One thing wine enthusiasts like as much as tasting the next wine is giving someone a bottle they hope will surprise and delight. This helps explain why so much wine is sold during the year-end holidays.
With so many wines from which to choose, however, the exercise can be daunting and frustrating. We don’t want that, not during what is supposed to be the most joyous stretch of the year. So here is this year’s shopping list of gift wines:
When the holiday open house is relaxed and casual
As appetizers are being circulated among invitees, guests partial to white wines won’t be disappointed if glasses of Jed Steele’s Shooting Star 2016 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc ($14) are trailing close behind. Lake County makes some of the more exhilarating sauvignon blancs on the market, celebrated for their clean fruit and zesty acidity. And Jed Steele has been finessing sauvignon blanc in Lake County for about as long as anyone. He knows how to make a sauvignon blanc enduring and versatile with food. OK, so what of the guest on a diet, eschewing the bites, however small? While the 2016 Shooting Star is forthright with snappy citric fruit, it also is fairly hefty, with enough bold flavor and satiny texture to make it a pleasure all on its own.
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Guests may have heard that California winemakers are reimagining with enthusiasm and gumption the black Italian grape barbera, but never have tasted a wine made from the variety. An inexpensive yet developed introduction to all the alert fruit that the wine can give up would be the Boeger Winery 2016 El Dorado Barbera ($20). Guests will appreciate its sunny fruit, reserved oak and revitalizing acidity, though some will be put off by its insistence on interrupting conversations. The Boeger Winery 2016 El Dorado “Barbeara” ($18) is a richer take on the variety, with a more voluminous aroma and more complexity, especially when it comes to spice.
When the dinner party is more serious and more formal
J Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley built its standing largely on the elegance of its sparkling wines, but for the past 25 years it also has been releasing still varietal wines like chardonnay and pinot noir. That segment of its production gradually has grown more impressive, even in a year like 2016, challenging for its searing temperatures and abbreviated growing year, a veritable recipe for wines raisiny and flabby. Nevertheless, the J Vineyards & Winery Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($31) shows off with authority just why California is so recognized for a take on the variety bold and complex. The wine is ample but not at all droopy. Its ripe fruit flavors run to suggestions of apple, mango and lemon. It gets its lift from finely honed acidity and its spice from the French oak barrels in which it was fermented and aged. If lobster is on the table, so should be this chardonnay.
For every grape variety it handles, from cabernet sauvignon through malbec, Flora Springs Winery is one of the more consistently reliable producers in Napa Valley. It just never disappoints, and each year at least one of its wines ends up on my list of favorites. This year it is the Flora Springs Winery 2015 Napa Valley Merlot ($30), which all on its own could revive merlot as a staple of the American table for its vivacious fruit, startling complexity and refreshing buoyancy. There are suggestions of plums, cherries and raspberries in aroma and flavor, to be sure, but more intriguing is its thread of green olives.
For your postal carrier, mechanic or stylist
For freshness, versatility, value and a local connection, give a bottle of the Dry Creek Vineyard 2017 Clarksburg Dry Chenin Blanc ($15). Dry Creek Vineyard is in Sonoma County, but for more than 30 years the winery has been pulling chenin blanc from Clarksburg in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta for its exceptionally clean, fragrant and stimulating take on the varietal. It’s a little off-dry, but not sticky sweet, making it a pleasant sipper on its own, but it also has the fruit, acidity and structure to pair with a wide range of foods.
No wine in this holiday lineup comes closer to guaranteeing unbridled pleasure than the Maison Kuentz-Bas 2016 Alsace Pinot Noir ($20). Here is a pinot noir that combines adroitly substance and cheer, the former represented by uncommon assertiveness in pinot noir, the latter by the freshness and spice of its fruit. In a culinary competition at the Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival in September, the wine was tasted blind when it was paired with a busy and husky dish of wild-boar sausage over arugula with mayocoba beans. The Kuentz-Bas showed then that it has the spine and weight to hang with most any dish. Taylors Market and the Davis Food Co-op have been keen on Kuentz- Bas wines, imported and distributed by Kermit Lynch of Berkeley.
For the person just starting to develop an interest in wine
Wine neophytes likely would be most curious about chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, California’s most popular varietal wines. For chardonnay, treat them to the William Hill Estate Winery 2016 North Coast Chardonnay ($17), whose substantial weight and complexity are complemented by bright tropical fruit, refreshing acidity and whispers of oak, making it a correct if unassuming interpretation of the varietal.
For cabernet sauvignon, the Shenandoah Vineyards 2015 Amador County Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) will introduce them to an exceptionally complex, herbal, spicy and high-value take on the grape. Cabernet sauvignons this vital and balanced aren’t supposed to be coming out of the foothills, but the Sobon family has been working on this kind of delivery for decades. Of the 10 cabernet sauvignons our panel judged at the El Dorado County Fair commercial wine competition this year, the Shenandoah Vineyards won double gold and best of class. (A double-gold medal is awarded a wine when all members of a panel concur that it warrants gold.)
For the wine geek who thinks he or she has had it all
At his Haarmeyer Wine Cellars in West Sacramento, Craig Haarmeyer tackles one of California’s earlier but now eclipsed stars – chenin blanc. In any given vintage he is apt to make six of them as he shows off how adaptable and transparent the grape can be. The most offbeat release in his lineup is his St. Rey 2016 Clarksburg Sutter Ranch Vineyard Petillant Naturel ($35), which retains chenin blanc’s refreshing notes of pear, apple and spice while also seizing and retaining the gentle bubbles generated during the wine’s fermentation. Though not long ago I saw the 2016 in wine shops like Corti Brothers and Beyond Napa, the 2017 now is in the pipeline.
The black Italian grape nebbiolo fascinates and frustrates California winemakers like no other, in large part because it is responsible for the noble wines Barolo and Barbaresco. California winemakers have been trying to emulate those models for decades, generally falling short. Now they are tempering their ambitions, starting to turn out interpretations lighter, leaner and gentler without compromising the grape’s potential for distinct and unfolding flavors. The result is California nebbiolo fresher and more supple than its Italian cousins, yet still retaining the floral aromatics and suggestions of cherries and figs for which the grape’s wines are recognized. One of the more impressive on the market is the freshly fruity Lepiane Wines 2013 Sisquoc Vineyard Nebbiolo ($45) out of Santa Barbara, stocked at Corti Brothers the last time I looked.
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 email@example.com.