Of Stocking Stuffers and Secret Santas: Wines Under $25

Holiday shopping is a pain in the ass.

It's that time of year again

It's that time of year again

Listen, maybe it's just me, but the idea of trekking around a mall while being assaulted by the "fragrance" emanating from a Hollister seems dreadful. It's even less appealing when you're trying to find something -- anything -- under $25 that won't be met with a hearty eye-roll when unwrapped at your company's gift exchange or by that cousin you haven't seen since last Christmas, despite assurances you'd pay them a long-overdue visit. Even with the welcome advent of online shopping, the task can be pretty overwhelming, and it ain't always easy finding something that'll please everyone.

But there is one thing that most folks wouldn't be mad at receiving: delicious, wonderful wine.

Sure, there are folks out there who don't drink for one reason or another, and I can appreciate that. I'm also told there are even people who, despite having no objection to alcohol, prefer to enjoy it in forms other than fermented grape juice -- though I remain skeptical about their existence, much like the Loch Ness Monster and "fiscal conservatives." But for everyone else, read on for a few ideas that will make the recipient and your wallet equally happy.

Les rouges: for your friends who don't mind a little skin contact

Malbec (from Argentina)

For some readers, it might seem strange or even superfluous for me to have included "(from Argentina)" after "Malbec" since, well, almost every bottle in your local shop is probably from Argentina. Although the grape has beautifully established itself in the Andean foothills, it actually made its way there from the area around Cahors in Southwestern France where it's locally known as Côt or Auxerrois. Despite being the same grape, the wines produced in each location are markedly different; for folks used to the Argentinian iteration of Malbec, the inky, tannic, and sharper French version may prove to be a (potentially unwelcome) surprise.

Argentinian Malbec, on the other hand, is plush, soft, and generally quite fruit-forward thanks to generous amounts of sunshine and high-elevation vineyards -- some are located up to a mile high, in fact, in the Uco Valley and Luján de Cuyo areas of Mendoza. This makes it an easy sell, and your local shop probably has a reasonable selection from which to choose. Good options include the Finca el Origen Gran Reserva Malbec, BenMarco Malbec, Catena Malbec, and Zuccardi Q. If possible, try to find something in the 2013-2015 range for immediate consumption. If you can't find any of these specific bottles, you're probably safe with another selection in the $20 range.

Spanish Garnacha

Although this grape is commonly associated with Southern France (and is known there as Grenache), it's Spanish in origin and you can find some stellar bottles for surprisingly low prices. Old Garnacha vines litter the Spanish countryside, and they deliver tons of ripe, bright fruit flavor -- think red berries -- with a little spiciness to keep things interesting.

If your limit is $25, you'll be pleased to find that many lip-smacking examples don't even crack $15. Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha is often readily available, as is Campo Viejo's take on the grape. I personally like the darker, more robust offering from Marques de Grinon El Rincon Garnacha Tintorera Roble, although you may need to rely on the internet for that one (luckily wine.com has it in stock as of writing).

Dolcetto

This red grape from Piedmont in Italy is a little bit of an unsung hero, as far as I'm concerned. It can seem as though Nebbiolo (of Barolo and Barbaresco fame) and even Barbera hog all of the spotlight, but don't sleep on Dolcetto.

What you wind up with in the bottle will depend on who's making it and how, of course, but you can generally expect a mouthwateringly juicy wine with flavors that remind you of black cherries, plums, and even a little bit of licorice. I wouldn't expect spellbinding complexity from your Dolcetto, but I would count on a satisfying wine that pairs especially well with pizza and a slew of pasta dishes. Because it isn't terribly tannic, it's also pretty great on its own.

You'll probably run into Dolcetto di Dogliani as well as Dolcetto d'Alba, the former typically being a little bigger, riper, and fuller. Sticking to the price parameters established early in this post, keep an eye out for Vietti Dolcetto d'Alba (pro tip: basically anything by Vietti is worth buying), G.D. Vajra Dolcetto d'Alba, and Pecchenino San Luigi Dogliani Dolcetto. Look for recent vintages of each.

Don't be fooled by the name; Dolcetto is, indeed, dry

Don't be fooled by the name; Dolcetto is, indeed, dry

Les blancs: for folks who don't want to stain their teeth or whatever

Picpoul de Pinet

I'm happy that this grape is starting to pop up more frequently on wine lists and in stores. Picpoul is principally grown in southern France, and it's a bright wine full of citrus and even tropical fruit flavors thanks to all of that soleil. It's light- to medium-bodied and is designed for drinking all summer long, which...yeah, I know, it's winter, but you know what? It might be the closest thing someone gets to escaping the snow, so indulge that person one glass at a time.

