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Table Wine (November 4, 2004)

I have always found the term "table wine" rather quaint and faintly absurd. I mean, let's get real. Are there wines that are designed for other pieces of furniture? Is there a "bed wine" or a "couch wine"? And what do you call a wine that's consumed by citizens who do most of their social drinking out of brown paper decanters hunkering down in doorways?

I'd like to think that the notion of table wine dates back to prehistoric times when our Neanderthal forebears sat around their caves warming themselves with a cup of fermented berry juice while hairy mammoths rampaged like teenagers outside. The conversation might have gone something like this:

Mr. Caveman (in celebratory mood because he'd just invented the wheel and swallowed the first oyster): "This is a very good drop of wine you've made, my dear. I think we should drink this at the table."

Mrs. Cavewoman: "At the table, Henry? What's a table?"

Caveman: "I don't know but it says 'table wine' on the label, dear. Maybe I should invent one."

Originally, the term "table wine" was used internationally to mean a wine of average alcoholic strength – between 7 and 15 per cent – rather than one that had been fortified by the addition of alcohol, like port or sherry, or made to sparkle by a secondary fermentation. Under regulations governing the European Union, however, table wine has a more specific and pejorative meaning: it applies to all wines made by member countries that do not qualify as the more desirable category, "quality wine."

In France such wine is known as vin de table as opposed to the next quality level up, vin de pays – wine from a specified agricultural area like Vin de Pays d'Oc. (Minor digression here about Oc. What or where, I hear you asking yourself is Oc? Actually, it's a Romance language called Occitan or langue d'oc spoken in the bottom half of France (hence the region of Languedoc). The name of the language comes from the word oc, which is the way these peoples pronounced the word 'yes' in medieval times. Their neighbours to the north pronounced it oïl similar in sound to the modern French, oui. End of digression.)

In Germany table wine is known as Tafelwein; in Italy, vino da tavola. Only Italians, bless them, made it more complicated by producing wines that did not conform to their own DOC regulations. Since they were outside the law they had to be labelled humble vino da tavola – even though they were vastly superior in quality to wines made within the regulations. These products included such expensive Super-Tuscan icon wines as Sassicaia, Tignanello and Solaia. This Alice-in-Wineland situation existed until 1992 when the Italian government created another category of wine called IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), similar to the French vins de pays or German Landwein to distinguish these great wines from the usual plonk that parades as European table wine.

According to Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine, "Quality wine is not only an expression widely and loosely used for any wine of good quality, it is an official wine designation throughout the European Union and therefore throughout most of Europe... quality wine must be produced in a specific region."

In North American terms, the definition of table wine is even vaguer and has come to mean any wine that doesn't necessitate taking out a second mortgage to purchase it and one that you would drink with a meal. The LCBO, however, in its price quarterly book, refers to all wines irrespective of price as either White Table Wine or Red Table Wine. That can embrace anything from a Cartier L'Ambiance White from Ontario at $6.60 to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape Fiole du Pape from the southern Rhône that will set you back $38.65.

For the purposes of this column I'm going to take my wife Deborah's definition of table wine. I asked her what she thought it was over a Thai lunch. "It's a spaghetti wine, a simple wine you'd have everyday and buy a case of because it's a house wine," she said. Smart woman, my wife. She thinks in case lots.

So, an inexpensive house wine. I'm going to set a limit of $12 a bottle and select five wines that are well made, readily available at the LCBO and offer a good price/value ratio.

When you're looking for inexpensive wine of quality, think of the value of our dollar against other currencies. It's cheaper to make wine in Chile than it is in California, so a $12 bottle from Chile should be better value than a $12 bottle from California. You're also going to find cheaper wines in less-fashionable growing regions – Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Hungary, Romania and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

So, here are my top five wines available at the LCBO under $12.

  1. Vineland Estates Riesling (Ontario) – LCBO #167551 – $11.05. A consistent wine vintage after vintage. Very dry and fresh, white grapefruit flavour. Great with seafood and smoked fish.
  2. Errazuriz Sauvignon Blanc (Chile) – LCBO # 263574 – $11.00. A New World style Sauvignon, grassy, passion fruit and green melon flavour. Versatile food wine good for vegetarian dishes, goat's cheese, fish.
  3. Cono Sur Pinot Noir (Chile) – LCBO # 341602 – $10.10. Real varietal character here in an attractive package. Medium-bodied, sweet raspberry fruit flavour. Try with duck breast, roast chicken, veal.
  4. Château Cotelier Costières de Nîmes (Rhône) – LCBO #6163236 – $10.05. Lots of flavour here, peppery blackberry, leather and herbs. Good with game and rare steak.
  5. Lindemans Bin 50 Shiraz 2003 (Australia) – LCBO # 145367 – $12.10 (yes, it's above my limit, but worth the extra dime). Dense purple colour; smoky, blackberry and mocha bouquet; medium-bodied with solid blackberry fruit with a medicinal note and a floral top note (almost Black Muscat-like). Matches BBQ ribs, hamburgers.




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