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Holiday cheer

Holiday cheer Wines to taste by the glass or wrapped up with a bow as a gift By Christopher Waters Selecting wine for entertaining typically centres on two key factors: taste and affordability. All wine drinkers love a good bottle of wine, but they also love a great deal, which is why the question I'm asked most often is "What are some of the good, cheap wines?"

As the holidays approach, tradition also enters into the equation. For instance, some families wouldn't dream of opening presents without a bottle of sparkling wine on the go. Now that's my idea of holiday cheer.

When I'm buying wine for the holidays, I embrace the fail-safe bottles I know my extended family is going to enjoy. That means lightly sweet, heavily perfumed Rieslings and Gewurztraminers, a mixture of red wines that offer a juicy kiss of fresh berry or cherry fruit, like Pinot Noirs and Gamay Noirs, and bubbles. Can't forget the bubbles, preferably pink bubbles. Such a wine list should work for any large group. The only additions I'd make would be Chardonnay and a firmer, more serious Cabernet- based red option.

This year's selections are a little more fool-proof as I'm opting for bottles that performed well at the recent 2009 InterVin International Wine Awards, which were judged by a crack panel of 14 top sommeliers, wine educators and winemakers that I assembled from across this province and beyond.

A full list of results is available online at intervin.ca. Here are some seasonal selections, including some gold medallists and a good mix of top scoring wines that retail for less than $15 per bottle.

Best Buys

Bodegas Esmeralda 2008 Argento Wine Co. Malbec
Mendoza, Argentina $9.95 (591693)
This is a big wine that retails for a low price. Pronounced blueberry, warm spice and earthy notes animate the nose, while the medium-bodied palate reveals bold intensity and complex character with its lingering nutmeg and leathery finish.

Bodegas Esmeralda 2008 Argento Wine Co. Pinot Grigio
Mendoza, Argentina $9.95 (620492)
Appealing peachy/tropical fruit and a soft, round texture stand out on the palate of this flavourful Pinot Grigio. Tasters noted its depth of flavour and its stylish character.

Banrock Station 2009 Unwooded Chardonnay
South Eastern Australia $10.95 (455022)
Here is an unassuming Chardonnay that makes the most of its lemon and apple fruit notes and nicely balanced acidity. The nose is nice and clean with attentiongrabbing fruit and floral notes.

Farnese 2008 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
Italy $7.55 (621912)
Here is a bargain red from Italy that delivers big fruit intensity and spicy flavours on the nose and palate. It's less complex than its big brother (reviewed here) but its mix of dried fruit and leather notes make a profound impression.

Farnese 2008 Sangiovese
Italy $7.55 (512327)
Black cherry, raspberry and blueberry notes standout in this extremely charming, fruit-driven red wine. Youthful tannins, tar and leather notes on the palate add interest and savoury complexity to the juicy, fresh palate.

Hardys 2008 Stamp of Australia Shiraz Cabernet
South Eastern Australia $10.95
(338012) Judges awarded consistently solid scores to this nicely made blend that delivers pleasing cola and spice character throughout. On the palate, this generous and flavourful red reveals soft texture, supple tannins, decent complexity and nice length.

Inniskillin Wines 2007 Varietal Series Chardonnay
Niagara Peninsula $10.95 (066266)
This inexpensive, unoaked Chardonnay surprises with some smoky notes that suggest an expressive mineral element on the nose and palate. Ripe citrus and spiced apple fruit gives the palate some appeal as does the lingering finish. www.inniskillin.com

Inniskillin Wines 2008 Reserve Riesling
Niagara Peninsula $14.45 (034025)
This surprisingly floral and fragrant expression of Riesling conjured up visions of Gewürztraminer in the minds of our judges. Made in a refreshingly dry style, its palate reveals a grapefruit pith bitterness on the finish that wakes up the tastebuds. www. inniskillin.com

Prospect Winery 2007 Fats Johnson Pinot Noir
Okanagan Valley $14.95
Ripe cherry/raspberry fruit mixes with vanilla, smoke and earthy notes in this surprising Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir. Judges were quick to praise its Pinot-like character, which isn't something you'll often hear about sub-$20 Pinot Noir. www. prospectwinery.com

Sonoma Vineyards 2007 Chardonnay
California $14.95 (060624)
Ripe tropical and melon fruit provides the central focus for this enjoyable flavorful, balanced and persistent Chardonnay. There's a toasted element to this wine that stands out on the nose and palate.

Great Wines

d'Arenberg Wines 2006 d'Arry's Original Shiraz Grenache
McLaren Vale, Australia $19.75 (942904)
The fragrant and floral aroma of this wine appealed to some judges, but most were truly wowed by the intensity and concentration of this blend on the palate. This effectively mixes sweet red and black fruit flavours, with a slight sage/ bay leaf herbal note, but does so with "a sense of elegance and finesse" according to one taster.

Flat Rock Cellars 2008 Riesling
Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula $16.95
The top scoring white wine in the competition was widely praised for its balance and intensity. While it's definitely off-dry on the palate, sweetness alone isn't a winning quality. The wine's purity of fruit, underlying minerality and backbone of acidity were the traits that moved this expressive Niagara Riesling to the front of the class. A clean sweep of acidity — lemony/citrus notes — makes for a fantastic finish. flatrockcellars.com

Jacob's Creek 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
South Australia $16.95 (091751)
This affordable Australian Cabernet Sauvignon offers resounding cassis, menthol and cedary aromas and flavours. "Amazing intensity of fruit" and "great grip and structure" were two tasting notes that nicely sum up the overwhelming response this well-made wine's winning personality.

Penfolds 2006 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz
South Australia $37.95 (309625)
Made in a profoundly bold plummy and spice style, Penfolds classic Cabernet Shiraz blend won people over with its rich, concentrated fruit and luscious, creamy texture. Tasters were happy to note that for all of the wine's richness and bold intensity, an enticing violet note signaled a well-made, expressive wine.

Wente Family Estates 2008 Morning Fog Chardonnay
Livermore Valley/San Francisco Bay, California $16.20 (175430)
This affordable California Chardonnay impressed judges with its fleshy texture, excellent balance and delicate peachy and spice aromas. The terms "youthful" and "young" were noted several times in tasting notes, but this is likely a case where its fresh character is perfectly suited to the fruit-forward style of wine. Drink now for best enjoyment.

Wolf Blass 2005 Premium Selection Cabernet Sauvignon
South Australia $24.95 (321927)
Aroma and flavours from oak aging are central to the character of this robust but balanced Cabernet. Notes about coconut and vanilla informed every stage of assessment — nose, palate and lingering finish — but the overall judgment of our panelists was that the style works for such a fantastically concentrated wine.