After the wave of requests for holiday bubblies rolls in, each year, can asks for red wines be far behind? Theoretically, I guess, but you couldn’t prove it by me.
I dispatch the too-many-choices list of sparklings, every year, (sometimes just by mass email) and then get busy thinking up that list of reds, which usually gets the same response: “Too many choices! Could you, maybe, boil this down, a bit?”
I came up with three bubblies and have now, for two days, looked at that three and thought, “Okay, I can hang with those!” Quite the feeling of semi-adequacy, that.
So, after what has now been nearly a month of soul (and database) searching, I was able to whittle down a list of well over 100 tried ‘n’ tested reds to five bottles that are A) consistent, vintage to vintage, affordable, widely available, and B) (fuggen) delicious. These are intended to each give you the most flexible pairing to whatever you decide to serve for the holidays, from turkey to ham to baron of beef, to baron of Beyond Meat to candied yams (Please do not serve this! EVER!) to green bean casserole to your grandmother’s recipe for scrapple ‘n’ eggs. (Okay, maybe not.)
Now…one disclaimer: In terms of wine pairings, NOTHING – not any damned wine ever made – is going to be the ideal pairing with all your holidays dishes. It’s impossible unless you just start with bottles of wine and plan your entire menu around those…and even then, how the dishes are prepared sometimes drags them off pairing with one wine and lands them Elsewhere. What these do is split the difference and that’s what everybody’s recs do, no matter how much they swear theirs are for your whole meal.
These are five that have stood the test of time and shown reliable, remarkable skill in the winemaking, by a producer tight-focused on drinkability first and art down the list a bit. In addition, you can buy these without auctioning off the vacation house and your Mom’s wedding ring. The one semi-aesthetic (but partly practical!) aspect they do have in common is balance of acids and solids. To pair any wine with food, the rule always is “No Couch Potatoes”, no flabby, inky, all depth/no breadth stuff because great food tends to have a tad of fat in it and you need acids to cut the fat and allow you to taste the wines at all. You have a big Napa Cabernet with your salmon? Prepare to lose the salmon flavors under that low-acid deluge of stuffing (wine stuffing, not Stove Top).
So, without further ado (because I have to do floors and bathe a dog today), here are those five all-purpose, all-time, all-tasty picks…
HARTFORD FAMILY RUSSIAN RIVER OLD VINE ZINFANDEL
“Old Vine” is a somewhat squishy term, in that it really has no law pertaining to it, at least not the way it would in Europe, where fudging a bit on using “Old Vine” can get a winery owner fined and otherwise punished. Maybe even executed. But in California, by general agreement, the term indicates a wine made from fruit sourced from vines that are at least 25 and preferably 50 years old. Hartford Family’s vineyards are twenty-one different plots, spread all over Northern CA, most which have roots in the ground that have been there well over 50 years and some more than 100! Hartford has always made it clear that they take the labeling of their wines very seriously and this sublime Zin taps sources all more than a half century mature.
Most memorably, I had this wine at Hillstone, in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood, with an exquisite Double-Cut Pork Chop and Pommery mustard sauce, next to some braised red cabbage and potato purée. I’ve admitted here, many times, that I don’t like to drink wine with food, even though my years as a chef forced me to learn about pairing. Only if I know the wine very well do I have wine with food and that, too, is because I was a chef. When you drink wine with food, you don’t taste the wine and you don’t taste the food. You taste the combination of the two, which I think is a disservice to both. But I also have some (ingrained, beaten-into-my-head) manners and I was dining with others, so rather than make a scene, I drank the wine…and it was enough to almost make me rethink the whole pairing Thang.
This is a silky, moderately (appropriately) acidic Zin with bursting flavors of red and black berries, tobacco leaf, black pepper, exotic spices, dried cranberries, plums, chocolate, and a dash of espresso. It’s lighter-bodied enough to be transparent with the food flavors but assertive enough to stamp the whole with a big-block and unmissable ZIN character. It’s a lithe, supple wine, as far from a big, goofy, clumsy over-driven Zin as is possible to find at this price. It’s gonna run you between $30 and $40 and should. On your holiday table, this is a large and memorable Win. NOTE: you’re probably going to have to order this online and while I regret that, this IS 2021 and people buy stuff online. Time marches on. But it is not at all impossible that you’ll find it just down the road at your local wine shop, either, and most can special order it for you easily. 95 Points
CULTUSBONI “RS” CHIANTI CLASSICO
I’m going to do something I almost never do in The Pour Fool. I’m going to paste the winery’s own tasting notes straight from the website because this is one of only five or six of the THOUSANDS of wine I’ve tasted in the past thirty years for which the winery’s notes are exactly identical to my own: “Luminous ruby color. Forest berries, spices, leather, moist earth and dried plum, layered in the aroma. Soft, round taste, well-balanced acidity and clean and persistent aftertaste. Very pleasing, and ready to drink.” I’m going to add a subtle, alluring hint of something aromatically herbal, like eucalyptus or mint, in the background, and a distinct dash of teaberry in both the nose and the finish and that’s yer thumbnail.
