November is the start of the holiday season and, sometimes, the start of anxiety about choosing a holiday wine. Relax. We've got you covered with some superb values in all price ranges.
For larger get-togethers of a dozen or more, the under-$10 range offers many fresh, quaffable wines. For more intimate gatherings, spending $15 to $25 is well rewarded. Wines in this range typically offer more character, complexity and finesse, and will enhance whatever food is served with it. The luxury range begins around $35. Good wines in this range are impressive. If you have labored over great recipes prepared to perfection, you've surely earned yourself the right to savor one of these luxury cuvees with your guests.
The following wines are categorized by price. Of particular importance to those of us trying to keep to a holiday budget, the under-$10 wines are in no sense slackers. I've chosen wines that I would be thrilled to enjoy in any context. However, spending somewhat more is certainly advised if the budget permits. Prices are estimates:
BEST BUYS AROUND $10
Los Vascos 2002/2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Colchagua ($7; Chile): Known as the "Baby Lafite," Los Vascos, in Chile, is owned by Chateau Lafite Rothschild, and its vinification is overseen by the Lafite winemaking team. Few wines at this price convey as much breed and style. The 2002 and 2003 are quite similar, the former being slightly more supple due to an extra year in the bottle.
Raymond Estates Chardonnay Monterey 2001 ($9-$11; California): In 1990, before the rest of the crowd made the move, brothers Walt and Roy Raymond snapped up 300 acres in the cooler Monterey county to make Chardonnay. Raymond now has relatively old vines that can produce quality Chardonnay at an affordable price. Raymond Monterey Chardonnay is made in a crisp, exuberant style emphasizing ripe pear and apple aromas on the nose, and lightly honeyed fruit nuanced by vanilla and toasty oak on the palate. This is a drink-now style of Chardonnay to enjoy over the next year.
Hugel Gentil 2002 ($9-$11): This spicy blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, Muscat and Gewurztraminer, Alsace's traditional varietals, is a holiday favorite, offering boatloads of personality and upfront fruit, as an aperitif or with seafood and charcuterie. Enjoy now and over the next year.
SUPER VALUES ABOVE $10
Louis Martini Winery 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($19-$24; Napa): This is a breakout Cabernet for the venerable Louis M. Martini winery, which has muddled along without direction for decades, despite a rich history and a talented winemaker, Mike Martini. Perhaps the infusion of cash from its new owner, Gallo, has pushed it out of its doldrums. Whatever the reason, this mid-tier offering is a polished effort. Subtle aromatic elements of cassis and cedar in the nose, and firm fruit complexity on the palate evoke Bordeaux, while the ripeness and generosity of the flavors say Napa. While the Martini winery is located in Napa Valley, much of its wine carries a Sonoma or North Coast appellation. This relatively rare Napa bottling strikes me as more refined and focused than the other appellations, and even though it costs just a bit more, it is the one to buy.
Los Vascos 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon "Reserve" ($17; Chile): As good as the inexpensive regular Los Vascos is, the Reserve, made from lower yielding, older vines from the heart of the estate, is more akin to a top Bordeaux crus bourgeois. The winemaking is cru classe level, employing French oak barrels retired from Lafite and long maceration on the skins, with special attention in the vineyards to obtaining optimal grape ripeness. The wine has a fine structure built around ripe tannins and fleshy Cabernet varietal flavors of plummy red fruit, dried cherries and tobacco. This is simply a great wine around which to build a holiday meal.
Fontanafredda Langhe Eremo 2001 ($20; Italy): Fontanafredda is best known for its traditional single vineyard Barolos, particularly Barolo la Rosa ($90), a formidable Piedmont classic that can age for two decades or more. Its newest wine, Eremo, is an effort to offer the Fontanafredda style in a more accessible format, at a lower price. While the main expression of fruit remains the rarefied Nebbiolo, Barbera has been blended in to add fruit, fat, and body, and the wine has been aged in barriques to add a sheen of new oak.
Saintsbury 2002/2003 Pinot Noir Garnet ($16-$18; Carneros): Better than almost anything from Burgundy remotely in this price range, Saintsbury's entry-level Garnet Pinot Noir is quite Burgundian in style, offering a silky texture and surprising concentration of bright, bing cherry/strawberry fruit. Ideal with salmon or light meats, serve this lovely wine now and over the next year.
Foppiano Petite Sirah 2000/2001/2002 Russian River Valley ($16; California): Foppiano makes big, plush, blueberry-scented Petite Sirah that are delicious when young, but that have excellent potential for aging two to three years. Full-bodied and opulent, this delectable Petite Sirah works best with hearty beef and red meat dishes. Lots of wine for the money.
Merryvale 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley ($35): It would be easy to recommend Merryvale's 2001 Beckstoffer Vineyard Clone Six Cabernet at $90 or its stunning Beckstoffer Vineyard X at $70, were it not for its Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which is every bit a showstopper at half the price. Under the guiding hand of superstar winemaker Stephen Test, the Reserve has emerged as a slightly gentler, more approachable version of these megaliths. The Reserve is sourced from Georges III, Beckstoffer X and ToKalon, legendary vineyards with which the winery has secured long-term contracts to supplement its own production. While this wine can age for five years or more, it is thoroughly enjoyable now as a great young Cabernet.
Col Solare 2001 Red Table Wine Columbia Valley ($70; Washington): Among the most impressive wines I have tasted this year, this wine, a joint venture between Piero Antinori of Tuscany and Washington's Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, is spectacular. The deeply fruity, refined style is an amalgam of Antinori's Tuscan exotics, including Tignanello, Cervaro della Sala, Guado al Tasso and Solaia, augmented by a pleasing shot of New World fruit. Although not inexpensive, this wine clearly competes in quality with wines costing $125 or more.