Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
November 2004 Wines for the Holidays
During Holiday season, we're all too busy to worry about what wines to pick for dinner parties, holiday fests, or gift giving. A few simple guidelines are all we really need, and they should be based upon the situation: How many people are coming, and just how important are they? Is there a kiss-up factor involved? Then the price goes up. Meeting the future in-laws? Look for a wine that overachieves in quality for the price. The key to any of these recommendations is that the wine must be good enough for you to enjoy. Your guests don't (usually) need to know how much it cost.
Holiday season requires a sparkling wine, if only for New Year's Eve. If you have a favorite Champagne for special occasions, by all means seek it out; the sentimental value alone makes it the best choice, as long as it isn't plonk. But for large crowds, it pays to have an inexpensive bubbly that tastes like one of the big boys. This year, look for the Graham Beck NV Brut from South Africa, which retails for about $12 when it's NOT on sale. Made with traditional Champagne grapes (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) in the traditional Champagne style, this can fool most tasters into thinking it comes from Reims or Epernay.
Another sparkler with limited but growing availability is the improbably named 1+1=3 Brut Nature 2000 (about $22), a top-notch Cava from Spain. Bursting with a cornucopia of fruit flavors, this wine features an exuberance that will get any party started.
For a big holiday shindig with wine lovers, one never-fail strategy is to tell everyone to bring an interesting bottle and make it a tasting party. For more sedate crowds, including those whose invitations are more a matter of obligation than holiday cheer, it pays to have some reliable, value-priced wines that pair well with a variety of foods. One winery you cannot go wrong with is Cousiño-Macul from Chile. The 2003 Merlot ($8) is juicy and food-friendly, with just enough earthy spice to give it structure. The Chardonnays are also excellent, with the 2002 Antiguas Reservas ($10-12) offering some oak and heft over the exuberant 2003 regular bottling ($8). Another party possibility is the Concha y Toro Frontera 2003 Carménère, which retails for about $5 a bottle ($9 per magnum) and tastes like it costs twice as much. If you like the tarry, tobacco-leaf qualities of Carménère, this is a winner.
For California lovers on a budget, Cline Vineyards 2002 "Red Truck" ($10) is a "field blend" made primarily from Rhone varietals. It puts many Rhone wines in this price range to shame.
And continuing with my Rhone bias, another winner is the Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2003 from South Africa from the Boekenhoutskloof winery (and to think I didn't like the name of the Spanish winery!). This wine features Syrah's smoky bacon characteristics with berry fruit in a northern-Rhone style that reminds me of a nice Croze-Hermitage; it's a bargain at $12.
When the menu stretches across a wide variety of foods and flavors, it helps to have wines that pair well across the food spectrum. Annie's Lane 2003 Riesling from Australia ($15) can match nearly anything on your holiday buffet. Another good choice is José Pariente 2003 Rueda ($17) from Spain; this complex white offers a wide range of flavors that can reflect well off a variety of foods. For a red, try the Tellus Vinea 2002 Bordeaux ($13), a Merlot-based wine that captures the flavors and style of France's most famous wine region at a fraction of the price most Bordeaux will take you for.
Worth a Splurge
Does the wine bore in your family brag about his collection of Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon? Serve him the Wolf Blass 2002 Grey Label Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon ($32), which captures the minty character Heitz is famous for and serves it up with enticing aromas of cake spice (clove, nutmeg, mace) and a long, sweet-berry finish, all at a fraction of the price Heitz charges for its top bottlings.
If you're lucky enough to live near a wine-growing region, especially one of the lesser-heralded ones, the arrival of out-of-town guests is a great opportunity to show off the best of the local wares. Here in the DC-area where I live that means Virginia, and that's easy now because we have the spectacular 2001 vintage to show off - a textbook growing season with a cool, dry harvest that allowed the grapes to ripen beautifully. The Barboursville 2001 Octagon ($30) is perhaps Virginia's best-known red wine. It has all the finesse of a classed Bordeaux, impressive with its style and grace. Also available in DC-area stores is the Linden 2001 Claret ($22), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot that offers flavors of mineral, blackcurrant and, believe it or not, raw meat. It'll bring out the animal in you. I'm also enamored of Linden's 2002 Glen Manor Sauvignon Blanc ($18), which is now displaying mineral, flinty characteristics of a fine Sancerre.
Whatever you drink this holiday season, I hope it is delicious and that it lifts your spirits for a wonderful celebration.
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.