Ah, the end of February: the holiday decorations are long since been packed away, the last of the seasonal credit-card bills have been taken care of and the mercury has been locked below freezing for longer than we care to remember. In short: not exactly many people's favourite time of the year.
And then there's the fact it's tax time -- adding insult to injury, we're made to gather up our receipts and tax forms and either dump them in our accountant's lap or submit the stuff ourselves.
All good reasons to pour yourself a glass of something or other, right? Well, if you're like me, you're not looking to spend an arm and a leg on wine.
With this in mind, here's a country-by-country breakdown of what to drink (or avoid) at the $12-ish price point...
ARGENTINA: Malbec and Syrah are consistently drinkable on the red side of things; Torrontés, meanwhile, are some of the best-value white wines going.
AUSTRALIA: Shiraz-based reds tend to be tasty, if a bit overly simple/fruity; there are some decent Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends available as well. Spending a couple bucks extra on either is worth your while.
CANADA: There's aren't many $12-ish Canadian wines; most are either around $10 and made from grapes anywhere ("bottled and blended in Canada"), or $15-and-up VQA wine. You'll want to spend the extra couple bucks here.
CHILE: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère all show well at this price point; for white wines, crisp, juicy Sauvignon Blancs reign supreme.
FRANCE: There's definite value potential here. Look for whites and reds from the Vin de Pays D'Oc/Languedoc regions, as well as some sneaky good entry-level wines from the Rh¥ne Valley, Beaujolais and (to a lesser extent) Bordeaux.
GERMANY: If you need simple, off-dry white wines, Germany has a few drinkable options for you at the $12-ish price point.
ITALY: While there's a lot of $12-ish Italian wine, quality varies. Chianti tends to be sub-par, but reds like Montepulciano D'Abbruzzo and even Valpolicella are decent pizza/pasta wines. White wines are little more on the tepid side, with Pinot Grigio and Soave most common -- not bad if you're looking for something light, fresh but a bit nondescript.
NEW ZEALAND: Pass. I'm not even sure you can find New Zealand for less than around $16 in our market.
PORTUGAL: Like France, Portugal brings plenty of potential value. Reds are made from blends of indigenous grapes, and can bring a nice rustic character that's great with food. White wine-wise, Vinho Verde is crisp, slightly effervescent and brimming with fresh citrus notes.
SOUTH AFRICA: Cabernet and Shiraz (solo or in blends) are a touch smoky/meaty around $12-ish, but work with food. And while there's lots of Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, the smart white-wine money goes toward Chenin Blanc -- even if you have to spend an extra couple bucks.
SPAIN: Most Spanish reds will be a touch pricier than $12, but the country's often-overlooked whites are crisp and citrus-driven, with some decent complexity for the price. And, of course, Spanish cava should be your go-to value bubbly.
U.S.: Avoid -- The few $12-ish American wines in our market are a bit of a viticultural minefield.
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DOMAINES AURIOL 2012 G-S GRENACHE-SYRAH (Pays D'Oc, France -- around $12, private wine stores)
The lightest in colour of these reds, the G-S lets the Grenache drive the bus on the nose, with pretty blackberry, violet and blueberry notes and just a hint of the pepper and cherry of Syrah. A juicy, simple, medium-bodied red with blueberry and cherry flavours that come together nicely. There's no tannin to speak of and a splash of acidity that keeps things fresh. I picked this up at De Luca Fine Wines -- try chilling it down for 10-15 minutes and enjoy with charcuterie (or your tax-time charcuterie alternative, cold cuts). 3 out of 5
TRIVENTO 2011 RESERVE SYRAH-MALBEC (Mendoza, Argentina -- $11.95, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Plum, leather, spice, chocolate-covered cherries and vanilla aromas show pretty darn nicely here. While not overly complex on the palate, there's good depth/concentration of fruit, with ripe cherry and raspberry flavours fleshed out by mocha, spice and vanilla thanks to six months of oak. There's some light tannin to this wine as well that would be helped out by burgers -- maybe even fast-food ones for the budget-conscious. 3 1/2 out of 5
AVELEDA 2012 CHARAMBA (Douro, Portugal -- $10.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
This Portuguese red blend has been around forever, and I don't think it's ever been more than $11. There's a hint of funk on the nose here, with black cherry, iron, earth and plum aromas. It comes around pretty nicely on the palate, with blueberry tea and raspberry flavours keeping a light herbal/vegetal note in check. While not as fantastic as I remember, it's a serviceable food wine; try with stews, soups, or burritos. 2 1/2 out of 5