Gift Bottles: Books with Great Covers

by Jim Clarke
December 2007

The natural tendency of wine critics and sommeliers is to talk about the wine, but not the wine bottle. Sure, we learn how to decipher labels, wading through the different terms on German or French bottles, and the bottle shape can usually tell us something about the type of wine inside. However, at the holidays, wines and spirits are popular gifts, and it’s nice to have a dramatic bottle to suggest that the contents are something special – especially to recipients or onlookers who might not be that familiar with the wine or liquor itself. Here are a few bottles that will make an impression on the eye, but aren’t all talk, either – that is, the contents live up to the bottle’s billing.

Champagnes: The festive associations that come with Champagne mean that even the classic bottle shape – intended to contain the wine’s 4-6 atmospheres of pressure – gives it holiday cachet. However, several Champagne houses riff on that shape to make their product stand out on the shelf. Gosset’s wines, for example, come in a curvy, Rubenesque form, which is particularly exaggerated in less usual sizes like half bottles and magnums. Laurent-Perrier’s Chairman Bernard de Nonancourt introduced the long-neck, squat-body design used for several of their wines, including the Grand Siècle, a bubbly that remains a great value compared to many other Tête de Cuvées like Dom Perignon or Cristal. (Recommended: Gosset Grand Reserve [$60] and Celebris Rosé 1998 [$125]; Laurent-Perrier Alexandra Rosé [$120] and Grand Siècle [$70])

Travaglini Gattinara: Fans of Barolo will appreciate this one, but don’t be offended if they don’t open it up immediately for Christmas dinner; like many Nebbiolo-based wines, it needs some aging to soften the wine’s tannins and acidity and really get at its aromas. The Gattinara region, like Barolo, is in Piedmont, but farther north; the cooler mountain vineyards bring out a more perfumed and somewhat lighter-bodied take on the grape, less powerful but very expressive. The 2002 ($22), for example, highlights red fruit aromas against a touch of leather and violet, while the 2000 Riserva ($40) keeps the floral touches but favors dried fruits and spice. The bottle? It looks like it passed through an oven on its way to the winery, melting and twisting it; it's intriguing and eye-catching, if not glamorous.

Grappa: A few of Jacopo Poli’s bottles remind me of the demonic creatures in a Hieronymus Bosch painting – except pretty and elegant. Long, thin, delicate necks lead to plump-bodied bottles; the proportions seem almost out of whack, heightening the feeling of delicacy. The overall effect though, means you pay attention when you have a bottle of the grappa in your hand; you pour carefully and admire both the bottle and the grappa itself as you do it. It would all be an exercise in marketing if the grappa itself didn’t show the same sort of attention to detail. These are not the firewater grappas of two decades ago; while they do pack some heat, each one shows some varietal character and elegance. Try the Vespaiolo ($75) or Moscato ($60 – and a brandy, actually, not a grappa) for the most exotic bottles, or the tasting set, with small bottles of four different products.

Scotch: I think of Scotch as a great winter gift – warming, earthy, and with a sense of terroir not unlike what we find in wine. The bottles, when they veer from the norm, don’t go for the Baroque excess or modern glamour that, say, Cognac aspires to; rather, they tend toward a clunky, down-to-earth aesthetic. Take the short, fat cylinder that is the Glenrothes bottle – it looks like a brown papaya with a punt in its base (a punt is that dent in the bottom of a bottle, common in most wine bottles). Glenrothes is a Speyside distillery, with a wide range of products including single cask and vintage whiskies; they generally share vanilla notes and smoothness in common, but vary in body, fruit notes, and spice. The 1984 Vintage ($110) has a rich, fig and raisin character that gives extra heft and weight; try the 1994 Vintage ($65) for a lighter, more citrus-toned whisky.

St.Germain: This is the bottle that will generate the most talk when it’s unwrapped – generally along the lines of “Ooo…What’s that?” The bottle looks like an Art Deco-inspired Greco-Roman column, made of glass, with flutes that morph into flower petals, vaguely resembling a Corinthian column. The liqueur inside is based on elderflower blossoms, a flavor more commonly found in non-alcoholic cordials. St. Germain ($30) is more complex; the elderflowers' aromas evolve and embrace some lemon curd, peach, and pear notes. It’s mildly sweet, enjoyable on its own (especially on the rocks) or in cocktails – any place you use triple sec can be a good place for a substitution, for starters.