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Decanter

Suck it up, Fuzion foes

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

No more sour grapes. No more sneers from wine snobs who think they know better. The people have spoken, and the people love Fuzion.

Regular readers may be familiar with the little Argentine wine that could. I've mentioned the fruity red, which sells for $7.45 in Ontario, favourably on a couple of occasions. Mostly the e-mail response has been positive. But I've also detected jeers, including some from several wine-scribe colleagues who, at a recent trade tasting, accused me half-facetiously of being the "one to blame" for giving the Fuzion its first major shout-out in print upon its Ontario release last summer.

Well, I can now report that all Fuzion-bashers are officially wrong. In a sort of Pepsi Challenge for wine enthusiasts held last week in Toronto, Fuzion Shiraz Malbec 2008 placed first in the "New World-style" category among 24 red wines priced $10 or less. I'm talking blind tasting. Brown paper bags. No label snobbery or price prejudice.

I'll get to the details of the event and full list of top scorers in a second. But first let me update you on the seismic sales figures. Fuzion, which costs $8.15 in Quebec and just rolled out to British Columbia, at $8.99, and the three Prairie provinces, is by far the bestselling wine in Ontario, having shot to No. 1 soon after it was released.

That meteoric rise paralleled a similar trajectory in Quebec, where Fuzion was released 21/2 years ago and rapidly became No. 1 there.

Here's a more remarkable statistic: In terms of dollar sales, Fuzion Shiraz Malbec is now the No. 4 item at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, period. Historically, all the biggest revenue stars at the LCBO, as with all broad-based liquor retailers, have been big beer and spirit brands backed by lavish global ad campaigns. Currently, the top three in Ontario are Heineken (in the six-pack), Smirnoff vodka and Corona (also in the six-pack). Fuzion, with not a penny spent in advertising, just bumped Bacardi rum to No. 5.

I'd be flattered if it were all my doing.

But it's clear now the public would have come to Fuzion regardless of what any critic wrote.

Last week's public event, dubbed "Recession Reds" and held at Grano restaurant on Yonge Street, was adjudicated by about 120 people. With the exception of five or six professional critics who were there mostly to observe, all were "ordinary" wine lovers, and I use the term flatteringly. It was as though Grano had set up a coat check for wine pretense at the door.

Some were modest wine collectors, but most simply were regular wine consumers interested in deep value. All were fans of Ontario's great bargain-wine tracker and author Billy Munnelly of BillysBestBottles.com, who organized the event to explore the proposition, "Can you have a great wine life for $10?"

Mr. Munnelly had carefully selected the wines from his own bestselling value guide, Billy's Best Bottles 2009, so there were no major duds or industrial jug-style wines in the base list.

I played no official role in the evening except to sip, soak up the joyous atmosphere and, like 120 others, inhale Grano's fittingly proletarian recession entrée of pasta and meatballs, a dish that should have been dubbed Houdini Linguine; if you want to see hearty food disappear, serve it to a crowd that's just sipped 25 glasses of dry red wine on an empty stomach.

Fuzion Shiraz Malbec 2008 not only was the resounding winner in the New World (or non-European) wine-style category, it also came in at the lower end of the price range.

Here's another Fuzion scoop. I recently sampled a white version from producer Familia Zuccardi that is on its way to Ontario later this spring. In my humble opinion, it's better than the red. Stay tuned for details.

Placing second in the New World-style category was Obikwa Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 from South Africa ($8.95 in Ontario; $9.99 in B.C.).

Sharing third place in the same category were Ubuntu Shiraz 2006 ($9.95 in Ontario), also from South Africa and featured as my Saturday Pick of the Week almost three years ago, and Trapiche Astica Merlot Malbec, also from Argentina ($7.45 in Ontario; $8.99 in B.C.).

Tied for first in the Old World-style category were wines from Portugal and Italy. I raved back in October about Flor de Crasto 2007 ($9.95 in Ontario), a relative newcomer to the market here. Even big spenders with trophy-wine cellars have discovered this great recession red, which hails from the Portuguese region that used to be famous only for sweet, fortified port. You can pick up its excellent big brother, Quinta do Crasto Douro, in B.C. for $19.99, in Quebec for $20.15 and also in Ontario for $14.95.

Flor de Crasto shared No. 1 honours with another brand that should be familiar to my regular readers, Spinelli Sangiovese 2007 ($7.50 in Ontario) from Italy's Abruzzo region. Both were very appropriate for spaghetti and meatballs.

"To my mind, Spinelli is one of the LCBO's great bargains," said Mike Mandel, who writes a popular and humorous wine blog under the alias Deacon Dr. Fresh and who attended the Recession Reds event. "If you pair it with a good tomato-based pasta or pizza and keep the label covered, the guests invariably rave about it."

Second place in the Old World category was a three-way tie and included two more Portuguese steals. Sogrape Douro Vila Regia 2005 ($8.95 in Ontario; $9.99 in B.C.) and Alianca Douro Floral 2007 ($8.50 in Ontario) both hail from the Douro Valley, which in the past 20 years has erupted with dry table wines to rival the valley's centuries-old fortified ports. To my surprise, northern Italy, not exactly a global force in red-wine bargains, fielded the other second-place finisher, Cesari Merlot 2007 ($7.45 in Ontario). For what it's worth, I rated this wine less flatteringly than all the others. But, hey, who am I to quarrel with a crowd? The people have spoken.

A fuller list of runners-up can be viewed at Billysbestbottles.com/winetalk events.html.

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Readers in the Toronto area may want to take another sort of wine-tasting challenge next Tuesday. Maximilian Riedel, 11th-generation member of the Austrian crystal company that bears the family name, will conduct a comparative tasting of wine-glass shapes and their effect on the flavours of various styles of wine. Proceeds from the event will support the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation. The $250 entrance fee includes a Riedel crystal tasting set valued at $150 and a chance to taste four expensive wines, including Antinori Cervaro della Sala and Silver Oak Cellars Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Capitol Event Theatre, 2492 Yonge St., April 28, 6:30 p.m. For information, call the Wine Establishment, 416-861-1331 or toll-free 1-800-268-8418, or write mail@thewineestablishment.com.

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