This year we're putting the premium on price, looking for wines that are consistently great values for the money. Wine serves two purposes during holiday parties: It's sipped as an aperitif, mainly to go along with conversation, and/or it's drunk in the traditional manner, with a meal. The former requires generous fruitiness with medium acidity, while the latter requires good acidity to cleanse the palate.
Sparkling wines are always a great aperitif. New Mexico's Gruet Winery makes the country's best sparkling wine less than $15. Its Blanc de Noirs ($13) is an outstanding wine full of ripe fruit flavors and tiny bubbles. J Cuvée 20 Brut ($25) is a step up with more pronounced acidity, which makes it an ideal food wine. Splurgers have the world of true Champagne open to them, and there are dozens of brands available in the Austin area. Bollinger Special Cuvée ($45) is my favorite less than $75 for its massive, toasty aromas and perfectly balanced fruit and acid.
White aperitif wines should have plenty of acid; their balance should be just slightly tilted toward fruit. Most American white wines are made for this, so finding a good option should be simple. We have a bunch of great options right here in Texas. Ste. Genevieve's Fumé Chardonnay ($8 for a big bottle!) is a wine that can fool a lot of folks. Made from 75% Sauvignon Blanc and 25% Chardonnay, it is simply yummy. Fall Creek Vineyards' Caché ($20) is a blend of several aromatic grapes with just a hint of residual sugar to make it an easy drinker. California's Bogle Chardonnay ($8) is a crowd-pleaser with an understated oakiness and a very smooth finish.
Red aperitif wines have similar requirements. The balance should be just slightly toward fruity. Syrah is an ideal grape, and one of the best for the price is the Columbia Crest Two Vines Shiraz ($9). It comes from Washington state's Columbia River Valley, an area with the long, hot, dry days the grape loves. Peter Lehmann's Barossa Shiraz ($14) is an order of magnitude greater, in all ways. Depth, density, aromas, smoothness, you name it, this wine has it. Texans in a nationalistic mood can safely pick up a bottle of Becker Vineyards Cabernet-Syrah Reserve ($22), a lusty bottle sure to pick up the conversation ("This is from Texas?!").
Food wines require more acids, allowing them to cleanse the palate between bites. It's also necessary to tone down the fruit and the oak; this is supposed to be wine, not a side dish. Food wines are tougher tests of the winemaker's art, so they sometimes cost more. One useful hint is to look for European wines (often referred to as "Old World" style), 99% of which are food wines, and with the dollar getting a tad more valuable, you can find good values in these wines.
Masi Masianco ($12) and Gentil "Hugel" ($12) both provide the spark of delicious acidity that makes the food taste fresh after each sip. The Hugel has a bit more aromatic fruit, while the Masi wins on mouthfeel and finish. Chile has a few die-hard, Old World-style wineries left. Cousiño-Macul sits near the top of that list, and its Doña Isidora Riesling ($10) has a generous, applelike fruit balance and tangy acidity.
The same recommendations hold for food-friendly red wines. Chilean winery Concha y Toro makes the delicious Casillero del Diablo Carménère ($9). The best values in French red wines come from the Rhone Valley, home to Paul Jaboulet Aîné's Parallèle 45 ($10), a wine like black pepper on strawberries. A bit harder to find but worth a search is Romana Carlo's Dolcetto Brich dij Nor ($18), a wonderful example of Piedmont Dolcetto.
Gruet Blanc de Noirs ($13)
J Cuvée 20 Brut ($25)
Bollinger Special Cuveé ($45)
Aperitif White Wines
Ste. Genevieve Fumé Chardonnay ($8 for a big bottle!)
Bogle Chardonnay ($8)
Fall Creek Vineyards Caché ($20)
Aperitif Red Wines
Columbia Crest Two Vines Shiraz ($9)
Peter Lehmann Barossa Shiraz ($14)
Becker Vineyards Cabernet-Syrah Reserve ($22)
Cousiño-Macul Doña Isidora Riesling ($10)
Masi Masianco ($12)
Gentil "Hugel" ($12)
Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Carménère ($9)
Paul Jaboulet Aîné Parallèle 45 ($10)
Romana Carlo Dolcetto Brich dij Nor ($18)