I have never stopped being baffled by human nature.
EVERY TIME I have posted a list of suggestions for holiday wines, I’ve gotten emails from annoyed readers, offering gems like…
“Why are you doing this NOW?!? It’s the week of Thanksgiving! How am I supposed to remember these for Christmas and New Years, Jackass?!?“
I feel a tad, uh, intrusive if I point out, to an allegedly adult homo sapiens, such things as note pads and ballpoint pens or Post-It notes, or your phone’s grocery list app. Suggesting any of those feels patronizing. Not to mention intensely annoying to me.
But I’ve also gotten those messages even when I posted it the first week of December, the second week of December, or in a series of posts on Facebook. To quote the famed (and sadly underappreciated) French pirate, François “Peg Leg” Le Clerc…
So, for the legions of Clueless walking among us, here it is TWO FUGGEN DAYS before Christmas and here’s your damned list. Two days. Hell, you can probably just leave a window open on your desktop for that long.
Do I seem…cranky? Stipulated. I am a cranky old bastard. But not about the actual wine, just SOME scant few wine lovers. As to wine, I remain that starry eyed kid of 38 that I was when I started actively working in the wine trade. And these reds, whites and sparkling wines that follow got me especially starry-eyed, in this past year.
QUICK notes, over and done, grab keys, drive carefully to store, buy wine, look like a wine guru to your fam and pals. Some are fairly new and some I’ve reviewed a half-dozen times before. All GUARANTEE a jaw-dropping wine experience at YOUR house, for this holiday. I have tried to stay with wines you’ll be able to find but, not being omniscient, I can’t guarantee all will be available where you are.
Here, then, the Inarguable wines of Holiday 2022…
Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace
A STUNNING blend of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Auxerrois (google it), this is one of the world’s prime sparkling wine values and has been since God was in grade school. It is CRISP(!), light, shockingly flavorful, finshes loooong, and has perfect little persistent bubbles or, as the French so foppishly call it, “mousse”. A near-perfect bottle of wine that, if it said “Champagne” on the label, would cost about 3-5 times more. About $24/Widely available.
SOPHORA SPARKLING CUVEE
Once upon a time, there was a near-legendary sparkling wine from New Zealand called Lindauer Brut, a GORGEOUS dry cuvee that pulled the wool all the way over people’s eyes in three blind tastings I arranged. Asked to guess the price, several astute wine trade pros offered guesses in the $30 to $65 range. It was ten bucks. Now, the Lindauer label has largely vanished. It is certainly NOT anywhere around the Pacific Northwest and, I suspect, not anywhere, because Lindauer now make and markets what is pretty much the same wine under the name Sophora. It’s the same stuff: light, fruity, dry, elegant (which is an adjective rarely attached to a wine this price), and mouth-filling. (Makes on heck of a Mimosa, too) Flat-damned lovely. About $14-$16/Widely available
J Vineyards California Cuvee
On a 2019 visit to Sonoma, we went over to J and did a full-line tasting and I was wowed all over again by a brand that I sold and drank for over twenty years. The California Cuvee was produced the first time to commemorate their 20th anniversary and it remains one of the best values in US sparkling wines. James Suckling called it, “A flavorful sparkling with dried raspberry, baked apple, mango and toasted brioche on the nose. It’s medium-bodied with rich layers of fresh and dried fruit. Crisp with fine bubbles. Fresh, saline finish.” To which I would add only that I find a pretty note of apricot on the finish and a food affinity that is off the charts. It goes with everything. I even had it with a bison steak, once and it tamed the meaty gaminess like a champ. A really Exceptional wine at a beyond exceptional price. About $20/Widely available
McManis Family Vineyards Lodi California Cabernet Sauvignon
For well over a decade, now, whenever anyone asked me to name my favorite, all time value Cabernet – and those requests number in the hundreds – I named this, from a large family-owned and operated grape-growing operation in Ripon, California, out there in the fertile Central California Ag Belt, a genuinely unglamorous spot for wines in the nation’s largest growing/producing state. But, because the McManises are sorta, uh, world-class GOOD at growing grapes, this bottle of well-under-$20 Cab has knocked the socks clean off upwards of twenty wine-trade pros in blind tastings I’ve held, over the years. And now that it is sourced primarily from Lodi, the 30-weight Brawny of Brawnys in Cali’s Big Wine culture, it is even better than it has ever been. My ONLY knock on the stuff, at all, was that it was a tad light-bodied for me. Not any more. This is a BIG, fat, juicy, velvety, complete Cabernet that routinely evokes remarks like “Oh, WOW!” and “Holy SHIT!” from people for whom I pour it. You can read more of my notes here, but suffice it to say, I gave the stuff 95 Points and ended the review with, “95 Points (a LEGIT 95 and anyone who doubts that should STFU and go taste it.)” It IS just exactly that good and that not even the best part: About $14/Widely available
Umberto Cesari Sangiovese Riserva Emiglia Romagna