Frankly, you shouldn't need to spend more than $12-15 on a good bottle of this juice. Keep an eye out for Picpouls from Domaine Font-MarsGérard Bertrand, and Cave de l'Ormarine and the lucky recipient of your gift will be all smiles until the sunshine returns.

Albariño

This treasure of a grape from Rías Baixas in Spain has definitely made a name for itself and for good reason: it's affordable, refreshing, and goes just as well with seafood as it does pre-dinner conversation.

Expect flavors that range anywhere from lemon to melon to peach, and don't be surprised if you're getting a little salinity on the palate. I'd recommend trying to find a bottle that's from the most recent vintage or two since that's generally when they're best enjoyed. Options to consider include Pazo de Barrantes, Martin Codax (relatively easy to find), and Lagar de Cervera.

Australian Sémillon

Here I go again with a caveat. You can sing that to the tune of Whitesnake, too, if you like.

Sémillon is one of the white grapes that is used in dry and sweet wines (does Sauternes ring a bell?) in Bordeaux, but I'd like to call your attention to the magnificent things Australians have been doing with the grape since the early 1900s. It's often used as a component in a blend, but I'm a big fan of what happens as an Aussie single varietal wine. Hunter Valley in New South Wales is where it makes the best examples, I think, but don't shy away from bottles with origins elsewhere down under.

When young, these wines have a thoroughly satisfying waxiness on the palate while maintaining a bracing acidity -- it's like a wine firework exploding with flavors of lemon, lime, and even green apple. After some years in the bottle, they take on a honeyed texture and flavor that is mesmerizing (assuming you can wait that long). Tyrrell's is your go-to in Hunter Valley, and although many of their wines clock in well above $25, their standard Hunter Valley Sémillon can be had for around 20 bucks. Brokenwood is another Hunter Valley producer worth a look, and Torbreck Vintners Woodcutter's Barossa Valley Sémillon is another readily-available option in case you venture out of Hunter Valley.

If you don't give the gift of good wine, this angel will haunt your dreams

If you don't give the gift of good wine, this angel will haunt your dreams

So there you have it, friends. You may not be able to give the gift of world peace or even a drone, but you'll be blessing a very fortunate soul with 750 milliliters of thirst-quenching satisfaction. It may not seem like much, but considering what 2017 inflicted on the world, it might be just what the doctor ordered.

Have any go-to wines for holiday gifts? Sharing is caring.

 

Thanksgiving Tipple: Wines to Help You Survive the Holiday

Thanksgiving rightfully deserves praise for being a food- and family-focused affair, but let’s not beat around the bush: it’s also a uniquely stressful holiday for, oh, I don’t know – everyone.

Whether you’re frantically running through O’Hare to catch your connecting flight, laboring over countless dishes in the kitchen, or listening to yet another uninformed political opinion from Uncle Jerry (who invited him, anyway?), your blood pressure is going to spike sometime before you settle into your inevitable food coma. And you’re certainly going to want something to help take the edge off. Aunt Barb’s Franzia might suffice in a pinch, but why punish yourself needlessly? Instead, show up with one or more of these stunners that taste great and pair exceptionally well with pretty much any Thanksgiving spread.

As an added bonus, they’ll also soften the blow of any jabs at your physical appearance and/or professional life that family members tend to throw while panicking about the doneness of the giant bird in the oven.

Winter in Australia's Mornington Peninsula

Winter in Australia's Mornington Peninsula

Schiava

While scouring the internet for Thanksgiving wine recs, you’ll undoubtedly see plenty of folks out there extolling the virtues of Gamay, the grape used in Beaujolais, as the perfect light-bodied red to accompany your turkey dinner. And here’s the thing: they’re not wrong, of course, but you don’t always want to go with the crowd, do you? Nah, you want something brilliant that simply hasn’t achieved notoriety just yet – you know, like that mixtape you were describing to your father. Enter Schiava, a grape you (probably) didn’t know you needed in your life until now.

Sometimes grown in Germany where it’s called Trollinger, I find that Schiava reaches its delicious apex way up high in Italy’s mountainous Alto Adige region near the Austrian border. Given that the area remained under Austrian control until 1918, it should come as no surprise that the grape also goes by the name Vernatsch in these parts – wine isn’t confusing at all, right? Whatever name you give it, the wines made from Schiava are feather-light in body and provide pretty aromas of strawberries and violets. While the nose might trick you into thinking the wine will be candy-sweet, you’ll find the flavors are restrained and delicate – meaning it’ll be just as great with your pre-meal prosciutto as with the main event.

