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Aussie Shiraz, LCBO Picks & Pans

The dog days of summer find me confined to my quarters, tasting virtually everything good, bad and indifferent on the LCBO general list, and on Vintages continuously available Essentials list. Hundreds of bottles are lined up for tasting in preparation for the fall publication of the Toronto Life Eating and Drinking Guide. It appears on newsstands in full magazine format in late October and then in the smaller Food and Wine CityGuide as a supplement to the December issue. I’m not quite ready to talk trends and observations, but I can offer faithful blog-readers a sneak preview. I will expand in the next couple of weeks as tasting continues; heaven knows that there is little else to report upon at this time of year. The wine world is on a summer snooze, much like my teenage sons.

I lined up a dozen inexpensive Australian shiraz Saturday and was impressed by the overall depth and complexity the genre offers. There are two stylistic camps with some shading between. Many are in what I call the Dr. Pepper School” with flavours of ripe cherry, cola, clove and mocha. They are soft, low in tannin and notably sweet, a better choice for sipping and partying without food as a focal point. Lindemans 2005 Bin 50 *** ($11.95, LCBO) is a prime example, well balanced without any corners, and very clean. A new arrival called Alice White 2004 Shiraz *** ($12.70, LCBO) is similarly soft, rounded and sweet but with a touch of leathery and balsamic funk. The green label Wolf Blass 2004 Shiraz *** ($16.95, LCBO) has similar cola and oak, and more length, but tart acidity requires food accompaniment. The other more traditional school of shiraz is marked by leathery, earthy, dry flavours with more tannin—wines for red meats, especially lamb. Best of the genre on the general list is the meaty, chunky Peter Lehmann 2003 Barossa Shiraz **** ($19.95, LCBO) with amazing density and depth under $20, packed with ripe prune-cherry, mint, leather and lots of chocolate. The best value by far is Heathfield Ridge 2003 Woonambi Shiraz **** ($11.60, LCBO), loaded with maturing, complex currant, cedar, menthol and leathery character, and surprising length of finish at under $12.00. The new Black Swan 2004 Shiraz *** ($12.95, LCBO) is lighter, with an odd iodine note; the Jindalee 2004 Shiraz **1/2 ($9.90, LCBO) is a bit green, disjointed and sour.

Within a group of assorted whites were two memorable chardonnays, and one forgettable chardonnay. The two good ones belong to a new subset at Vintages called Rolling Releases. This means they are not quite “essentials,” and may go out of stock, but new orders can roll in without requiring formal listing application every time. Casa Lapostolle 2005 Chardonnay Casablanca Valley ***1/2 ($14.95, Vintages Rolling Release) is fresh, vibrant and a touch sweet with interesting candied orange, pineapple, nutmeg and buttery flavours, a great sipper. From California’s Sonoma County Rodney Strong 2004 Chalk Hill Chardonnay **** ($24.95, Vintages Rolling Release) is very fine indeed—creamy and elegant and long, with peach and lemon fruit nicely layered amid butter, peat smoke and new oak spice. The disappointing egg is the new screw cap Mother Cluckers 2005 Gisborne Chardonnay **1/2 ($14.85, LCBO), from Coopers Creek, the winery that has given us other chucklers like Cats Pee on a Gooseberry Bush and Tom Cat Merlot. It’s an intense unoaked chardonnay with loads of almost tropical fruit, but it has unusual sour cream aroma as well and is plain sour on the finish.

Other good red finds include the sensible, solid, traditional Tommasi 2004 Valpolicella ***1/2 ($13.35 LCBO) from Italy, a lighter wine showing mature characteristics, with classic leather, almond and ripe cherry-prune fruit, set in a mid-eight frame. Not really summer thirst-slaking fare but it will fill an autumn craving for a quiet, elegant bystander to mushroom and meat-based pasta meals. I also really like the new Robert Mondavi 2005 Pinot Noir Private Selection ***1/2 ($19.80, LCBO) from California Central Coast fruit, a mid-weight, supple, sweetish but compact red with well-proportioned cherry pie, smoke and mocha flavours. It’s the best widely available pinot at the LCBO, Burgundy included. Still from California, the Liberty School 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon *** ($19.80, Vintages) has joined the Essentials portfolio. Originally a trendy brand associated with Caymus, it now flies solo—retaining its original suppleness and generosity but with jammy fruit and tea-like character. Hardly classic cabernet but has appeal.

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