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Nine West Coast wines that are flying off the shelves

Nine West Coast wines that are flying off the shelves

California wine has always had a certain easygoing appeal, and the region’s big-ticket bottles have been a staple in collectors’ cellars for the last three decades. In my opinion, however, they’ve also suffered from excess—they’re too expensive, too candy-coated, too oaky and too hot on the finish. I get angry when I taste a $300 Napa Valley icon wine and discover it barely deserves 90 points—the quality doesn’t match the price. But a new generation of California winemakers is breaking away from tradition and working with new blends and grape varieties. Regions like Mendocino County, the Sonoma Coast and Paso Robles, which typically live in the shadow of Napa and Sonoma, are producing wine that’s more refined, better balanced and much more affordable (in the $20 to $40 range). This improvement, combined with a strong Canadian dollar, has boosted sales at the LCBO’s Vintages stores, where, for the first time ever, California wines are outselling those from Italy and France. In 2010, they brought in $70.8 million, which is a 21.5 per cent increase from 2009 and accounts for a fifth of all Vintages sales. I recently tasted several dozen of these top sellers and picked the best of the bunch.

Beringer 2008 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $34.95 | Knights Valley | 90 points This popular Beringer is down in price from two years ago. It has a ripe black cherry, mocha, herb and tobacco nose. It’s dense yet supple, with tannic grip on the finish, and it’s less ostentatious in the hands of winemaker Laurie Hook. Best 2013 to 2018. Vintages. LCBO 352583

Cline 2009 Ancient Vines Mourvèdre $18.95 | Contra Costa Country | 88 points The Cline family owns very old Rhône variety vineyards in this less famous Bay-area enclave east of Oakland. Their mourvèdre sports a deep purple colour and blueberry pie, clove, vanilla and white chocolate aromas. It’s fragrant and a bit sweet but balanced by firm acidity and fine tannin. Vintages. LCBO 66084

La Crema 2008 Pinot Noir $29.95 | Sonoma Coast | 90 points Pinot noir is increasingly being planted on the Sonoma Coast, an up-and-coming cool region. This example has a bright personality with vibrant cranberry-cherry fruit amid wood spice, smoke, cinnamon and herbs. It has jump on the palate, without being overly aggressive. Vintages. LCBO 719435

Big House 2009 White $11 | California | 87 points This delightful blend was originally conceived by Randall Grahm, who has been pushing against California’s cabernet-chardonnay axis for years. A choir of nine different grapes, including the floral muscat, makes for a delicious summer sipper full of pineapple, banana and star anise, with a touch of sweetness. LCBO 173286

Grgich Hills 2009 Fumé Blanc $29.95 | Napa Valley | 91 points Grgich (now certified biodynamic) is a classic maker of Napa whites that maintains a European sense of restraint with this barrel-aged sauvignon blanc. It’s full-bodied, firm and dry, with a lifted, complex nose of dill, avocado, pear and citrus. Excellent length. The price is down from last year. Vintages. LCBO 346296

Napa Ridge 2007 Petite Sirah $19.95 | Napa Valley | 91 points Petite sirah is typically too edgy and masculine for a land of easy-drinking wine, but it’s been grown under the radar in California for years. This dense, black monster has a lifted, iodine-laden, meaty and peppery nose, with floral and blueberry notes. It’s firm, tannic and laced with fruit that powers to excellent length. Vintages. LCBO 213686

Bonterra 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon $19.95 | Mendocino County | 89 points Bonterra is a leading organic producer in California. This one packs great complexity for $20, with clove spice, chocolate, vibrant blackcurrant and juniper notes. It’s full-bodied, dense and rugged, if not hugely concentrated. It’s young, so try aging it for a year or two. Vintages. LCBO 342428

J. Lohr 2009 Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon $21.95 | Paso Robles | 89 points An artful blend of 79 per cent cabernet, with just enough petite sirah (nine per cent) and petit verdot (five per cent) to soften cabernet’s green edges. It’s medium-weight, smooth and rich with ripe cherry, chocolate, tea and herbs. It exemplifies good winemaking. Best now to 2015. Vintages. LCBO 656561

Rodney Strong 2008 Chalk Hill Chardonnay $22.95 | Sonoma County | 92 points The opulence of California’s warm climate shines through in this chardonnay, while Sonoma’s cooler climate lends it taut minerality. It’s complex with nutty, smoky, orange, clove and vanilla aromas. Medium- to full-bodied yet anchored by firm acidity. A nicely made wine. Vintages. LCBO 275552

Scores: David Lawrason assigns scores on a 100-point scale. They reflect a wine’s overall quality. A rating of 95 to 100 is outstanding; 90 to 94 excellent; 85 to 89 very good; 80 to 84 good.

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