Many folks shy away from giving wines as gifts to people who care about wine because they’re scared they’ll choose something inconsequential, too familiar or otherwise inappropriate. The safe alternative is wine-related apparatuses – over-engineered openers, aerators and the like – which are just invitations to hold a yankee swap.
I want to give wine gifts that I want to get. I want to get wine. I want to get wine that’s nicer than what I ordinarily drink but not discomfitingly nice. Money will have been spent, but not extravagant money. I will receive a mix of ready-to-drink and ageable bottles; wine for actual life, in the moments when actual life allows for attention and rest.
To meet these criteria, I’ll stay away from big names. There has never been a better time for Americans to find great, interesting wines they can afford – wine that can please and intrigue the fussiest, most knowledgeable, most intimidating friend – as long as they’re not hung up on categories, magazine write-ups, point scores and fame.
Bordeaux and Burgundy may extend ever further out of reach (Chinese richies have moved on from jacking the price of the former to buying up vineyards in the latter), but that’s to the benefit of us adventurers (and the eager-to-be-fascinated friends for whom they buy presents).
I’m no fist-shaking anti-traditionalist. “Important” wines are important, and this is the season for buying them. But there are so many alternatives out there that one need not feel obligated to them.
A quick (and way incomplete) short list of better-known wines I would love to receive as gifts this year (Mom, do you read my columns anymore?):
• Domaine Clape Cornas ($45, National), old-vine Syrah from a heaven with clouds made of stone.
• Catena Alta Malbec ($53, Pine State), an almost liq-ueur-y, complicated and bristly blend of cherry, thyme and cocoa that will soar after seven or more years of aging.
• Ogier Condrieu ($89, SoPo), perhaps the most aromatically enticing, novelistic wine I’ve ever tasted, Viognier from planet Earth after creatures from Venus have landed and taken over our vineyards.
A few more: Chateau Musar (prices all over the map, I’m looking for a few vintages from the 1950s through the 1980s, Easterly), rhapsodically wild, subversive red, white and rose from Lebanon. Donnhoff Riesling Grosses Gewachs ($70, SoPo), from the Michelangelo of the Nahe; I only know his transcendent Kabinetts and Spatlesen, and now need to try his “grand cru” – in 20 or so years when it’s ready. Speaking of which, you might as well throw in a bottle of Hexamer Soberheimer Riesling Auslese ($65, SoPo), which will be hitting its prime as I’m ending mine.
OK, now let’s look at a few wines that because of either region or name don’t get on many people’s lists of must-haves. Cesari Cento Filari Lugana 2010 ($20, Central) is made from a close cousin to one of the least respected white-wine grapes going, Trebbiano. Cesari’s Lugana is from Turbiana (probably closer genetically to Verdicchio than to Trebbiano) blended with 5 percent Chardonnay. The grapes are grown in the Veneto on the oldest vines for Lugana in the world, with an insanely low yield of one vine per bottle of wine. Also anomalous for the region, the sustainable farming is performed with no irrigation, and the grapes are vinified without any oak.
The result is a spectacularly energetic, spicy wine with subtly luxurious honey and beeswax notes, supremely elegant texture and finish. This is just the kind of affordable white wine that flies under too many radars but will bring joy to attentive and honest drinkers.
Spanish wine generally is undergoing a large-scale identity crisis, as so many producers chase “international” styles, techniques and ratings. In the nooks and crannies, though, lurk true gems of elegance and complexity. The Volvoreta Probus Toro ($28, Crush) is one of these, though it expresses aspects that will appeal directly to American drinkers who love their big, potent Cabs. Ripe and pure, with a Petit Verdot purple lushness fleshing out the toasty oak-hugged Tempranillo, this is large and accessible but distinct. Most people’s dads will prefer this to a thousand ties or sweaters.
Red wines from the Mencia grape are on that zeitgeist-y cusp between cult and hip. The Pena do Lobo 2010 ($24, Devenish), from Ribeira Sacra’s steep granite-soil vineyards on the River Sil in Galicia, is a splendid example. Fermented in stainless tanks and unfiltered, it’s perfect for anyone looking to be reassured the Old World spirit still prevails in parts of Spain. Dusty, angular and ravishing like a Dolcetto; pretty, peppery and violet like a Cabernet Franc. Unwrapped on Christmas morning, it will be perfect with a light lunch; on a Hanukkah evening, it will light up what’s for dinner.