Beppi Crosar­iol asks the pros to pick their favourite house wines

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - PURSUITS - BEPPI CROSAR­IOL

Som­me­liers, chefs and im­port agents nom­i­nate some of their favourite re­tail picks for un­der $20

Ilove house wines. They an­chor bev­er­age pro­grams at countless restau­rants, tak­ing the angst out of choos­ing what to drink with din­ner. They also hap­pened to have been the wal­let-friendly fall-back po­si­tion I re­lied on in uni­ver­sity. Th­ese were the days be­fore “Net­flix and chill,” when young peo­ple on dates ac­tu­ally had the gen­teel naïveté to sit down to a restau­rant din­ner be­fore, or in lieu of, jump­ing into the sack for a hookup.

But house wines are not just for restau­rants. They’re for ac­tual houses and apart­ments, too. Do you have one or two you rely on? A no-brainer se­lec­tion worth buy­ing by the case?

I put the ques­tion to a few som­me­liers, chefs and wine deal­ers, hop­ing to score valu­able in­sights for the hol­i­day-en­ter­tain­ing sea­son ahead. My main cri­te­rion: The wines needed to cost $20 or less. I re­ceived a wealth of in­spired an­swers. As I half ex­pected, I also re­ceived a cou­ple of po­lite re­jec­tions be­cause my price ceil­ing was ap­par­ently too low. A som­me­lier who never drinks be­low $20? That’s not the sort of som­me­lier I’d trust with my money. But I di­gress.

What struck me most was the re­gional di­ver­sity of choices, with Spain (pre­dictably) and France (sur­pris­ingly) fig­ur­ing promi­nently. Also im­pres­sive to me was the fact that there was gen­eral con­sen­sus over what a house wine ought to be: mod­er­ate in body and al­co­hol; food-friendly, with acid­ity, the bet­ter to match with a wide ar­ray of dishes; and noth­ing in­dus­trial or jam­mysweet, which can eas­ily get te­dious when you’re buy­ing some­thing re­peat­edly.

I’ll start by putting my­self out on a limb. Ascheri Bar­bera d’Al

ba 2016 ($14.95 in On­tario) is medium-bodied and brim­ming with cheer­fully juicy red fruit, yet pol­ished enough to im­press guests, with nu­ances of licorice, grilled herbs and un­der­brush. On the white side, I’ve of­ten re­lied on Anselmi San Vin­cenzo ($17.95 in On­tario, on sale for $15.95 un­til Nov. 11) for con­sis­tency and uni­ver­sal ap­peal. It’s essen­tially a gar­ganega-based Soave, with dashes of plump chardon­nay and zesty sau­vi­gnon blanc in vary­ing de­grees de­pend­ing on the vin­tage.

But enough from me. When Véronique Rivest, owner of Soif Bar à Vin in Gatineau, tips you off on a good red Bordeaux for less than $16, you’d do well to lis­ten. She is one of the top palates in the world, plac­ing sec­ond in the 2013 World’s Best Som­me­lier Com­pe­ti­tion in Ja­pan, which made her the top-rank­ing fe­male somm on the planet. Her Bordeaux se­lec­tion: Château PuyLandry Castil­lon Côtes de Bor

deaux 2016 ($15.85 in Que­bec). An or­gan­i­cally farmed mer­lot­based blend, it’s “prob­a­bly one of the very best qual­ity/price ra­tios at the SAQ [pro­vin­cial liquor agency],” she says, de­scrib­ing it as medium-bodied, very dry, with ripe fruit and mod­er­ate tan­nins.

Rivest says she be­came a huge fan of Greek wines af­ter first par­tic­i­pat­ing in the world som­me­lier com­pe­ti­tion in 2007, in Rhodes, and one of her go-to favourites is Ar­gy­ros At­lantis ($19.15 in Que­bec). “As I’ve been say­ing for 10 years, ‘ Buy San­torini,’ ” she en­thused, re­fer­ring to the is­land fa­mous for su­perb whites made from the lo­cal as­syr­tiko grape. And be­cause “you al­ways need a bot­tle of bub­bles stashed away,” she sug­gests Pares Balta Cava Brut from Spain ($16.80 in Que­bec), her ev­ery­day sparkling wine. It, too, is or­ganic.

