Wine for the Holidays: From the Wallet-Watching to the Splurge-Worthy

by Jim Clarke
December 2004

Wine is habit-forming; one habit it forms is associating certain prices with certain regions: Bordeaux? Pricy. Australia? Cheap. But wines in all price ranges can be found around the world; whatever you’re spending, it’s the value that’s important – does the wine taste like a million bucks, or does it taste like it should have been on sale?

I’ve turned things upside down for our holiday wine suggestions. I combed through two regions known for budget-priced reds – Argentina and Southern Italy –and two for high-end whites – California and Burgundy. In all four regions I found wines at three different price points so you can cover all your bases this holiday season. Buy the under-$20 wine to stock up for your party and the mid-range bottle ($30-$50) for a more intimate gathering. Finally, for a special gift or to treat yourself and your closest loved ones, splash out on our high-end suggestions for $60 or more. (Prices may vary regionally)


Home of the big Chardonnay, certainly, but there’s a lot more going on in the wilder reaches of Californian whites. For that matter, the best producers are keeping their big Chardonnays in shape to create great wines; the Schwarzenegger mask belied by a more subtle, Dustin Hoffman performance. Look for:

Navarro Vineyards Estate-Bottled Gewürztraminer 2003 ($17)
Okay, there are plenty of California whites that cost even less, but few have this amount of complexity and fun in the bottle. New World Gewürz tends toward an innocuous style that makes it a bit of a wallflower; Navarro gives it some gusto. Aging the wine for several months on its lees – the expired yeast left after fermentation – gives the wine more depth under the more usual aromas of quince, grapefruit, spice, and flowers. It’s dry, and not as oily-rich as many Alsatian bottlings, but still lets the Gewürztraminer grape spread its wings. If money’s tight, the Navarro Edelzwicker blend also provides good bang-for-your-buck at $11 or so.

Celebrating but Sane:
Au Bon Climat “Hildegard” 2001 ($35)
Another nod toward Alsace, blending two of the region’s traditional grapes, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, with a touch of Aligoté – a rare Burgundian grape that’s even less common in the U.S. The Hildegard proves that not all rich, creamy whites are Chardonnays; aromas of lemon curd, baked pears, nutmeg, and earthy base makes this a great winter white. Au Bon Climat sources grapes from around the Central Coast; this particular wine comes from the Santa Maria Valley, which is generally more known for Pinot Noir.

Peter Michael Ma Belle Fille 2002 ($150)
The first time I tasted Sir Peter Michael’s Chardonnays was a jaw-dropping experience. I really could have chosen any of their whites for this list; “Ma Belle Fille” is a new bottling with a smokier character than some of the others – it pairs well with an alpine fireplace. I’m not sure if this is from oak-aging or a variation on terroir – the vineyard was slightly damaged by a wildfire the previous year, and perhaps some of that aroma was still in the air or soil. In any case, credit goes to winemaker Luc Morlet for integrating it so well with both the richly floral and appley nose and more tropical palate of this long-finished wine.

Southern Italy

Southern Italy has become a happy hunting ground for those open to lesser-known varietals. Producers there have been happy to make the move from cheap, anonymous bulk wine to something with their own identity. But their new-found popularity hasn’t gone to their heads yet, so by-and-large prices still reflect what it costs to make wine, not some dream of what fame can bear.

Felline Primitivo di Manduria 2002 ($13)
Primitivo is not the obscure grape you might think when you find out it’s genetically identical to California’s Zinfandel. The climate of Puglia – the heel of the Italian boot – seems to bring out the spice and dark fruits, which winemakers are buttressing with aging in new oak which helps the wine escape rusticity. Blackberry, boysenberry, and licorice notes team up with black pepper and clove; the smooth tannins and texture make this an easy wine to party with.

Celebrating but Sane:
Cottanera L’Ardenza 2001 ($37)
Cottanera is a relatively new producer with 120 acres of vineyards wrapped around the slopes of Mount Etna. The volcanic soils lend a distinctive flavor to their wines, a clear expression of terroir that makes the wines stand out against the background of big, fruity, “New Worldy” Sicilian wines out there. The Ardenza is made from 100% Mondeuse, a French varietal also found at the other end of Italy in Friuli. A late ripener, it seems to prosper in Sicily’s warmer climates, where it can reach a better balance of flavor, alcohol, and acidity than it usually does up north. The nose shows lots of gamy, wet earth and ripe, macerated berries. In the mouth it’s firm and medium-bodied, with cranberry, raspberry, and slate. Its high acidity also makes it versatile with food.

