Martin Codax Albariño
Henry Lagarde Syrah 2003
Banrock Station Sparkling
Chardonnay NV (Australia; $10)
Heidi Schröck Weissburgunder
2003 (Austria; $25)
Planeta Syrah 2003 (Sicily;
Schramsberg Brut Rosé 2002 (California; $36)
Vergelegen Flagship White
2003 (South Africa; $50)
Clarendon Hills Liandra
Vineyard Syrah (Australia; $70)
Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle
“La Cuvée” (France; $70)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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