity. (89) Partner with seafood salad or spaghetti vongole.

Louis Jadot Bourgogne Chardonnay (Burgundy, Vintages #933077, $18.95)
At last, a very affordable white Burgundy. Straw coloured, showing a toasty oak with clove and apple nuances on the nose; medium-bodied, well balanced, dry and clean; well balanced fruit, oak and acidity. (89) Try it with salmon steak or roast chicken.

Red wines:

Boekenhoutskloof Winery Porcupine Ridge Syrah (South Africa, Vintages #595280, $14.95)
Don't try to pronounce it, just enjoy this richly textured, full-bodied wine with notes of sweet blackberry, smoke, herbs and black pepper. Amazing concentration of flavour for the price. (90) Marry it with pepper steak or game dishes.

Miguel Torres Santa Digna Cabernet Sauvignon (Chile, Vintages #177451, $14.95 – or $1.50 less until July 18)
Unlike most Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, this is more in Bordeaux style – cedar and sweet blackcurrant on the nose, flavours that replicate on the palate with a medicinal note; ripe tannins on the finish. (88) Serve with lamb chops or mature cheddar.

Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon (California, Vintages #738823, $18.95 – or $1 less until July 18)
The sweetness of black cherries and plums is ameliorated by a savoury note backed by spicy oak. Great mouth feel here. (89) Partner with rare steak or fresh parmesan.

Bodegas Esmeralda Catena Malbec (Argentina, Vintages #478727, $19.95)
Dark ruby colour with a rich bouquet of mulberries and blackberries; medium to full-bodied with an initial sweetness of fruit with a perfumed blackberry taste that ends dry and savoury on the palate. (89) Match with beef stroganoff or pork ribs.

Fontanafredda Briccotondo Barbera D'Alba (Piedmont, Vintages Essentials #72348, $15.95)
Dense purple in colour with a sweet black cherry flavour; great extraction. (89) A versatile food wine because of the acidity. Great with truffled pasta or veal.

Guigal Côtes Du Rhône (Southern Rhône, Vintages #259721, $16.95)
Expect peppery blackberry and dried herb flavours in this lovely blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. (90) Match it with BBQ meats or hearty stews.

Sella & Mosca Cannonau Riserva (Sardinia, Vintages #425488, $14.95 – or $1 less until July 18)
Cannonau is actually Grenache. A rustic wine with wild flavours of forest berries, plum, tobacco and spice. (88) Great with cassoulet or spicy ribs.




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