Liquids: High-End Wines as Holiday Gifts

The holidays are the only time of year when I tend to break my self-imposed rule of never paying more than $15 for a bottle of wine. The fact is it’s also when people expect me to, even if most of the time I’m thrilled to pull the cork of an eight-to-ten-buck bottle.

This confounds those who assume that a sommelier must be a bon vivant–boulevardier who’s nothing short of cavalier about money when it comes to all things fermented. Not with moi. In fact, those who know (and love) me most are more inclined to employ a French term far less generous: pour pas cher, which is a nice way of saying “on the cheap.”

That’s fine with me, because I’ve built a career on tricking people into thinking that they’re drinking expensive grape juice when it’s often surprisingly inexpensive wine that happens to be very good. For the longest time, my “house red” was a bottle of Spanish wine called Borsao from the Campo de Borja just outside the famed Rioja region. Every time friends asked how much it cost, I’d say I didn’t remember. Invariably, a few days later I’d get a call from one of them saying, “You cheap bastard! I found that wine and it was only $4.99!” My response? “Actually, $4.12 with a full-case discount.” (While I still love Borsao, the word is out—its price has nearly doubled.)

Buying something when you want to splurge, but usually don’t, can be tricky. Just because a wine is expensive doesn’t mean it’s truly great or that it will necessarily suit your taste. And you certainly don’t want to break the bank for a bottle that will disappoint your boss, your friends, your relatives, or your Christmas dinner guests.

So which bottles are worth a splurge? With the help of the talented David Alphonse, vice president of beverages at Back Bay Restaurant Group, I’ve made a list of great wines for times when price is no object.

>>CHAMPAGNE Unlike still wines, the more expensive the Champagne, the better it usually tastes. And rosé Champagnes, the most beautiful wines on the planet, are worth the big bucks. For a perfect holiday celebration, try the creamy, biscuit-y, and delicious NV Laurent-Perrier “Cuvée Rosé Brut,” Champagne, France ($75), a bargain when compared with NV Krug “Rosé Brut,” Champagne, France ($295), though Krug’s dark cherry flavors, toasty oak overtones, and subtle citrus kiss make it hard to beat. The 1999 Nicolas Feuillatte “Cuvée Palmes d’Or Rosé,” Champagne, France ($170), a silky, violet-scented beauty, comes in a gift-worthy bottle destined for reuse. The 1995 Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame Rosé,” Champagne, France ($320), is the great rosy-cheeked lady of Champagne, perfumed with candied bitter orange, cinnamon, cherries, and ginger.

>>RIESLING When it comes to white wines, rieslings are among my favorites because of their eminent compatibility with food. I’ve long been a fan of Alsatians, such as the peachy-guava-mineral-intense 1999 Trimbach “Clos Sainte Hune,” Ribeauville, France ($150). And recently I’ve been smitten by the drier—but no less fruity and food-friendly—expressions from Austria, such as 2003 Franz Hirtzberger “Riesling Federspiel Steinterrassen,” Wachau ($65).

>>CHARDONNAY While I’m not a card-carrying member of the ABC Club (Anything But Chardonnay), it is often the most mediocre plonk. But if you take the leap to more-expensive bottles, you’ll discover what real chardonnay tastes like. Behold these New World beauties: 2004 PlumpJack “Reserve Chardonnay,” Napa Valley, California ($50); 2002 Staglin Family Vineyard “Salus Chardonnay,” Rutherford, California ($50); 2002 Beringer “Sbragia Limited Release Chardonnay,” Napa Valley, California ($40); and 2001 Leeuwin Estate “Art Series Chardonnay,” Margaret River, Australia ($65). And from Burgundy, France, there’s what Alphonse calls “the most elegant chardonnay ever made”: 2002 Bonneau du Martray “Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru” ($100).

>>PINOT NOIR If you have no idea what to give a wine lover, rest assured that all disciples of Bacchus love pinot noir (a.k.a. red burgundy or Bourgogne rouge) because it pairs with everything from fluke to filet mignon. Unfortunately, the very best from Burgundy are cost prohibitive (even when I’m not supposed to be looking at price tags). There are, however, stateside pinots with Burgundian finesse at deep discounts such as 2002 Beaux Frères “The Beaux Frères Vineyard,” Willamette Valley, Oregon ($75), and 2002 Dutton-Goldfield “Devil’s Gulch Ranch Pinot Noir,” Marin County, California ($48).

>>MERLOT/SHIRAZ I feel the same way about merlot as I do about chardonnay: It’s overproduced and overpriced at the 10-buck level. However, if pressed, I’d highly recommend 2002 Paloma Vineyard “Paloma Merlot,” Spring Mountain, California ($51), because it’s actually both fruity and complex. Otherwise, I head for shiraz for wines that give me both fruit and power. Here are four that do just that: 2002 Montes “Montes Folly” Syrah, Santa Cruz, Chile ($80); 2002 Darioush “Signature Shiraz,” Napa Valley, California ($64); 2000 Elderton “Command Shiraz,” Barossa Valley, Australia ($66); and 2001 Penfolds “RWT Shiraz,” Barossa Valley, Australia ($70).

>>BIG REDS At the top of most collectors’ lists (so ironically at the bottom of mine, because I don’t collect—I drink) are powerful, tannin-rich reds that age well. Perfect examples include these New World cabernets, as well as their Old World progenitors: bordeaux blends composed of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet Franc. Try 2001 Casa Lapostolle “Clos Apalta,” Colchagua Valley, Chile ($55); 2001 Shafer “Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon,” Napa Valley, California ($175); 2001 Peter Michael Winery “Les Pavots,” Knights Valley, California ($115); 2001 Chateau Cos d’Estournel, Bordeaux, France ($65); and 2001 Château Lafite Rothschild, Bordeaux, France ($155).