According to a Spanish adage, good wine ruins the purse; bad wine ruins the stomach. When it comes to red wines, bad wine is truly bad, often for the stomach and head, because the tannins in cheap wine (or, as we connoisseurs say, “Chateau du Depanneur) are sometimes seed-based. Red wine is red at least in part because of the tannins, but in better wines, the grapes are crushed rather than pressed, so the tannins come mainly from the grape skins, not the seeds. The seed-based tannins can be quite harsh, and are responsible for many a regretful morning after.
We’ve discovered, thankfully, that we can still enjoy good red wine without ruining our purse. In fact, when I first broached the idea of a column of our “Top Five Affordable Reds,” Dr. T. looked thoughtful for a moment, then pronounced that the hardest part would be narrowing it down to only five. After some negotiation, we decided we wanted a list with a range of prices and nations. So, without further ado, this is our
Top Five Reds Under $20

Nero d’Avola Giacondi Sicilia (2008) $8.30
This is a Sicilian red that goes very well with many vegetarian dishes, from pasta and vegetarian chili to mildly spiced Morrocan dishes. It has enough body to drink with the cinnamon and squash flavours of a nice tagine, for instance – and it is, frankly, ridiculously under-priced. SAQ code: 10803034
Agarena (2008) $8.70
This Spanish blend of Tempranillo and Cabernet-Sauvignon is so versatile and cheap that we often buy two or three bottles just to have one handy. It goes nicely with Indian spices, among other things. Like the Giacondi, this wine is a steal. SAQ code: 00620674
Gabbiano Chianti (2008) $14.95
This Italian Chianti is a great complement to a hearty tomato-based pasta dish, like lasagne. It’s light enough to open for a plainer pasta dish or even pizza, but holds its own next to the cheesy, meaty, herby lasagne that frequently weighs down our table. SAQ code: 10754279
[Of course, the “meaty” part is a soy-based ground ‘beef’ – if you’re interested, here’s my don’t-cook-the-noodles vegetarian lasagne recipe.]
Jacob’s Creek Three Vines (2007) $16.90
We’re fans of Jacob’s Creek, one of the better-known Australian wineries, although we were dismayed to discover that the SAQ prices for this brand are often two or three dollars more than the LCBO – so our trips to visit my sister in Ottawa are always carefully timed to ensure we can stop and stock up!
This particular wine is a really nice blend of three excellent grapes: Shiraz, Cabernet and Tempranillo. Most of us are familiar with Cabernet Sauvignon, and even the Cab-Sauv Shiraz blend; the Tempranillo, a Spanish grape, adds a mellow profundity to that blend. Three Vines is a good example of artful blending. The wine is rich from beginning to end, and changes as it breathes, which is always interesting on the palate. SAQ code: 11072481
Toasted Head Syrah EXP California (2006) $18.95
This one just scrapes in under the $20 limit, but it’s worth every penny. This is the wine you bring when you want to impress your dinner hosts, or when you want to introduce good friends to a good wine.
The Toasted Head brand takes its name from the R.H. Phillips winery’s practice of “toasting” the covers on the oak casks, a technique that enhances the oak in the wine itself. This is particularly evident in the winery’s Chardonnays, but the Syrah is without a doubt one of the finest reds we’ve encountered. We first discovered it when we stopped into the SAQ on our way to a BYOW Indian restaurant; it more than stood up to the Balti and Jalfrezie dishes we had that night, and we’ve sought it out many times since.
This is not a subtle wine, but it is nicely complex, and for those who do want to slosh it around and taste all the nuances, there’s a lot to find. For the rest of us, suffice it to say that it’s pretty darn good for the price. SAQ code: 00864801
[For those who want a slightly less awesome, but still pretty great, syrah, the same winery, R.H. Phillips does a house-brand syrah for 13.95 (SAQ code: 00576272).]

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