I love this time of year, but not in the way you might think. Far from enjoying the overdone mall decorations and bad Christmas music on repeat, my true love is the wine I get to drink.
Even my cheapest friends seem to spend a little extra money on wine over the holidays. I love doling out the advice on what to buy, as long as I get to share. Some of these companions have caught on, and give me a low-price limit as to what they have to spend. But even those Scrooges spend more than usual.
It’s pretty easy to fall into the trap of picking wine off the largest display. Step away from that and focus on some unconventional wines that will allow you to enjoy the holiday season more, and impress family and friends with your improved wine knowledge.
The challenge is to find unconventional great wines for under $25, and, better yet, under $20. For white wines, we want a bit more weight and character at this price point than we would get in, say, a cheap and flabby Pinot Grigio or a thin Sauvignon Blanc. Gewurtztraminer (Gewurtz) has amazing aromatic characters and a spicy weight to it, and can stand up to a lot of different foods. Look in the German section to start, and ask the store product advisor for assistance. For reds, I would bet on Spanish Garnacha (Grenache if you are looking in France), which has warm and rich berry fruit, and great structure, for under $20.
We can sometimes find wines under $25, but more than likely we are looking for great values that perform at the $50-plus level for a lot less money. If your taste tends to be more to a leaner style with balance and finesse, look to Pinot Noir from New Zealand and, better still, Oregon. These wines have richer berry fruit than their colder climate Burgundy cousins, but are easier drinking and go with most foods. Pinot Gris from Alsace, Franc, and even New Zealand is my go-to white at this price point. They can have an amazing lean mineral and stone fruit character that is simply delicious. Since Pinot Gris is also known as Pinot Grigio in Italy, take it up a notch and head to Bishop’s Cellar where they carry several stunning Pinot Grigio’s from the Friuli region of Northern Italy.
Isn’t it time the world all drank Amarone? If you have not had the pleasure, it is a great go-to wine for $40 and above. It rarely does not perform, and even if you are not a wine fanatic you will get a wow factor from its rich structure. If your taste is to a dryer red wine, you can find darn good Barolo from $36 to well over $70. Have you ever smelled flowers and tar in the same glass? Barolo has both and more, but tastes best if decanted for an hour, and served with food like Osso Bucco or red wine risotto.
This last category is for wines that don’t fit a conventional price or quality barometer. You can find them at all price levels, and so you may need to test-drive a few. Cabernet Francs from the Loire Valley and Ontario are a racy breed of red that offers notes of bell pepper, black licorice, and violets. You may have to dig, but the search is worth it.
Regular readers know of my affection for sparkling wine. So I can’t go any further without speaking about Benjamin Bridge. I recently attended a launch of their 2004 Blanc de Blancs, 2007 Brut Reserve and 2009 Brut. All I can say is wow! Nova Scotia is on the world stage with these wines. If you’re now drinking Nova 7, you need to move up the ladder to a truly great wine, and worth every penny. Start with the 2009 Brut at around $40.
Finally, it wouldn’t be the holiday season without Port. What a misunderstood and under-utilized wine! From affordable to expensive, Port comes in Ruby, LBV, Tawny and Vintage. Once the drink of old men with cigars, it’s starting to emerge as a great wine on its own or with any kind of dessert. For pleasure per dollar spent, buy a 10-year-old tawny that has been barrel aged. Enjoy it either on its own or with a crème brulée. You won’t regret it!
The under-$25 wine review
Jost Prost Sparkling Wine-NV-Nova Scotia, NSLC, $17.99
There were only two local sparkling wines available under $25 at the province’s largest NSLC store when I did this review. Let’s hope the selection improves as there is some affordable sparkling being produced locally. The Prost from Jost has very fresh and pleasant citrus and apple aromas. The bubbles hit the palate right away but do not persist very long. The flavours are baked apple and ripe peach. This wine is perfectly pleasant, if not memorable, and a good apertif wine if paired with apple-wood cheddar. 85/100
Vina Zaco-Tempranillo 2010-Rioja, Spain, $16.99
Tempranillo is known as the red grape of Spain and when made well offers great value and versatility. This one has a lovely richness in the palate with lots of dark cherry notes. The Spanish are known to love their oak and the finish on this wine carries that tradition. The wood and vanilla notes are dominating, and this will appeal to many. A nice, modern style that will go well at a party served with roasted lamb lollipops. 87/100
80–84: A great sipper, good value. 85–89: Won’t last long, great value. 90–94: Brag to your friends and buy a case—fantastic. 95–100: A classic, run to the store, extremely rare.
The Dreaming Tree Chardonnay 2011 Central Coast, California, $19.99, NSLC
This wine has tropical, toasted and vanilla notes that are typical for California Chardonnays. 88/100
Gaspereau Vineyards Tidal Bay 2012, $21.99 NSLC and Private Stores
Refreshing apple and pear flavours and a touch of sweetness closing with a nice baked apple finish. 88/100
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, the originally published version of the Jost Prost review above misrepresented the number of sparkling wines available for under $25 at NSLC. It should have said “there were only two local sparkling wines available under $25.” Text above has been corrected. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.