Argiolas Turriga 2000 ($64)
Sardinia usually gets lumped together with the South of Italy even though properly-speaking it is in the West. Several impressive producers have emerged there in recent decades, with Argiolas leading the pack. While they’ve only been selling their wine under their own label since 1991, the company has been around long enough to have well-established vineyards and winemaking facilities. The Turriga is a single vineyard wine, 85% Cannonau – known elsewhere as Grenache –and a mix of Malvasia Nera, Carignano, and the very obscure Bovale Sardo; the latter grapes add color, flavor and punch to Cannonau’s rich alcohol and overt fruitiness. Oak-aging helps it all hold together; the result is full-bodied wine with aromas of black raspberries, cherries, black currant, and toast. Spice, flowers, and herbs emerge on the palate supplement these flavors on the palate, most notably rosemary and tobacco. It’s round and smooth, with sweet tannins and a long, flavorful finish.


Another- some would say the – Chardonnay stronghold. Given a much longer history of winemaking than California, Chardonnay’s dominance of white wine in Burgundy is almost complete: it starts at the pinnacle, Grand Cru vineyard Montrachet, and works its way down from there. Sub-regions like Mâcon and the Côte Chalonnaise provide more opportunities on the budget shelves. If you’d like a white Burgundy from a different varietal, there are fun, crisp wines to be found from St. Bris, where they grow Sauvignon Blanc, and Bouzeron, where the little-known Aligoté mentioned earlier gets a chance to shine.

Domaine de Lalande Mâcon-Chaintré 2003 ($13)
This wine is a bit bigger this vintage, presumably owing to Europe’s hot summer. However, it remains a refreshing wine, light and crisp. Green apple aromas are matched by quartzy minerals; some floral and pear notes round out the wine in the mouth. Mâcon is the region; this wine is specific to the village of Chaintré, which actually lies within the more famous name of Pouilly-Fuissé.

Celebrating but Sane:
Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Vaudesir 2002 ($40)
The first wine of Brocard’s I ever encountered was a St. Bris – actually at the time it was a Sauvignon de St. Bris, since the appellation had not yet gained its new status as a full-on AOC. Northeast of St. Bris is the more famous appellation of Chablis, where Brocard is based. Vaudesir is one of the seven Grand Crus of the region, overlooking the Serein River. The wine is not as aggressive as some Chablis, more elegant, with tangerine, Asian spices, and floral notes surrounding that core of minerality that is the hallmark of Chablis. It’s ready to drink, but will also age well for several years or more if you’re making a gift of it.

Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot Puligny-Montrachet Clos de la Mouchere 2002 ($75)
The vineyard Montachet lies on the border of two villages, Puligny and Chassagne, and has lent its name to each of them. Wines from Puligny tend toward elegance, Boillot stays true to this while enveloping it all in smoky oak. The fruits touch on pear and peach, with additional notes of almond, and spice. A core of acidity gives the wine a complex, enduring finish. You won’t see wines from “Clos de la Mouchere” elsewhere; the vineyard is a monopole. Owned exclusively by Jean-Marc Boillot.


Malbec has come of age in Argentina, and the proof lies in the fact that producers have succeeded not only in crafting it into the budget wines the country is known for, but also into some complex, powerful high-end wines with serious aging potential. Much of Malbec’s success here is because of the climate; a longer, hotter growing season allows the grape to ripen for fully than it typically does in its ancestral home of Southern France. This brings the fruit and spice flavors forward to keep the tannins in line.

Balbi Malbec 2002, Mendoza ($9)
Balbi is a good example of the international mix that characterizes Argentine winemaking. Founded in 1930 by Italian Juan Balbi, the company is now owned by the Spanish/international wine and spirits company Allied-Domecq. And winemaker Jean Louis Brun has come from Bordeaux to add French winemaking techniques into the mix. The wine is spicy and focused, with blackberries, cherries, and roast coffee notes. Light tannins frame the medium-bodied, easy-drinking wine.

Celebrating but Sane:
Bodegas Terrazas de los Andes Afincado Malbec 2001, Vistalba, Mendoza ($45)
Bodegas Terrazas de los Andes produces a wide range of wines, covering budget, middle, and more premium price points. The Afincado is one of their higher-priced wines, exceeded only by the phenomenal Cheval des Andes – a joint project with Cheval Blanc of Bordeaux. The Afincado is made exclusively with grapes from the “Finca Las Compuertas” vineyard; it’s packed with fruit – plum, black cherry, and blueberry- but is also touched with chocolate, caramel, and Malbec’s calling-card spice. The wine is full-bodied with firm but well-balanced tannins.

Achaval Ferrer Finca Altamira Malbec 2001, La Consulta, Mendoza ($85)
None of that touching-every-price-point hedging-your-bets for Achaval Ferrer; they produce only two wines, a blend and this single-varietal Malbec. They are convinced that Finca Altamira has the potential to be an Argentine Grand Cru, and there’s no reason not to believe them. The fruits – black cherry, boysenberry – are set deep into a blend of dark chocolate, espresso, and roasted hazelnut. It’s a full-bodied wine, very velvety, with a superb sustained finish. This goes great on a special evening when you want a “never-ending” feeling.

Happy Holidays!