Despite intensified competition – unconventional spirits, exotic coffees, craft beers, rare teas, all those kombuchas – wine likely will remain the beverage of choice for holiday soirees and as gifts again this yuletide. Thus, my annual shopping list for wines to fit the season. If you don’t find the specific vintage recommended here, don’t fret; for the most part, these wines are pretty much stylistically consistent year to year:
When the holiday open house is relaxed and casual
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2016 Columbia Valley Dry Riesling ($9 at Total Wine along Arden Way): Chateau Ste. Michelle makes more riesling than any winery in the country, releasing around eight variations each vintage. Be sure to grab the one designated “dry” for a step up over the regular riesling in focus and build.
J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines 2015 Monterey Wildflower Valdiguie ($10.50 at Corti Brothers, $10 at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op): For more than three decades J. Lohr has been making this delightfully frisky red wine. The grape originally was called “Gamay,” but for the past 20 years “Valdiguie.” Regardless, vintage after vintage the wine is gently yet persistently fruity and spicy, suggesting cranberries one moment, raspberries another.
When the dinner party is more serious and formal
Rodney Strong 2015 Sonoma County Chalk Hill Chardonnay ($21 at most Raley’s stores): In a year with more impressive chardonnays than usual rolling into the market, this is my overall favorite. It is a traditional California chardonnay, brimming with suggestions of ripe tropical, apple, pear and citric fruit, set off by notes of cinema popcorn and vanilla. It stands apart from most California chardonnay, on the other hand, for its charge and buoyancy; the acid is electric, the oak evident yet relatively restrained, the structure sleek and stable.
Flora Springs 2014 Napa Valley Merlot ($30 at Whole Foods Market along Arden Way, $29 at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op): Expect in the new year to hear a lot more about merlot. It is regaining momentum as one of California’s more assured wines after taking a hit from “Sideways” snark more than a decade ago. The Flora Springs is an ample, plummy and mocha-laced take on the varietal. It takes a while to open, but when it does it is profound as well as readily accessible.
As an inexpensive gift to your favorite service providers
Husch Vineyards 2016 Anderson Valley Dry Gewurztraminer ($12 at BevMo in midtown Sacramento): Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley is recognized for yielding forthright examples of aromatic white wines like gewürztraminer, and year after year the Husch is a textbook example of the varietal – rose petals, grapefruit, lychee and spice in one lean and lively package.
Shannon Ridge 2015 Lake County Petite Sirah ($11 at Nugget Market in West Sacramento): Lake County vineyards are celebrated principally for sauvignon blanc and increasingly for cabernet sauvignon, but it also is home to a broad-shouldered, solidly built and relentlessly unfolding style of petite sirah, with the Shannon Ridge at the head of the pack for its ample and spicy complexity.
For the person just starting to develop an interest in wine
Landmark Vineyards 2015 Sonoma County “Overlook” Chardonnay ($20 at Beyond Napa in Lyon Village Shopping Center): With liveliness and layering, “Overlook” shows the newcomer why chardonnay has become California’s most extensively cultivated wine grape. Landmark Vineyards has been making “Overlook” for 25 years, and virtually every vintage adroitly dovetails bright tropical fruit with French oak seasoning to provide a chardonnay of fresh fruit, spirited acidity and lingering finish.
Shenandoah Vineyards 2015 Amador County Special Reserve Zinfandel ($11 at Matteo’s Wine Cellar in Carmichael): If the neophyte lives in or about Sacramento, he or she might as well be introduced to the region’s most enduring grape and wine by a representative that speaks clearly and consistently to zinfandel’s fresh and spicy berry fruit.
For the wine geek who thinks he or she has had it all
New Clairvaux Vineyard 2016 Tehama County Vina St. James Block Assyrtiko ($20 at Corti Brothers): Assyrtiko is a green grape most closely identified with the frolicsome white wines of the Greek island of Santorini, where it is hot. It’s also hot in the upper Sacramento Valley, home to the vineyards and winery of the Abbey of New Clairvaux. Thus, the abbey’s monks agreed to give it a shot, and have produced the first assyrtiko in California. It is dry, lean and high-pitched, with a fleeting complexity that ranges from suggestions of peaches to olives against a citric backdrop.
Turley Wine Cellars 2016 Lodi Bechthold Vineyard Cinsault ($20 at Corti Brothers): Lodi’s Bechthold Vineyard is one of the older in the state, dating to 1885 or 1886, and cinsault is one of California’s rarer grape varieties. Together, they produce a lightly colored yet multifaceted red wine whose fresh and candied cranberry flavor, vivid spice and tangy finish make it a versatile and easy companion at the dinner table. Best served with a little chill.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.