Expect to shell out somewhere in the neighborhood of $12-18 for a good bottle of Schiava. The wines are best consumed young, and some producers to look for include Peter Zemmer, Kellerei Kaltern, and Tramin.

Pinot noir

Okay, so maybe you do prefer something more traditional. I get it, you don't want to rock the boat yet again at a family meal.

A good Pinot noir is pretty much guaranteed to make your Thanksgiving dinner a happy occasion one sip at a time. It won’t beat you over the head with its flavors; rather, it politely invites you to take another drink and figure out just what flavor – cherry? cranberry? mushroom? – you’re picking up in the glass.

Now, the key word in that last paragraph was “good.” Many inexpensive Pinots can be syrupy messes that taste a lot like flat cherry cola, which…isn’t a great look. This is one grape where spending a little more cash is usually worth it. We all know that Burgundy in France is where Pinot reaches its spellbinding peak, but what if you’re trying to keep it under $40 for a bottle of something interesting? Look for New World alternatives, naturally. Oregon’s Willamette Valley has earned its reputation as Pinot’s second home, and producers like Cristom, The Four Graces, and Shea Wine Cellars demonstrate why.

In the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand has certainly made a name for itself by producing serious Pinots. The same is true of some cool-climate regions in Australia like the Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania. But what if I told you South Africa, of all places, was churning out Pinot noirs that could fool you into thinking they were French? Pick up a bottle from Hamilton Russell Vineyards, La Brune, or Creation Wines and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Silky smooth and exquisitely perfumed, La Brune's Pinot noir will surprise and delight

Silky smooth and exquisitely perfumed, La Brune's Pinot noir will surprise and delight

Pinot gris

Sure, it’s the same grape they call Pinot grigio in Italy, but it’s all a matter of style. While Pinot grigio often has the personality of a beige wall, Pinot gris is an entirely different animal – fruitier, richer, and with enough muscle to stand up to that plate of food loaded with various flavors and textures. It's a white wine that offers heady aromas of yellow apples and pears to go along with citrusy notes, and it’s got a pleasing weight on the palate. If you want to learn more about this fascinating grape and its various styles, Wine Folly has a great explainer.

The best Pinot gris tend to come out of Alsace in France. As you’d expect, though, they can sometimes command hefty price tags as you climb the quality ladder all the way up to the Grand Crus. Fear not, my friends: you can still grab a delicious bottle for around $20-25. I’m a big fan of Hugel et fils’ “Classic” Pinot gris, which gives you hints of marzipan along with all of that yummy fruit.

If you’ve got relatives who still say things like “freedom fries,” consider instead a Pinot gris from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Ponzi Vineyards does a tasty Pinot gris with full flavors of ripe orchard fruits and a snappiness that recalls ginger. You could do a lot worse for around $17.

Bubbles

Is there anyone out there who seriously doesn’t like a nice glass of bubbly? If such a person exists, I certainly don’t know them, and you probably don’t either.

Champagne is likely the first sparkling wine that comes to mind, but there are plenty of affordable alternatives out there – including some from elsewhere in France. Look for bottles with Crémant on the label, which is an indication that the wine is made in the traditional (Champagne) method but is from another region in France. For a cool $20-25, you’ll find tasty ones from the Loire (my personal favorite), Alsace, Jura, and more. If you haven’t yet given one a try, this is the perfect opportunity.

You could always pick up a trusty bottle of Cava (Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Heredad, perhaps?) or Prosecco (Bisol Crede is my go-to), too. And if you’re feeling like venturing a little farther off the beaten path, Gruet Winery makes a series of crowd-pleasing sparklers from New Mexico, of all places, and Graham Beck delivers amazing value South African fizz for around $15/bottle – the Brut Rosé NV is particularly tasty.  

 

Pretty in pink: Graham Beck Brut Rosé NV looks as good as it tastes

Pretty in pink: Graham Beck Brut Rosé NV looks as good as it tastes

Of course, you might very well decide that straight Bourbon is the only way to cope with your frayed nerves, and I would never judge you for that. But if you do give one of these wines a try, I’m confident it’ll be received more positively than your cousin’s new and ill-advised tattoo.

 

Have other suggestions you think folks might like? Sound off in the comments and help make Thanksgiving go smoothly for everyone.