Luxury Wine for Less

Paul Blow

The holidays have traditionally been a time to OD on fine wine. The season abounds with excuses to dine and drink: Besides the eight days of Hanukkah, Christmas Eve, Christmas dinner, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day, there’s Boxing Day and all the big college football games. My added poundage comes not from eggnog and sugar cookies, but from an excess of great wine.

Of course, this year is a little different. With the recession upon us, I didn’t buy nearly as much wine as I have in the past, so the old cellar is not as robust as it once was. And, frankly, there’s a disturbing dissonance in savoring rare and expensive wines at a time when millions of people are fearing for, if not losing, their jobs. So, in recognition of the fact that ’tis the season to drink fine and wonderful things but without real ostentation, I’m going to offer a few picks of wines that drink better than they cost. These are not deals in the under-$10 sense, but rather what I like to call spendy bargains.

Fine Champagne is always popular around the holidays, but when even something like basic, yellow-label Veuve Clicquot is selling for $45, Champagne is not in everyone’s budget. Luckily there are some great sparkling wines from countries other than France that offer a lot of the elegance and deliciousness of good Champagne. I’ve always been a fan of Gramona, a cava from Spain, still family-made at the highest level of quality, with toast, toffee, flowers, and citrus peel notes. It’s probably impossible to find another sparkler this complex under $20. But, if it’s got to be French, there are some decent Champagnes to be had at the $30 to $35 level, such as Gosset’s Brut Excellence, Piper-Heidsieck, and Pommery Brut Royal.

My wife is a freak for white Burgundy, those brilliant Chardonnays from the limestone slopes of France with such hallowed names as Meursault, Puligny, and Montrachet. Unfortunately, white Burgundy is white-hot these days, and even a decent bottle of Puligny-Montrachet starts at $60 to $70. But there are alternatives, like As Sortes, a wine made in the Valdeorras region of northwestern Spain. It offers a lot of the complexity and minerality of a good Burgundy, bursting with pear, honey, cream, nuts, and smoke. It’s made from the Godello grape by Rafael Palacios, the ambitious younger brother of famed Priorat star Alvaro Palacios. Not cheap at $37, but a very exciting, artisanal wine at a good price.

When it comes to red wines, there’s nothing better to mark an occasion than drinking a Cabernet with some age on it. But of course that can get pricey, which is why I’m such a fan of Napa’s Burgess Cellars. Besides making gorgeous wines with the old-school Napa sensibility of restraint and balance, Burgess has a very active and aggressive library program to allow you to buy its older vintages. And K&L has a huge inventory of 1995 Burgess—my favorite vintage of the 1990s—at a ridiculous price of $40. It’s a wine that will make any holiday roast taste twice as good.

I’m a firm believer that any wine can taste great, as long as it’s consumed with close friends over lots of lively discussion, laughter, and good food. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much you spend on wine. Just drink it with joy. Happy holidays!

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.