No occasion needed: 9 top wines for under $20

November 1, 2012

It's a shame, in a way, that we don't celebrate Thanksgiving in late November as Americans do. It would narrow the window for winter-holiday commerce, sensibly confining it to a month. With Halloween down and no celebratory distractions to go till Dec. 25, the dulcet tones of Michael Bublé's Christmas album will soon be in heavy in-store rotation. I, for one, will be ready with iPod and Bose noise-cancelling headphones.

The LCBO in Ontario jumped the gun before Halloween this year with a holiday promotion featuring several pricey products under the "gifting" banner in its biweekly catalogue. Among them were Marchesi di Barolo Cannubi Barolo ($129.95) and Ardbeg 10 Years Old Single Malt ($99.95). Some other usual holiday suspects also cropped up in the Oct. 27 Vintages release, including Solaia from Tuscany – magical, if a couple of hundred dollars out of most budgets, at $251.95.

I feel conflicted about reviewing such products in early November. Not just because there are charitable causes more worthy of our spare hundred-dollar bills, but because there are personal optics to consider. My birthday is less than two weeks away and I can't be seen stacking a column with pricey trophies on the off-chance someone close to me mistakenly seizes upon the selections as a subliminal hint. For the record, I already own a bottle of Ardbeg from last year and don't need more youthful Barolos or supertuscans to collect cellar dust as they come around to full glory several decades hence.

So, let me sidestep the big-money bottles for the time being and instead feature a batch of under-$20 wines that need no special occasion to warrant attention. Besides, all I really want for my birthday is Bing Crosby's White Christmas . That, seriously, is a hint.

Domaine Puig-Parahy Georges 2010 (France)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $15.95

The southern Côtes du Roussillon region is on a roll. Some of the reds taste like Châteauneuf-du-Pape – at less than half the price. Blended from grenache, carignan and syrah, this full-bodied red has achieved ideal ripeness and comes unencumbered by oak, so all you taste is that pure, sunny fruit. A polished texture carries flavours of spiced plum and wild herbs. It's perfect for red-meat roasts such as leg of lamb. Available in Ontario.

Falernia Syrah Reserva 2009 (Chile)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $16.95

The Elqui Valley in northern Chile is exceedingly dry and tends to coax out intense fruit flavours. This is like a turbocharged version of decent Northern Rhône syrah, with tar, licorice and cracked pepper adding interest to the velvety, concentrated fruit and luscious chocolate and vanilla. Match it to braised red meats. $17.99 in B.C.

Lornano Chianti Classico 2007 (Italy)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95 An excellent Chianti at this price is uncommon. Lornano crafted it entirely from sangiovese, ignoring the fashion of adding dollops of fashionable cabernet or merlot to pump up body and erase sangiovese's earthy character. It's super-dry, with flavours of cherries, mushroom and fennel and tight tannins. Give it three years in the cellar if you can or pair it now with rich meats. Available in Ontario.

Gray Monk Pinot Gris 2011 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95

There's a faint coppery hue from the grape skins, an occasional hallmark of pinot gris. It starts on a sweet note, with pear and lychee in the forefront, but finishes dry with a lingering floral quality. Try it with fleshy fish, such as grouper or salmon. $16.99 in B.C., $22.19 in Sask., $20.06 in Man.

Maritavora Tinto 2008 (Portugal)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95

From the Douro region, of port fame, this dry red tastes like maraschino cherries with roasted almonds. It's rich and delectable, set against well-integrated tannins. Grilled lamb or duck breast would be grand. Available in Ontario.

Mas des Bressades Cuvée Tradition Blanc 2011 (France)

SCORE: 89 PRICE : $14.95

Mas des Bressades, a star producer of the Rhône Valley's Costières de Nîmes appellation, rarely disappoints. This is a blend of grenache blanc, roussanne, marsanne and viognier, southern French whites that deliver oily richness, honey and orange notes along with a satisfying bitter counterpoint. It's a fine match for cheese and roast poultry. $15.85 in Que.

Oveja Negra Single Vineyard Carmenere (Chile)

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95

My affection for the carmenere grape grows as Chile continues to refine its style with better plantings. Expect plenty of savoury character woven into the primary berry fruit, including herbs, smoke, coffee and cedar. Try this sturdy red with grilled beef. Available in Ontario.

Frescobaldi Albizzia Chardonnay 2011 (Italy)

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $12.95

A well-rounded and balanced Tuscan chardonnay, Albizzia delivers complexity for the money, with peach, lemon and banana flavours joined by a hint of flintiness. Aged in stainless tanks, it's very fresh and clean. $14.95 in Que.

Mission Hill Reserve Pinot Gris 2010 (British Columbia)

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $19.95

Aged for four months in contact with spent yeast cells, or lees, in new French oak for added textural richness and flavour, this medium-bodied white unfolds with ripe pear and citrus notes and a hint of spice. It would suit substantial fish dishes. $19.99 in B.C.

(Ads will not print)