Trendy, tasty and one-size-fits-all, wine is a versatile holiday gift, whether youre on your way to a house-warming or looking for something for the in-laws. But navigating the world of wine can be a trial for the novice vinophile.
Enter wine experts, who have a few tips on how not to send the wrong message in a bottle.
Recon the recipient
A good starting place when buying wine as a gift is to figure out what you know about the recipient, says Natalie MacLean, editor of the widely read wine website NatalieMacLean.com. Even if thats only whether they like a full-bodied wine, a light red or a particular region, a little know-how can help to personalize the gift. (And, of course, you do need to know if they like wine. Splurge on a pricey cab for a teetotaler, and youll miss the boat completely.)
Interests are another way to personalize the selection, says Jordan Salcito, a sommelier and wine director of Crown Restaurant in New York City. Did the person just come back from a trip to Sicily? A bottle of Sicilian wine might be a nice touch. Or, if you know the person doesnt like shellfish but loves steak, buy a hearty red.
Create a story or connect some dots, says Salcito.
Read between the (label) lines
In general, the front label of a wine bottle should tell you where a wine is from and what grapes it predominantly is made from. So, if you see an Oregon pinot noir labeled Willamette Valley, then you know the grapes came from that region, which is known for pinots. Words such as reserve and vintners select can denote higher quality, but thats not a given, especially on New World wines. Ditto for medals and other awards, which have become quite prolific.
The back label is a bit less helpful because its often rather flowery, but you can pick up clues to the style of the wine. If theyre describing it as zesty, mouth-watering citrus fruit, you know thats going to be a wine that does have a lot of acidity, says MacLean. If its a red wine and theyre saying fleshy, dark plums and berries, its probably full-bodied.
Alcohol content also is a clue. A white wine such as riesling at 8 percent alcohol is going to be lighter than a big red at 14 to 15 percent.
Salcito decided to help consumers figure out wine after realizing she was getting a lot of questions from restaurant customers. So she cofounded Bellus, a line of wines with labels that spell out whats inside. The label also includes flavor icons that highlight the wines taste profile, such as a picture of a cherry to denote that flavor in the wine.
Dont fall into the money pit
One piece of information on the bottle that isnt particularly helpful is price. More bucks dont necessarily translate to better bottles, says MacLean, whose second book, Unquenchable: A Tipsy Search for the Worlds Best Bargain Wines, was recently released.
Bargain hunters would do well to look at places that are known for good value, such as Chile. Another thing to look for is a lesser-known grape, such as Argentinas malbec, a delicious red wine that doesnt yet have the cachet of a better-known red grape variety like cabernet sauvignon.
Other places to hunt for value are regions that are trying to reinvent themselves, such as table wines from Portugal, where producers are working to let consumers know they make more than their famous port wines.
If all else fails
What if you know next to nothing about the person youre giving the wine to?
My tip is to go with what I call a switch-hitter wine that has lots of flavor but isnt heavy on oak, alcohol and tannins, says MacLean. Two suggestions here are riesling, a light white wine, or, for a red wine, pinot noir. Thats what I usually recommend as a go-to wine if youre not really sure and you dont want to choose something thats off the scale one way or the other.
Sparkling wine is another crowd-pleaser. It doesnt have to be Champagne if youre on a budget, says Salcito. There are some good, low-priced cavas from Spain, as well as cremants from France, which are made in the same method as Champagne but not from that specific region of France. Almost everyone loves sparkling wine, says Salcito.
And from the department of Go big or go home
The London-based Antique Wine Co., which specializes in rare and fine wines, is offering a special holiday package of melchiors really big wine bottles that hold the equivalent of 24 regular bottles. Two collections were offered, with one being five melchiors of the Napa Valleys Colgin Cellars highly regarded cabernet sauvignon.
Price? Three hundred thousand British pounds, or about $480,690.
Now that would be a stocking stuffer to remember.