An­other cava that hap­pens to be one of my long-stand­ing house favourites, Se­gura Vi­u­das Brut Reserva ($15.95 in On­tario, $16.99 in B.C., var­i­ous prices else­where), was nom­i­nated by An­drea Vescovi, gen­eral man­ager and wine di­rec­tor at An­cora Water­front Din­ing & Pa­tio in Van­cou­ver. “I’ve been drink­ing it for decades and it’s al­ways ex­cel­lent,” he says. A more re­cent dis­cov­ery, Dial­ogo Douro, a dry red ta­ble wine made by port pro­ducer Niepoort in Por­tu­gal’s Douro Val­ley ($17.95 in On­tario, $21.99 in B.C.), was a rev­e­la­tion af­ter he bought it on a whim.

Por­tu­gal also ex­cels in much more af­ford­able dis­cov­er­ies, of course, a fact not lost on chef Paul Mo­ran of 1909 Kitchen Tofino on Van­cou­ver Is­land’s west

coast. His favourite: Gazela Vinho Verde ($9.95 in On­tario, $11.99 in B.C., and var­i­ous prices else­where). “Can’t beat it,” he says of the faintly spritzy white. “Re­fresh­ing and easy to drink.” An­other noted toque on Van­cou­ver Is­land, Sam Har­ris, ex­ec­u­tive chef at Vic­to­ria’s Court­ney Room, re­cently named one of Air Canada’s top-10 best new restau­rants, sticks with lo­cal wines from the prov­ince for his se­lec­tions. namely Sumac Ridge Pri­vate Re­serve Gewurz­traminer ($13.99 in B.C.), “great with ceviche or curry,” and Lock and Worth Sau­vi­gnon Blanc + Sémil­lon ($20) from a bou­tique win­ery in Pen­tic­ton (lockand­worth.com).

Wine and food pros, per­haps more than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, lean heav­ily to­ward whites. And ries­ling may wear the crown as the most flex­i­ble va­ri­ety at the ta­ble. So, it’s not sur­pris­ing that Bryant Mao, wine di­rec­tor at Hawksworth Restau­rant in Van­cou­ver, loves a great Aus­tralian se­lec­tion, Pewsey Vale Ries­ling 2017 ($19.99 in B.C., $19.95 in On­tario, $22.95 in Que­bec) from the Eden Val­ley, to­tally dry and zestier than grated le­mon peel.

At Bar Von Der Fels in Cal­gary, som­me­lier-part­ner Thomas Dahlgren sings the food-friendly praises of or­gan­i­cally farmed Azul y Garanza Al­ta­mente Mo

nas­trell 2017 from the Ju­milla re­gion in Spain (var­i­ous prices in Al­berta, $15.35 in Que­bec). It’s juicy and soft in tan­nins, he says, and packed with the sort of char­ac­ter you’d more likely find in some­thing pricier thanks to or­ganic farm­ing, na­tive-yeast fer­men­ta­tion and orig­i­nal vinifera root­stock planted at a cool 900me­tres el­e­va­tion.

In Toronto, Heather McDougall, gen­eral man­ager at Mon­tecito Restau­rant in the En­ter­tain­ment District, calls her­self a “wine nerd” but also a “re­al­is­tic wine drinker.” In other words, value must be a part of the equa­tion even if it takes more ef­fort to get there. It’s why she re­cently opened an up­stairs wine bar at Mon­tecito called By the Glass, which has a fixed markup of just $30 for any bot­tle, re­gard­less of whole­sale price. At home, mean­while, she con­tents her­self with, among other things, Dopff & Irion Crus­taces from Al­sace ($15.45 in On­tario), a white syl­vaner-pinot blanc blend. “I was ab­so­lutely blown away by what’s in the bot­tle,” she says. “There are now six bot­tles in the fridge and three cases in the restau­rant. … It’s so flo­ral and cit­rusy and beau­ti­fully min­eral, crisp and not so dry that it’s painful. Food friendly and won­der­ful on its own.” And she’s got a red rec­om­men­da­tion: Kloof Street from South Africa ($17.25 in On­tario, $21.95 in Que­bec), a syrah-led blend that’s medium-bodied, fresh and spicy.

