Usually, I am a hard-nosed bargain hunter in the world of wine. Anyone should be able to find a great bottle of wine for $100, but try finding a great wine for $10! The one time of year I loosen my iron grip on the AmEx card is during the holiday season. It seems to me we should all have the opportunity to splurge every once in a while on some great food and wine. During the season that we are all getting together with friends and family, why not enjoy yourself?
Which is not to say my Scottish heritage allows me to buy overpriced or undervalued wines. During the past year, I've been compiling a list of wines that run over my normal $20 limit, but still meet my standard as great values. My definition of a great value is a wine that beats most of its competition, even the higher priced wines. If I find a great $80 champagne that beats most $120 bottles (and I did -- see below), it's a bargain in my book.
By the way, you'll be inundated with articles about sparkling wines. I agree they have an important role in holiday fun, but so do other wines. Think of these recommendations as terrific accompanists to a delightful meal or party. Try to have some splendid white, red, and sparkling wines so everyone can have what they like. One word of warning: Some of these wines will take a little hunting. Your best friend is a wine shop person who cares about your happiness. They can find each and every one of these wines.
Chehalem Pinot Gris Reserve ($20): I spent some time in Oregon this year trying every Pinot Gris I could lay my hands on. This one was my favorite and by a wide margin. It is well-balanced with a substantial mouthfeel and lots of delicious pear and orange zest aromas. Perfect with a lightly seasoned, grilled pork tenderloin.
Trimbach Gewurztraminer Cuvee Seigneurs Ribeaupierre ($35): I recently tried this wine paired with Mirabelle's Pork Porterhouse With Acorn Squash Marmalade and was again stunned at the quality the Trimbach family gives us for our hard-earned money. I guess the fact that they have been doing it since 1626 helps. A wine of this quality from Burgundy or Bordeaux would cost more than $100. Try sipping this perfumed wine while reading Yeats to your lover.
Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc ($28): The trick here is this California winery is owned by the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape fame in France. Rather than use the poor clones offered by California nurseries, the Perrins brought their organically farmed vines from France (even though they had to set them in quarantine for three years) then started growing true Rhone grapes. This blend of Viognier, Rousanne, and Grenache Blanc is a viscous wine with plenty of bright, mouth-filling acid. For your holiday, make a large bowl of garlicky mussels along with some crispy French bread and serve with this brilliant wine.
Eixarch 998 Riserva ($16, pronounced EE-shark): I love Austin for a lot of reasons. One, this is the only place in the U.S. this glorious wine is available, imported by Steve Lawrence's company Terra Verus. Eixarch is made from 100% Tempranillo and comes from the Utiel-Requena area just west of Valencia in Spain. Imagine a wine chock-full of deep and rich aromas, including some uncanny but wonderful tropical coconut scents. Try it with a grilled lamb chop.
Siduri Pisoni Vineyards Pinot Noir ($50): Made by ex-Austinites Dianna and Adam Lee, this is one of the world's great Pinots. It is easily the equal of myriad Oregon, California, and French Pinots costing three times as much money. Powerful, concentrated, and hedonistic, yet with enough subtle hints to keep interested drinkers guessing for hours. Luckily, the Lees also make wines under $20 that are 90% as good. Siduri is one of the world's few labels where you will always find a great bottle of wine. My dream dish with this wine is a vegetarian risotto made with mirepoix stock, mushrooms, and roasted sweet onions topped with a few spritzes of chopped chives.
Stags' Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis ($55): The Latin wording translates as "Don't give in to misfortune," and you won't have to while trying this wine. It is a brilliant field blend of petite syrah, carignane, grenache, syrah, peloursin, and mourvedre. Winemaker Robert Brittan is fanatical about getting this particular wine right, and he succeeds with a spicy, teeth-staining red wine that is a perfect match for any grilled meat. If that sounds good but you don't want to spend the money, he also makes a dynamite petite syrah for about half the price.
L'Arco Amarone della Valpolicella ($75): Winemaker Fredrigo Luca enjoys the support and guidance of Giuseppe Quintarelli, known as the greatest maker of Amarone in Italy. Unfortunately, Quintarelli's wines are rare and, if you can find them, count on spending twice what L'Arco's version costs. Amarones are made by taking the various grapes used in Valpolicella wines, then letting them dry on racks, sometimes for a few months. The result is a dark and delicious wine, one with a hint of bitterness and raisiny flavors. It makes magic with gnocchi and meat sauce topped with pecorino. This wine is brand-new to the Austin market and will take some searching. It's worth it.
Pommery Champagne ($38): For no good reason that I can fathom, the U.S. has never caught on to this consistently wonderful Champagne. Using an equal blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay, this biscuity wine is consistently one of my favorites. We just tasted it against about 30 other champagnes at the Stephen F. Austin benefit for the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival. Some of those wines cost over $200. This was still my favorite. Try it with a light, lemony panne cotta for dessert.
Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial Vintage 1995 ($80): I know $80 is a bunch of money for a bottle of champagne, but look at it this way. This was the best champagne I tasted all year, and I tasted 20-plus that cost over $150. It even beat Moët's premium champagne, Dom Perignon! If you want to know what the greatest sparkling wines taste like, have yourself a celebration and try this glorious Moët champagne. Dream pairing: sushi, especially Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe) with a cute little raw quail egg nested on top.
Finally, for your New Year's Eve party, the one where every person you ever met comes and wants wine, here are my three picks for great holiday wines under $10. For a sparkler, try Jean Paul Trocadero Brut Tete de Cuvee Sparkling Wine ($7), an astonishing bargain close to the quality of the real champagne. In the world of whites, Veramonte's Sauvignon Blanc ($7) is filled with great flavors. Finally, the current hottest bargain in red wines is Borsao ($6) from Spain.
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org