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Great wine should say something new all the time

Globe and Mail Update

Change. It's the nemesis of beer and spirits. Suds and booze brands guarantee sameness if they guarantee anything. You generally are welcome, even encouraged, to return your bottle of Bud, Beam or Belvedere for a refund if it doesn't taste like last time. "Thank you for reporting the problem. Here's a free T-shirt for your trouble."

Wine, meanwhile, is bottled surprise.

At least great wine is. Not just because of its capacity to improve with age. Some beers, like those cloudy Trappist jobs at pubs in Antwerp, can do that. So can spirits maturing in cask. I am talking about change from one harvest to the next.

Fine wine should say something new all the time, the flavour bobbing and weaving with each year's growing conditions. When you are drinking fermented grape juice, you are drinking time in a bottle. Hot year? Expect big fruit and high alcohol. Cool? Crisp acidity and a lean structure. Ideal growing conditions all season long? Hello, Cheval Blanc 1947, Petrus 1961 and Sassicaia 1985.

It's all good. Bad years only make the best seem better. To butcher a Ralph Waldo Emerson line, consistency is the hobgoblin of small wines.

Burgundians sometimes think they invented vintage variation. With due respect, they didn't. Nor is the phenomenon limited to pricey, small-lot grand or premier cru pinot noirs and chardonnays, much as I'd like to retire to a desert island with a shipfull. I pay close attention to harvest years every time I taste a wine. The change from one season to the next even in large-batch, widely distributed wines often is noteworthy.

I'm thinking right now about two popular reds whose latest vintages I sampled recently. One is the Château de Gourgazaud Minervois 2007 ($12.55 in Ontario, product No. 22384; $14.99 in Nova Scotia). The brand, from southern France, has many fans in Canada, few of whom, I would venture, regularly take notice of the year on the label. They should, because the just-arrived vintage - 2007 - is much better than the last. At least I think so. Medium full-bodied, this blend of syrah and mourvèdre is ripe and fruit-forward, with undertones of mushroom, wet hay and fresh herbs. This is one versatile wine for the table, too. Amazing value.

Another happy departure from my tasting notes of last year is Oyster Bay Merlot 2008 from New Zealand ($19.99 in B.C., No. 111310). Usually dependable at the price, the wine was an overachiever in 2008. It's a crowd pleaser, medium-bodied, round and smooth, with pronounced berries, a hint of spice and juicy acidity. The new vintages were just shipped to British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia. It's not yet available in Ontario and other provinces.

Available for the first time in Vintages stores in Ontario is a decent premium red from just across the Tasman Sea, Reilly's Dry Land Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($31.95, No. 106047). It's full-bodied, intense with cassis, plum and chocolate, sweet herbs and an earthy, dry-leaf note, backed by fine-grained tannins and a fresh little kick of acidity.

When you think pinot grigio (assuming you're the type to think about pinot grigio in the first place and, if not, work with me here), what's the last country you'd think of? Me too. Australia. It's a world away, literally and climatically, from northeastern Italy, the wine's homeland.

All I can say is, don't let that keep you from committing to a bottle of Camelback Pinot Grigio 2008 ($17.95, No. 108134). Look for the Australian expression "Man Is Not A Camel" in big print on the label. It means, roughly, that you can't drink water all the time, which in this case could be an inside joke about a lot of Italian pinot grigio.

Light-bodied but with more stuffing than a typical Italian grigio, it's seamlessly silky and soft, with kiwi and green-apple notes and zippy acidity enlivening the long finish.

And now to two great whites from the Great White North, perfect for Victoria Day weekend next week. Luck was going my way last Saturday as my haberdasher, Joey, at Holt Renfrew offered to re-hem my new suit pants on the spot. To kill the required 30 minutes, I escalated to the Holt's Café to continue my once-a-decade spending spree, whereupon, amid the pricier champagnes, I spied the bargain on the list, a great domestic bubbly at a mere $10 a glass. It was Trius Brut, the latest batch of which is a monster bargain in Ontario stores. It's made in the handcrafted champagne method, too. At $24.95 (No. 451641), this bone-dry sparkler wine from Hillebrand Estates Niagara is imbued with super-fine, persistent bubbles, big lemon, fruit-salad, fresh-bread and berry flavours and deliciously sharp-edged acidity.

When Barack Obama was in Ottawa recently, he was plied with Quails' Gate Chenin Blanc 2007 from British Columbia among other wines. The Okanagan winery is perhaps best known for high-end pinot noirs and chardonnays, but I love its way with chenin blanc, a grape that can make compelling wines across the spectrum from bone-dry to sweet to sparkling. And I very much like the new vintage, Quails' Gate 2008 ($18.99 in B.C., No. 391854), which is just now being released at the winery (it might take a while to make it to liquor stores). Medium-bodied, it's got a tangy bite of citrus and big dollop of minerals. Picture a lemon grove in a rock quarry, with a scattering of wildflowers and honeycombs.


Pick of the week

Crowd-pleasing Oyster Bay Merlot 2008 from New Zealand ($19.99 in B.C., No. 111310) is medium-bodied and smooth, with pronounced berries, a hint of spice and juicy acidity.

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