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Food and Wine

Less is more when it comes to wine

One of the lasting effects of the great the economic downturn is how consumers spend money on wine. After several years of looking for value and trading down (the process of buying the same amount of wine but spending less money on each bottle) wine buyers have become increasingly savvy about wine quality versus wine price. It comes as no surprise to this writer that savvy wine buyers have learned that paying less no longer means you need settle for second best wine.

Modern wine quality has grown exponentially for more than 25 years and in the new, wine retail 2.0 world, most customers are no longer convinced that just throwing money at wine will get them the best bottle, or should we say the bottle that tastes best to them. In fact with a little work, sometimes, you can get more than you paid for.

There will always be too many people in the Far East chasing too few bottle of Chateau Lafite, but in the everyday world of wine there is a new order. Once you get over the need to be seen spending $100-plus dollars on a bottle of wine, well, you begin to see it's almost never necessary.

Of course, there are rare wines and small production labels that deserve their high price but those wines are seldom seen in everyday, retail wine shops that dot the city landscape. The challenge, as always, is in finding the bargains amid the collection of dross that clogs up retail wine shelves the world over.

This month we have a ready-made solution that comes from part of my other life as editor-in-chief at Wine Access magazine. Each year I spend a week conducting the International Value Wine Awards in Calgary, Alberta. Together with some 25 judges from across the country we assess some 1200 wines or more succinctly just about every important label that sells for $25 or less in the Canadian market.

I have been lucky enough to orchestrate all six IVWAs since its inception and with all modesty 2011 was clearly the best competition yet in terms of the strength of entries and results.

This month I thought it might be fun to share 12 picks from the competition that suit the upcoming fall season in Whistler as the weather and local menus turn toward winter. Look for the following winning labels that are some of my personal favourites. You shouldn't have too much trouble locating these labels in government stores or better private wine shops.

One of two Cabernet Sauvignon Category Champions is the Famiglia Bianchi 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon $20 from Mendoza, Argentina. In a huge category of 90-plus entries this Argentine cabernet over delivers with ripe flavours, savoury but not green, rich but not sweet and firm but not dry and too tannic. This is the perfect steak wine and a prime reason why many think in the long run that cabernet sauvignon may be a better bet in Argentina than malbec. Only time will tell.

Few wines captured the attention of all the judges but the Carmenère Category Champion was an exception. The Errazuriz 2009 Don Maximiano Single Vineyard Carmenère$16 is outstanding. We loved the polish and weight, the sweet spice and milk chocolate that entices, followed by plenty of peppery black fruit and a wonderful, long smooth palate.

Regular Avenue readers will recognise the Chardonnay Unoaked Category Champion: Cono Sur 2010 Organic Chardonnay, Valle De San Antonio, Chile $15 . This little gem of white continues to slay the competition providing an affordable, organically grown white made for book clubs.

Merlot has fallen on hard times since the movie 'Sideways" but the 2011 Merlot Category Champion the Sterling Vineyards 2008 Napa Valley Merlot $27 wowed the judges with its sleek glossy textures and wonderful fresh fruit and subdued oak. It is a steak wine for those who want a little less alcohol and bluster in their reds.

One of the most consistent red wines in the completion comes from Spain and sells for $10. The Lujuria 2006 Merlot - Monastrell $10blend will surprise you with its fresh juicy back cherry, plum flavours and meaty, peppery, savoury, liquorice aftertaste. You can't beat the value.

The Red Blends Category spawned a number of excellent picks from almost 150 entries. The champions were different as day and night. The Château De Cabriac 2008 Corbières $15 from France is a delightful blend of syrah, grenache, carignan and mourvèdre with a smooth rich texture of black raspberry, black cherry and smoky liquorice flavours. Especially suited to grilled sausages.

Equally impressive is the M. Chapoutier Domaine de Bila-Haut 2009 $15 a syrah, grenache and carignan blend. Its attraction is big black plum fruit mixed with dark chocolate and peppery, earthy, spicy flavours. Crazy value for a first class barbecue wine.  A perfect choice for lamb.

Space doesn't permit expansion on the following red blends but all should be on your buy list: Vistalba 2008 Corte C $20 , Argentina, Peter Lehmann 2009 Layers Red $19 , Barossa Valley, Australia, Emiliana 2008 Coyam $30 , Colchagua Valley, Chile and from Canada Inniskillin Okanagan 2008 Dark Horse Vineyard Meritage $25 , Oliver, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia.

The two top scoring Canadian wines were both excellent and easily subdued much of their competition. The Pentâge Winery 2010 Pinot Gris $18 from Skaha Bench in the Okanagan Valley is a delightful mix of fruit minerality and honey while the lively fresh flavours of Therapy Vineyard 2008 Chardonnay $22 prove we can make cool-climate chardonnay that matters.

We close with a wine that typifies the average International Value Wine Awards winner: a seemingly unlikely for the price not what you would expect from the grape for the price yet the Sangiovese Category Champion

Frescobaldi 2009 Rèmole $13.50 a Tuscan red that simply over delivers challenging the old adage that you get what you pay for. Come to think of it in the new world of wine maybe you do finally get what you pay for. As long as you don't pay too much.