It’s a young wine, a genuine Chianti Classico, nothing at all sourced from outside that region, but substantial and sweetly aromatic and silken in texture. The wine spends a few days fermenting on the skins, gets a short nap in wood, and then goes in the bottle. No tricky engineering, no over-thinking.
Since 1846 Badia a Coltibuono has belonged to the Stucchi Prinetti family and this wine is named after one of the current brothers, Roberto Stucchi Prinetti, whose name used to appear on the bottle. The wine was his project – a fine quality Chianti Classico with a pedigree and a profile that outstrips its sticker price. I’ve been drinking this gorgeous little miracle every year since I can remember; well back to the early 00s. It used to be called “Badia a Coltibuono” which is still the winery’s name but in 2018, they changed this label to “Cultusboni RS”, which is Latin for the same phrase as Coltibuono – good harvest – coupled with Roberto Stucchi’s initials. If you happen upon an older vintage, which is still quite possible, A) BUY IT, and B) it’s the same wine.
Astoundingly, this fine Classico will run ya…about $17. SO worth it! 94 Points
ANGELINE RESERVE PINOT NOIR
Angeline wines are the second label of a remarkable and under-appreciated Sonoma producer called Martin Ray Vineyards & Winery, made with grapes sourced from its Mendocino County properties, some Russian River and Carneros sites, and long-standing neighbor vineyards. James Suckling gave this 92 Points, calling it “…very pretty pinot…medium-bodied with firm, silky tannins and a delicious finish. Bright acidity at the end.”
And in the middle lies blueberries, currants, baking spices, Red Vines, wildflowers, Bing cherries, and rhubarb. This is a wine that I used in a number (seven) of Pinot taste tests at my old shop in Woodinville, Washington, always up against more expensive and more prestigious wines from Oregon, California, and Burgundy. It fared very well in every tasting, never finishing below third out of the seven to eight wines on the tables. Stylistically, it falls somewhere between a high-elevation California Pinot and an Oregon from the Willamette Valley. It has the richness of a Paso Robles or Sonoma wine but the agile flavors and bright acidity of Oregon. It tastes a lot more expensive than it is, probably because of its mostly-Mendocino origins, which is nowhere near the glam-wine hotspot of those other regions.
The current vintage of this is the 2020 but, for reasons we all understand, ’20 was a problematic year for harvests (and everything else), so you are as likely to find the 2019 on shelves as the ’20. Either will run ya right around $15 to $18 and can be enjoyed now or laid down for four to five years. This is a ridiculous value bottle that could easily fetch $40 to $55…but doesn’t. Which is a virtual gift to Pinot fans who don’t have a Burgundy or Oregon or (worse) a price tag-snob pole up their posteriors. 93 Points
Tomàs Cusiné “EL VILOSELL” COSTERS DEL SEGRE
This wine literally haunts me. NOT kidding. I used to carry it in my old shop and for selected restaurant clients and its Seattle distributor went out of business. Nobody picked up the brand. On trips to Denver and San Francisco and Arizona, I ransacked wine shops, seeking even one or two bottles and finally lucked out in Livermore, California, at a supermarket which had four bottles of past vintages. I bought ’em all.
FACT: for bang-for-buck wine value, there is Spain and then there is Everywhere Else. Spain spews out 90+ point shocker wines like a fire hose, every damned vintage, and it’s rare that you have to pay more than $25 to get some. This blend of Tempranillo with smaller doses of Syrah and Grenache is almost unbearably delicious. I rarely drink anything slowly but I made a four ounce pour of it last about 45 minutes, down in Livermore, and almost cried when it was gone. Costers del Segre, like its distant cousin, Mendocino, is one of those under-exposed wine regions that is just absolutely killin’ it, with very little fanfare or even press. Just as Ribero del Duero on a label = $30 – $80, Costers = under $20. And in quality terms, it’s nearly petty larceny.
The juice spends nine months in oak before bottling and typically runs about two years behind the calendar year, at release. It’s explosively aromatic, almost perfumy, and that vibrant nose slides seamlessly onto the palate, where you get a rush of black fruit, a definite impression of woodsmoke, dark cocoa, pink peppercorns, black plums, black currants, leather, blackberries, Amarena cherries, licorice, and cafe au lait. With that degree of opulance, you’d expect a heavy, ponderous wine but instead find a medium-bodied, immediate, complex, and beautifully balanced wine that finishes with a food-loving acidity that strays nowhere near tartness but amply cuts fats in foods and works like a charm with either roasted or lightly smoked foods. For grilled anything, there is very little better wine available from anywhere.
Again, you may just want to skip the potential for heartache (and footache) and find this online. There are several very reliable online vendors that stock this and ship within a day or so of your order. Whatever you need to to to find it, that first sip will erase any misgivings and send you into Wine Ecstasy. It will run you somewhere between $16 and $22 and is worth two to three times that. It is THAT good. 96 Points
ALLEGRINI PALAZZO DELLA TORRE VERONESE IGT
I cannot tell you how much I love this wine and how long this affair has gone on. I know there was a time in my life when I didn’t drink it but I have little memory of that time and I’m sure it wasn’t much fun.