An­nette Bru­ley, man­ager and wine di­rec­tor at Mid­field Wine Bar in Toronto, rose to my price chal­lenge with a widely avail­able white that flies un­der the radar of most con­nois­seurs prob­a­bly be­cause of its big-brand sta­tus or, frankly, cheap price. Aveleda Fonte Vinho Verde ($11.45 in On­tario, $10.90 in Que­bec, $11.99 in Man­i­toba). “A sim­ple and straight­for­ward, low-al­co­hol, ef­fer­ves­cent de­light with re­fresh- ing acid­ity, ripe ap­ple and cit­rus and a zesty fin­ish,” she says. “This has been a sta­ple with my friends and me for­ever. It’s great as an aper­i­tif, a stan­dard at pic­nics and brunch, and is a great pair­ing with light fish dishes.” Higher in price and com­plex­ity is Ter­raprima White from Spain ($19.95 in On­tario). It’s an un­usual blend of xarello and ries­ling, with “a touch of herba­ceous­ness, vi­brant min­er­al­ity and mouth-wa­ter­ing salin­ity,” she says.

Peter Boyd, wine di­rec­tor at Toronto’s iconic Scaramouche restau­rant, re­minded me of a south­ern French wine he and I have both reg­u­larly pur­chased over the years for sim­i­lar rea­sons. “The most de­pend­able, low-rent red at the [Liquor Con­rol Board of On­tario] for the last 20 years is the Château de Gourgazaud Min­er­vois,” he told me in a tweet, re­fer­ring to a south­ern French blend ($14.05 in On­tario). “Never ethe­real, but al­ways re­li­ably chug­gable” es­pe­cially for burg­ers, ragu and chili con carne, he says.

It’s a re­minder that France can still com­pete strongly with the rest of the world on a price-qual­ity ba­sis, es­pe­cially if one is will­ing to ven­ture off the beaten paths of Bur­gundy and Bordeaux. Cather­ine Bélanger, owner of top Mon­treal wine bar Pull­man, is not just a con­nois­seur but also a pro­ducer, as coowner with wine-di­rec­tor hus­band Frédéric Si­mon of Pi­nard et Filles in Ma­gog, Que. The cou­ple pro­duce low-in­ter­ven­tion wines and mostly en­joy nat­u­rally pro­duced, or­ganic se­lec­tions. Two they heartily rec­om­mend from SAQ stores in Que­bec: Do­maine de Ma­jas Côtes Cata­lanes 2017

($19.80), an or­ganic red from the south­ern Langue­doc-Rous­sil­lon; and Jean-Marc Bur­gaud Beau­jo­lais-Vil­lages Les Vignes

de Lantig­nié 2016 ($19.90). “We used to work a lot with those two pro­duc­ers on the wine list and by the glass at Pull­man,” she says. “Their wines are tip-top, big crowd-pleasers and of course amaz­ing for the price.”

And al­low me to point out a few other sug­ges­tions, of­fered in some cases by mem­bers of the gen­eral pub­lic and in oth­ers by agency rep­re­sen­ta­tives who im­port wines to Canada. Yes, there’s vested in­ter­est when it comes to the lat­ter, but at least the wines pre­sum­ably rep­re­sent good value next to other se­lec­tions in their re­spec­tive agency port­fo­lios.

For ex­am­ple: Tiefen­brun­ner Pinot Gri­gio ($19.95; new ship­ment to be re­leased Nov. 24 in On­tario); Primus The Blend red from Chile ($19.95 in On­tario); Mef­fre Hom­mage Côtes du Rhône ($13.95 in On­tario); Thalia red and white from Greece ($10.15 and $10.30 in On­tario, re­spec­tively); Mis­sion Hill Five Vine­yards Sau­vi­gnon Blanc ($14.99 in B.C., var­i­ous prices else­where); Yalumba Y Se­ries Viog­nier from Aus­tralia ($13.95 in On­tario, var­i­ous prices else­where); Ra­dio Boka Tem­pranillo from Spain ($11.95 in On­tario, var­i­ous prices in the West and At­lantic provinces); and Henry of Pel­ham Baco Noir from Ni­a­gara ($15.95 in On­tario).

DAVE CHAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Som­me­lier Véronique Rivest, seen here in 2015 at her restau­rant, Soif Bar à Vin, in Gatineau, is a big fan of Greek wines, in­clud­ing Ar­gy­ros At­lantis, and wines from Bordeaux, France, such as Château Puy-Landry Castil­lon Côtes de Bordeaux 2016.

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