There is a quirk to growing grapes that is hard for anyone short of a certified horticulturist or geologist to understand but, basically, the same exact species of grape varietal can grow on one side of a hill and also on the opposite and wines made from those two sites can taste completely different. Completely. For me, the American appellation I find easiest to identify is Monterey. In Italy, it’s Emilia Romagna, a region that includes Parma, Modena, and Bologna and boasts a seacoast where rich Americans go to hang. It also produces a startlingly distinct type of Sangiovese, that workhorse grape of MANY Italian reds, that it fatter and deeper and more silken and a bit lower in acid that the usual run of Sangio, the primary grape in all Chianti. Our American versions of this wine are usually a lot larger in body than nearly all Italians and this, from esteemed estate, Umberto Cesari, could pass for a Cali or Washington Sangio, in a heart beat. It’s drenched with gobs of red and black fruits and has easily enough heft to tackle a big steak or a wood-grilled pork chop. As Italian Sangio goes, Cesari is a bit under the radar, which I don’t get. For American palates, this is a food and sipping wine with few peers on either side of the Atlantic. About $20-$25/Widely available
Mascota Vineyards “Unanime” Gran Vino Tinto
Mascota Vineyards is a new-comer to the ancient tradition of winemaking in Argentina’s Mendoza Valley, starting in 2010 as a joint project by a sizeable group of agronomists and oenologists, working on a vineyard called Finca La Mascota, in Cruz de Piedra, one of the oldest wine regions in the province of Mendoza. It is situated at the foot of the Andes and covers over 100 hectares of high-altitude vines that produce eye-popping grapes that the team was convinced could come from that soil and that climate. Unanime is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Malbec, and 15% Cabernet Franc. It is intense, aromatic, and complex, with aromas of tobacco, stewed plums, and chocolate, followed by flavors of blackberry, blueberry, chocolate-covered cherries, tobacco, vanilla, and pencil lead. This is genuinely and by almost universal agreement, one of the world’s current top premium red values. Shockingly fine. About $20/Widely available.
Prà “Otto” Soave Classico
When my Dad was a young man, he used to slide up to the bar at The Brook Club, in Roanoke, Virginia, and drawl, “Gimme a…Soave.” (Pron: SWAV-A) I should note here that my Dad, A) didn’t drink wine, B) couldn’t have told you what Soave is if he found it in an encyclopedia, and C) usually didn’t even finish the glass of wine, which I would sneak off the table and hide between my legs and sip down later. He just loved – like many people in the Fifties – saying “Soave“, because it contained “suave” and sounded sophisticated. Lots of it was sold and quality declined and Soave, for years, became bottom-shelf crap wine. But it underwent a total revival in the 90s and now you can find bottles like this from Prà, which is silky and fat and aromatic as a South Georgia high school prom and creamy and swoon-inducing. And, unlike a lot of Italian premium whites… About $20/Possibly limited availability on West coast
La Crema Chardonnay Monterey
Having mentioned the distinctiveness of Monterey just above this, coincidence brings us back there, in the form of a STUNNING bottle of value Chardonnay from Sonoma stalwart La Crema, which, since its inception in 1979, has focused exclusively on Burgundian-style (with a heavy California accent) Pinot noir and Chardonnay. Many people see only La Crema’s supermarket-priced tier but that make a broad range of single vineyard and appellation wines and this graceful, juicy Monterey Chard is my fave of the roster. It opens with the scent of baked apple, graham cracker, Meyer lemon, gooseberries, pineapple, and fresh bread and follows with flavor notes of Asian pear, tangerine/orange citrus, lemongrass, mild saline, and a touch of sweet minerals. This is a FAT, lush yet crisp CA Chard that manages all that heft without the old vanilla/butter/smoke excesses of the Cali past. This is part barrel-aged, deftly balanced with lots from stainless steel and is devoutly delicious, a stand-out even in the universe of the billion Chardonnays made in that Chard-obsessed state. Gorgeous and GREAT with food! About $14 to $18/Widely available
Carol Shelton Coquille Blanc Paso Robles White Blend
I deliberately included a RHONE white blend because, A) you can buy a blue million blended white wines and over 90% of ’em are going to be some mash-up of Bordeaux and Burgundy (Chardonnay) varietals, often using Chard as the foundation, blended with God Knows What. This, by contrast, is a 100% Rhone varietal blend – 30% Grenache Blanc, 30% Roussanne, 30% Viognier and 10% Marsanne – and far more complex and interesting that your knee-jerk Chardonnay or Sauv Blanc. The first aroma is honey and a little beeswax(!), followed by roasted nuts, apricot compote, honeydew melon, saline and wild flowers. On the tongue, it starts tangy, with lemon and grapefruit flavors, followed by almonds, lime leaf, and Asian pears. Lovely depth and finish and a unique profile that take to food like a cat to tuna. Lovely, graceful white from a house far better known for big Zins with names like Monga, Wild Thing, and P!zazz. About $28/Limited availability. Can be ordered direct from winery.