That’s only partially facetious. I first had PdT sometime before my near-death illness in 1995 and one of the effects of that massive infection was memory loss. My memories from before that summer are full of holes and, of course, I have no way of knowing what I forgot. I do remember that I had three bottles of it still in my apartment when I finally got out of the hospital, recuperated with my family in Virginia, and came back to Seattle, almost three months later. I remembered the wine very well but not where or when I first had it.
But in opening the first of those three bottles, all I could do was sit with slack jaw, stunned at the flavors and seamless texture and the nimble, almost playful weight of it on my tongue. The flavors vary year to year, of course, just like any other wine, but Allegrini sources this from the one Palazzo della Torre vineyard that wraps around the Allegrini family estate and the differences are usually minor. What lies at the core of this remarkable wine are robust notes of black berries, baking spices, an outdoorsy forest aroma that translates on the tongue to a sweet herbal character, star anise, licorice, plum jam, black currants, a mild hint of pipe tobacco, and raspberries, all in a medium-bodied framework that feels like velvet on the tongue. As it sits and breathes, a clutch of grace notes appear, including something like white pepper.
For all my stunned pleasure at that first after-surgery sip, I can’t claim it was a surprise because I have loved and tasted literally a thousand or more Italian wines and am rarely surprised at the sheer quality. What did and still does come as a shock in this stuff is how it manages to be maybe THE ideal wine for bridging the gap between American and Italian tastes. Italians fervently believe that wine is made to be consumed with food…sorry, let me rephrase that, in the manner of Antonio Sanguinetti, noted Italian racing driver and winery owner, who said it to me at a dinner in Seattle, years ago: “WINE IS MADE TO BE ENJOYED WITH FOOD, YOU IDIOT!”, this right after I told him I don’t drink wine with dinner. He accompanied the advice with a gentle but definite smack on the back of my head, which I thought was sorta forward, given that we had just met. I’ll spare you the SMH moment and just say that if you have an aversion to what many people mistakenly call the “sourness” (it’s not) of Italian wine, this is one that eliminates any question of that. The dissolved solids in PdT more than offset the ample acidity and make this the approximate equivalent of drinking your fave California or Washington red. An iconic Veronese wine that just never wears out its welcome. 97 Points
BONUS: YES…the reds listed here ARE more expensive than the three sparklings profiled in my other Less Is More post. That’s because the fat middle of the value price tier is just plain higher than for whites of bubblies. Hey, it’s the holidays. Get a crowbar, pry your wallet open, let the moths out, and spend a few bucks more to get a treat. In this waning of the Covid quarantine and attendant stresses, you have more than earned a bit of kindness and, as my grandpa used to say, “It’s a poor dog that won’t wag its own tail.”
But those who read this with any regularity know how fond I am of stoopid bargains, so Ima give you one now, a jaw-dropping ten-buck gem that is available and consistent and stunningly underpriced…
BODEGAS ATALAYA “LAYA”
Yeah, yeah, you HAVE seen this wine here before but you need a reminder because whatever you think of my recs, know that I am NOT under any illusion that you sit and think about Steve Body and his opinions on any kind of regular basis…and this is a wine that is well worth pestering you about, even if you do remember.
This is THE single best sub-$10 wine I have ever tasted. The only other one that comes close is the McManis Family Cabernet Lodi, which has now risen slightly out of the sub-10 category. Laya is sexy wine…sorry, SEXY AS HELL WINE. It’s stuffed to its ample gills with black cherries, blackberries, red currants, Friar plums, Mediterranean spices, mellow oak, vanilla, espresso, baked apples, glove leather, and sweet minerals. It is insanely easy to drink, (I’m serious, over-serving yourself is a real concern) delivering a near-perfect balance of acidity and depth, tannins and alcohol, and little pucker factor at all. It comes from the Juan Gil wine empire, which includes a gaggle of genuinely legendary Spanish wine brands like El Nido, Can Blau, Lagar Condesa, the original Juan Gil label, Llicorella, Shaya, and Ateca, festooned with so many festival awards, WineAdvocate and Spectator 90-point scores, and critics raves that they had to build a shed to house all the certificates and medals. Laya is made from Garnacha Tintorera, a variant of the more common Garnacha, which has a red skin and white/clear pulp, where Tintorera has red pulp. The flavors are similar but the Tintorera has a bit more intensity, more body, just…more…
You’ll be able to find this on sale in a LOT of places for as little as $8.99 a bottle. I’ve been known to find it at that price and buy it in full cases, taking advantage of the case discount. It is THAT flippin’ good. Maybe not quite the hand-in-glove pairing of some of the other five but still a killer food match and as a sipper, well, you can spend $50, $100, $250 more on wine and still get no better than this.
Happy Holidays! Up next: Whites!
Cultusboni?!? Sounds like the name of an aging vocalist for a heavy metal hair band. Yo – Cultus – yer lookin’ a little boney these days. Play Stairway to Hell will ya?