I gleaned a lesson upon sampling a few products from a Halloween-themed liquor-store display recently. If there is a jack-o’- lantern or zombie on the label or your wine bottle is dressed in a Dracula cape, be afraid.
Among the spooky novelties rolled out this season is a wine called La Cuvée Mythique Halloween Edition, a red carignan-grenache-syrah blend from a large co-operative in southern France. It’s got an orange label and is draped in a black cloak tied to the bottle’s neck. Price: $15.95 in Ontario and $18 in Quebec. Quality: not worth the price.
La Cuvée Mythique joins many other drinks positioned by retailers for All Hallows revelry – a way to put more “boo” in booze. Some are compelling, such as most craft-brewed pumpkin-spiced beers, Dan Aykroyd’s Crystal Head vodka in a transparent, skull-shaped bottle ($54.95 in Ontario, down from $59.95 till Nov. 8), and the superb Kah Blanco tequila from Mexico ($85.99 in B.C., $95 in Manitoba), also in a skull-shaped bottle that – like Aykroyd’s vodka – pays homage to Day of the Dead ceremonies across Latin America. Some aren’t so marvellous unless you happen to possess a high tolerance for sweetened pumpkinflavoured spirits or wines with names like Vampire Cabernet Sauvignon, Zombie Zin or Skulls McLaren Vale Shiraz.
I’m not big on zombie labels, but at this time of year I do often like my reds on the dark side, so to speak – redolent of spices, smoke, tar, meat, coffee, licorice or earth. I think you’ll find at least one or two of those nuances in each of the wines below. Be not afraid: They’re made from purely grapes (with a small flavour contribution thanks to time spent in charred-oak barrels, of course). Think of the non-fruity characters as ghosts conjured up in the wine critic’s imagination. You believe in ghosts, don’t you?
Ruffino Modus 2011 (Italy)
SCORE: 92 PRICE : $29.95
Chunky, chewy and smooth, Ruffino’s Modus is a compelling modern Tuscan blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Generously oaked, it tastes like a trip to an Italian coffee bar (a.k.a. caffè), with enticing dark chocolate and toasty-creamy espresso-macchiato flavour along with a nuance of mint, supported by good weight and chewy tannins. Drink it now with steak or stews or let it improve for up to 10 years in the cellar. Various prices in Alberta, $36.99 in Saskatchewan, $29.95 in Quebec, $35.99 in Nova Scotia, $34.98 in Newfoundland.
Poggiotondo Brunello di Montalcino 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 92 PRICE : $39.95
Medium-full-bodied, this is fine oldschool Brunello, with an intriguing, layered profile of dried cherry, raspberry, smoke, tar, horse hide and damp earth. It’s drinking well now – no need to cellar this baby. Try it with herb-crusted T-bone steak. Available in Ontario.
Alta Vista Atemporal 2011 (Argentina)
SCORE: 91 PRICE : $19.95
A monster red, the Atemporal 2011 weighs in at 15.5-per-cent alcohol and announces its concentration with a teeth-staining inky-purple hue. Blended from Malbec, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, it’s a deep well of savoury characters, suggesting grilled meat, smoke, tobacco, spices and melted rubber over a core of dense, dark berry fruit. Remarkably, despite the ripeness level that yielded such high alcohol, the wine manages to steer clear of cloying raisin-like notes. The tight tannic backbone helps keep things firm and dry. Perfect for grilled lamb chops – or tenderloin of Loch Ness Monster. Available at the above price in Ontario, $29.79 in Nova Scotia.
Paul Jaboulet Aîné Domaine de Thalabert Crozes-Hermitage 2011 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE : $43.95
An anchor in the premium lineup of famed Rhône Valley producer Jaboulet, the Domaine de Thalabert syrah seemed to lose its step over the course of several vintages some time ago (as did a few other offerings in the Jaboulet stable). This 2011 is clear evidence of a newly well-oiled machine. Pricy, yes, but here’s a handsome syrah with cellar potential. Full-bodied and clean, it’s smoky, meaty and seamless in texture, with perfectly ripe fruit and savoury depth. Imagine bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin accompanied by blackberry jam, cracked pepper and a whiff of tobacco. Serve it now with lamb or give it 10 years in the cellar. $54.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta.
Crios Malbec 2014 (Argentina)
SCORE: 90 PRICE : $14.95
One of the better $15 malbecs around, this is layered and interesting, not just a gutsy grape bomb. Concentrated and plummy, it displays nuances of licorice, tar and smoke, not unlike Rhône valley syrah. With satisfying weight and sweet ripeness, it’s pulled in tight by juicy acidity and chalky tannins. Great value from star winemaker Susana Balbo of Dominio del Plata. Pair it with saucy redmeat dishes. Available at the above price in Ontario, $15.79 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta. (agent:www.vwwinemarketing.com), $18.99 in Saskatchewan.
Lavau Vacqueyras 2012 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE : $24.95
Thick and weighty, this is grenache, syrah and mourvèdre from a good vintage in the southern Rhône. Rich cassis and dark-skinned fruits mingle with lavender, licorice and beef jus. The tannins are sticky but not aggressive, and this should cellar well for up to a decade or pair well now with grilled meats. Various prices in Alberta.
PC Banti Toscana 2012 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE : $19.98
Terrific wine, but fair warning: This is available only at 37 Real Canadian Liquorstores in Alberta, a private chain in Canada’s only truly liberalized, liquor-retailing province. The “PC” in the name stands for President’s Choice, the pioneering store brand familiar to any Loblaws supermarket shopper. Loblaws owns Real Canadian Liquorstores and commissioned this fine Tuscan red for release this fall as part of a five-product, limitedinventory collection from Italy, Spain and California. Made on contract at the Tuscan-coast estate of Erik Banti, it’s genuine juice made in the image of good Morellino di Scansano, a blend of sangiovese with ciliegiolo and alicante. Medium-full-bodied and supple, it exhibits smooth cherry, spicebox and well-worn leather. Try it with a simple, hearty Bolognese pasta. Available in Alberta.
Val Auclair Les Barras Rouge 2013 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE : $19.95
A blend of carignan and syrah from southern France, the full-bodied Les Barras is seductively smooth yet with a welcome lift of spiciness and acidity, showing rich blackberry-like fruit, licorice, tar and smoked herbs. A good choice for roasts such as leg of lamb. Available in Quebec.
Piazzano Chianti 2013 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE : $14.95
Great depth of flavour here in a red that’s not at all heavy. Far better than most Chiantis at this price, it tastes like a craftmade product, not some thin Tuscan red churned out on an industrial scale. Your first clue: the aromatic note of horse stable (or barnyard), present here in just the right concentration. Perhaps a bit too funky to please those who like their wine flavours squeaky clean, but there’s much else to like in this bottle, including classic sangiovese cherry character, delicate spice and bright acid spine. Available in Ontario.