My good friend (and Montreal Gazette wine columnist) Bill Zacharkiw recently wrote a column where he riffed about the notion of wines with "soul." He grappled with how to explain such a concept, and I think he nailed it in the end -- wines with soul may not be perfect, but they taste like they're from somewhere, like they're made by people who give a damn.
My turn to riff. Many of the most popular wines in our market come from expansive, sprawling growing areas -- wines labelled as simply coming from California or South Australia or Chile's vast Central Valley, for a few examples. They're often some sort of blend -- either one grape variety sourced from various vineyards throughout the region or a blend of different grape varieties from multiple vineyards.
Buy one of these wines 100 times and nearly every bottle will taste the same. As an example, take California's current glut of almost-sweet red blends with eye-catching labels/names. The wine's "formula" -- amount of remaining residual sugar, aging time, percentage of different grapes used, etc. -- can be tweaked from vintage to vintage to ensure remarkable consistency. Bad Merlot crop? Use less, up the Malbec quotient, adjust the sugar a bit and it's you can't really taste the difference.
There's something to be said for consistency. One of the reasons McDonald's is so popular is that you can go anywhere in the world and order a Big Mac, and it'll taste the same as from the McDonald's near your house. It's one of the reasons chains aren't often reviewed by restaurant critics -- what is there to discover? If every Big Mac is the same, where is the soul?
The same can be said of wines from sprawling regions made up of grapes from all over the place. Once you've tasted these wines once, you pretty much know what you're in for every time. When you taste/review a lot of wine (or review restaurants, music, movies or whatever) you crave something that excites you, that jumps from the page or the stereo or the glass or the plate and makes you pay attention -- something with soul.
There's comfort in knowing what you're going to get in your bottle of wine. But digging a bit deeper -- tasting new-to-you grape varieties, delving into wines from unfamiliar producers, or tasting wines from smaller, more specific regions usually results in rewards that far outweigh the risks.
If you like South Australian Chardonnay, try one from the Coonawarra or Adelaide Hills (or Tasmania, if you can find one). If California red blends float your boat, why not give a Zinfandel from Lodi or Sonoma County a spin? Dig Central Valley Merlot? Try a Chilean red from the Limar or Colchagua Valley.
The wines won't be perfect, and they may not even be wines you like right away. But give them a chance and you just might taste a little bit of soul in the bottle.
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Robert Oatley 2009 Shiraz (Mudgee, Australia -- 19.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Mudgee is a higher-altitude region with a short, sunny growing season in which Shiraz does quite well. Beneath the ripe cherry aromas are spice, menthol, smoke, leather and eucalyptus notes. It's a medium-plus-bodied, elegant Shiraz, with juicy black cherry, raspberry, milk chocolate and eucalyptus flavours working well with peppery spice notes from 16 months in oak barrels. Elegant, smooth and drinkable now, the Robert Oatley Shiraz shows great finesse. 89/100
Cuvée du Vatican 2009 Côtes du Rhône Villages (Côtes du Rhône Villages, France -- around $20, private wine stores)
Made by a solid Ch¢teauneuf-du-Pape producer, this Rh¥ne Valley red blend's blueberry, cherry, mocha, leather and plum aromas are certainly enticing. Rich and chewy, this red delivers blackberry, dried cherry and almost-sweet plum flavours, with light acidity and firm tannins providing great structure. It's a grippy red -- you can feel it on your teeth and gums -- but has big enough fruit to succeed. Try with a big meat dish -- steak, fajitas or even lamb or wild game. Found at Kenaston Wine Market. 89/100
Undurraga 2009 T.H. Syrah (Limar Valley, Chile -- $25.02, Liquor Marts and beyond)
The T.H. here stands for "terroir hunters" and I can see why -- the info on the back label reads like geology, climatology and viticulture textbooks. The nose on the T.H. is quite intense: blackcurrant, iron, mocha, black cherry and spice bring great depth. This is a big, serious red, with brambly black fruit that's almost jammy as well as chocolate, anise and herbal notes. Black pepper and meaty notes reflect some fairly firm tannins; while this is drinking really well now, it needs an hour in the glass (or a few years in the cellar to open up. 1,449 cases made. 91/100