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Wines Under $20 (July 8, 2004)

The cover of the LCBO's annual report for 2002–2003 shows an image of what looks like a glass of Scotch on the rocks set within a large stylized figure eight. The headline reads: "Our eighth straight record year."

The record refers to the amount of money our government-controlled Booze Meisters made in net sales and "other income." The figure is $3.1 billion – up $70 million over the previous financial year. After expenses the Board transferred to Queen's Park $975 million plus $289 million in provincial sales tax (as well as $392 million to the Feds in GST).

It's interesting that the LCBO should highlight spirits on the cover of its report; hard liquor sales were up a mere 0.7 per cent over the previous year, while wines in general were up 3.6 per cent and Ontario's VQA wines in particular were up 12.2 per cent. But, then, they make more profit by selling spirits than they do by selling wine.

So where does this extra money come from? Does this mean we are drinking more or does it mean we are drinking better? The sales stats suggest the latter.

There was a time when 94 per cent of all wines purchased at the LCBO were under $10 a bottle. Now the trend is towards wines in the $15 to $20 range. Which suggests that Ontarian palates are becoming more discerning. In the LCBO's 597 stores around the province, sales in this price category are up by 12.29 per cent, driven particularly by wines from Australia, Italy and the United States. In fact, Australia's Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon, at $16.95, has been the poster wine for this price range.

In Vintages stores, where you can find wines that range from under $9 to $250 and up, the picture is even more dramatic. Wines in the under-$15 range are in decline, while sales of those in the $15–$20 range have risen by 26 per cent. According to an email from an LCBO press department spokesperson, "The trend rate for this price range is outpacing all other segments except the plus $99 range based on Net $ sales."

If we are now shopping for wines in the $15 to $20 range, what should we be looking for? Before I get down to specifics, a word about value. It is more expensive to make wine in Napa Valley than it is in Portugal's Douro Valley, for example; or within France, it's more expensive to make wine in Burgundy than it is in the Languedoc-Roussillon. The reason is quite simply the cost of land and the prestige of the region. There are other factors, of course, such as the cost of preferred grape varieties from great vineyards, the price of new oak barrels and supply and demand, but generally it comes down to real estate.

A wine that is made in stainless steel tanks – whether it be white or red – will not be as costly to make as one that has been fermented in barriques (the trendy 225- or 250-litre French oak barrel). There is less movement of the wine in stainless steel, racking off to clean it up, etc, and you're dealing in large volumes. So, if you're bargain-hunting for the best values in this price category, look for wines that are unoaked; they will not only be fruitier and fresher but can be consumed immediately (but not in LCBO parking lots).

I have selected my Top Ten wines in this price category, and if my list is weighted to reds, well, that's my own predilection.

Domaine de Malandes Chablis 2002 (Burgundy)
A stylish and highly versatile food wine made without recourse to oak. Straw colour with a nose of green apple, grapefruit and minerals; medium-bodied, dry, apple, orange and grapefruit flavours melded together with a fine spine of acidity.

Pierre Sparr Gewürztraminer Carte d'Or 2001 (Alsace)
A well-priced Gewürz, typical of the variety. Pronounced nose of lychee and rose petal, soft and mouth-filling with a rich aromatic core. Chill well to tame the sweetness.

Nobilo Fall Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2002 (Marlborough, New Zealand)
This is a step up in quality from previous vintages of this wine. Pale straw colour; intense, green pea pod, passionfruit bouquet; medium-bodied, crisply dry with gooseberry and asparagus flavours.

Cline Cellars Zinfandel 2001 (California)
Cline is a respected producer of big reds in Rhône varieties and Zins. This one is medium ruby colour with a mature nose of leather, tobacco and red berries; the fruit is succulent and well structured with a lasting flavour.

Beringer Founder's Estate Merlot 2000 (California)
Founder's Estate is Beringer's second-tier label, and you won't find a better California Merlot at this price. Ruby coloured with a nose of vanilla, cedar, blackberry with a floral top note; medium-bodied, firmly structured, well balanced, sweet blackberry-blueberry fruit a soft tannic finish. Very approachable now.

Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet 2001 (South Eastern Australia)
$7.95 half bottle
Dense purple colour; warm, oaky, blackberry and spice nose; full-bodied, sweet blackberry fruit, well made with nicely integrated oak. Good to see this wine in 375 mL format.

Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel 2001 (California)
Mature ruby colour; earthy, plum skin bouquet; medium-bodied, leaner than many California Zinfandels, soft and sweet, spicy plum flavour; forward fruit, well structured with good length on the palate.

Carmen Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 (Maipo Valley, Chile)
Another great buy from Chile. The wine has spent 10 months in French and American oak barriques. Unfiltered, it has a dense ruby colour with a nose of cedar, blackcurrant and a smoky note. Medium to full-bodied, the fruit is forward and sweet and beautifully balanced with the oak, acidity and soft, chalky tannins.

Mission Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2000 (British Columbia)
A Bordeaux-style red, dense purple colour, cedar, vanilla and blackcurrant nose, medium-bodied, firm structure.

Georges Duboeuf Moulin-á-Vent 2001 (Beaujolais)
Fruity and peppery with a plum and black cherry flavour. Easy drinking and versatile with food. You can serve it at room temperature for meat dishes or chilled with hearty fish dishes.




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