Holiday Happiness: Crowd-pleasing Wines

by Jim Clarke
December 2005

You can’t make everybody happy, but if there’s a time of year when we try – or, at least, when we’re most inclined to try – it’s the holidays. So are there really wines that you can pour, confidently knowing that everyone will enjoy it? Probably not – after all, some people won’t even cross the white-red divide. That said, some wines are certainly more likely than others to go over well. But there’s a danger: trying to please everyone can lead to lowest-common-denominator wines: mediocrity. With these dangers in mind, here are our holiday suggestions for crowd-pleasing wines, broken down into whites, reds, and sparklers, and touching on three price points: Wallet-Watching ($10-$15), Celebrating but Sane ($25-$40), and Splurge-Worthy ($50 and up).
(Prices and availability may vary regionally.)

Whites

The big divide among white wine drinkers usually centers on oak, pitting your California Chard disciples against the Pinot Grigio set. Many Chardonnay fans, however, discover they can do without the oak as long as the wine is decently full-bodied, whereas your Pinot Grigio fans can be comfortable with fuller wines as long as they retain some refreshing acidity. The goal, then, is full-bodied wines with decent acidity.

Martin Codax Albariño 2004(Spain; $13) Albariño is a grape native to the northwest portion of the Iberian peninsula; in the granite hills of the Rias Baixas it truly comes into its own. Martin Codax – named after a medieval musician from the area – is one of the area’s largest producers, with over 500 acres of vineyards. Their flagship wine is a classic example of Albariño doing its thing: it’s full-bodied, flavorful, and well-structured, with a good spine of acidity which keeps it fresh and lends it to Galicia’s perfect seafood. Its profile includes aromas of passionfruit, lime, and green apples, with an underlying mineraliness. Touches of smoke and herbs – fennel, sage – come through on the palate.

Heidi Schröck Weissburgunder 2003(Austria; $25) Heidi Schröck is an up-and-coming star on Austria’s wine scene, known for making complex white wines in the Burgenland, an area generally recognized for reds and dessert wines. You probably know Weissburgunder better under its Burgundian name, Pinot Blanc. Many compare it to Chardonnay, but it’s more aromatic, and rarely sees oak. Heidi Schröck’s rendition is floral, with underlying aromas of apple, mineral and chalk, and a long finish.

Vergelegen Flagship White 2003(South Africa; $50) A classic Bordeaux blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, the latter dominating and giving the wine fullness and textural interest. While this wine does indeed spend some time in new French Oak barrels, the Sauvignon Blanc keeps it fresh, and the oak supports the wine’s texture without cluttering its aromas. Some smokiness does appear, complementing the more predominant notes of honey, beeswax, and flint.

Reds

Step outside the Merlot-Pinot Noir battle and look instead to another grape that winegrowers around the world are becoming more and more fond of: Syrah (The wine press is also quite keen; for the past several years wine magazines have taken turns proclaiming Syrah as the Next Big Thing). Syrah varies in style from meaty, peppery wines to big and fruity (especially under the Australian pseudonym, Shiraz). Our recommendations below tend toward the New World, fruitier style, but with some complexity and weight to keep Rhone Valley fans happy.

Henry Lagarde Syrah 2003(Argentina; $13) Winegrowers in Argentina have cottoned on to Syrah’s popularity, and the grape does well in the high-altitude vineyards around Mendoza. The Lagarde family – of Spanish origin, despite the French-sounding name – has been making wine there for over a century, with vineyards in four different areas of Mendoza and generations of experience. Their Syrah is full-bodied and smooth, with well-balanced aromas of espresso, dark cherries, and earth.

Planeta Syrah 2003(Sicily; $40) Planeta is often cited as an example of “Old World wineries working in a New world style;” what that really means is debatable, but it could just be that they are Sicily’s leader in embracing modern winemaking, guaranteeing that good grapes come in from the vineyards and are vinified properly to preserve that quality in the bottle. They focus on higher-altitude vineyards, where cooler air prevents grapes from becoming overripe; it helps them avoid the stewy, dried fruit characteristics that Sicilian wines were once notorious for. They also planted a large number of international varietals to go along with their native grapes. The Syrah is one of their best: lots of dark fruit aromas like boysenberry and black raspberry, buoyed by notes of smoke and earth and showing a surprising degree of elegance.

Clarendon Hills Liandra Vineyard Syrah(Australia; $70) It’s Australian, but Clarendon Hills favors the name “Syrah” over Shiraz, and it’s reflected in the character of the wine. While it keeps the Aussie profile of richness and dark fruits, there are also lots of earthy, spicy, and meaty elements that make this an impressively complex and enjoyable wine. More specifically, think boysenberry, black pepper, and blackberry, along with touches of roast meat and bacon. Clarendon Hills owns a number of vineyards south of Adelaide; their focus on single vineyard wines is at contrast to many of their Australian counterparts, and it shows its head in wines with individuality and complexity.

Sparkling Wine

Collectively, we Americans have a bad habit of only thinking about sparkling wines during at the holidays; while I’ve tried to break myself of the habit, there’s no denying I keep more bubbly on hand in November and December than any other time of year. It’s a crowd-pleaser by its very nature, but it can be rough on the wallet – the technique, skills, and investment needed to make a good sparkler go beyond those required for most still wines.

Banrock Station Sparkling Chardonnay NV(Australia; $10) The wine region Riverland lies inland from South Australia’s more famous wine regions such as McLaren Vale and Clare Valley. Much of the area is wetlands – an unlikely environment for winegrowing. But Banrock Station takes advantage of economies of scale to create good-value wines here, and puts some of its money back into restoring and protecting the diverse ecosystem of the wetlands, which have been threatened there as in other countries by development. Their sparkling Chardonnay is very reminiscent of a Cremant d’Alsace, round and clean, with pear and cinnamon aromas and a smooth finish; it has none of the metallic or harsh bubbles that often plague budget sparkling wines in this price range.

Schramsberg Brut Rosé 2002(California; $36) People who are sure they don’t want a glass of rosé would gladly accept it if were sparkling; the pink adds a romantic touch to an already celebratory quaff. Schramsberg’s sparkling wines were the first of California’s bubblies to receive extensive critical praise. They make their Rosé primarily from Pinot Noir, vinifying it as a white wine, and adding the pink hue afterward with a touch of red wine after the secondary fermentation has added the bubbles. Red fans will enjoy the wine’s full-body and cherry and strawberry nose, which is complemented by light spicy notes, vanilla, and citrus.

Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle “La Cuvée”(France; $70) You could drop a lot more cash on the some other Champagne House’s prestige cuvée, but why bother when this wine keeps pace in complexity and flavor with the best of them? Winemaker Bernard de Nonancourt creates a non-vintage blend of almost equal parts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, using grapes from twelve of the best Grand Cru vineyards within the Champagne region. The results are remarkable, a ballet dancer combining both muscle and elegance. Classic Champagne aromas of brioche and croissant expand to include touches of almonds and honey; the finish wraps it all up with a touch of flint and lingering citrus notes. A perfect wine for putting the exclamation point on the end of your year.