Gifts for the Wine Lover

Friends and professional colleagues always tell me they shy away from giving me wine.  They profess not to know what to give.  They say that they don’t want to embarrass themselves with an “ordinary” bottle.  Those excuses, and all the others, are silly.  Wine lovers typically love all types of wine, not just the “important” ones.  So there’s no need to shy away from giving wine to your wine geek friends this holiday season.  Here are some suggestions.

Unique Bottles

Find a unique bottle of something, anything.  Recently a friend, knowing I love Burgundy, brought me a bottle labeled Bourgogne Fin from Robert Arnoux that he found at a local wine shop.  Robert Arnoux is an excellent Burgundy producer, but Bourgogne is the lowliest appellation we see on these shores.  (The appellation, Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire is even more pedestrian, but is never exported). Despite its down-market pedigree, I loved the gift because I had never heard of Bourgogne Fin, which turns out to be made from a clone of Pinot Noir that some think is the “original” clone.

Ask at your local wine shop—not a liquor store that sells wine—for help selecting a unique bottle.  For example, when I go to the Boston area’s best cheese shop, Wasik’s in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and am undecided about what to buy, I ask those cutting cheese, what one cheese they would take home that night to eat.  You can use the same tactic in a wine shop.  Ask the wine buyer or salespeople what one wine they would take home to drink tonight.  Phrase the question as a red and a white, and bingo, you have just found two gifts.

Port and Sherry

Port and Sherry are two categories that most wine lovers know least well.  Even those who consume wine every night with dinner rarely drink Port or Sherry on a regular basis.

Although vintage Port is the category that gets all the press and commands the prestige, it is also the least “user friendly,” requiring decades of bottle age and careful decanting before consumption.  Tawny Port, on the other hand, is very user-friendly.  Having been aged in barrel, it’s ready to drink upon purchase and needs no decanting.  Pull the cork and pour.  Well-aged Tawny Port makes an ideal gift. A 20-year old Tawny from Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Graham’s or Dow’s, to name just a few prominent producers (each about $40 – $50) would be an excellent choice.

Even Sherry aficionados have a difficult time explaining a Palo Cortado, which makes a bottle from that category an easy choice. The most useful definition comes from Javier Hidalgo, head of the eponymous bodega that produces a stellar line of Sherry.  According to him, a Palo Cortado represents the “best barrels in the cellar.”

Originally, these barrels were reserved for the family.  But after it became apparent that there would be an excess over what they could use, it was bottled and sold.  They are expensive, but, unlike table wine, a bottle is not consumed in one sitting, but will last for weeks.  Lustau’s 20-year old Palo Cortado (about $110) and Williams and Humbert’s Dos Cortados, a 20-year old Palo Cortado, (about $50) are just two of many that will please.


The well-aged and prestige Cognacs—XO category and above—are expensive, but the recipient will remember the gift for a long time because a single a bottle could last a year since they are consumed slowly, in small quantities.   There are many great Cognac producers— Courvoisier, Hennessey, Martell and Remy-Martin, to name the four largest—all of whom make excellent XO Cognac.  For something truly distinctive and unique, I would turn to Camus, a family owned producer whose refined Cognacs are now available again, thankfully, in the US market.

The Cognac appellation is composed of six areas, Grande Champagne, Fine Champagne, Borderies, Fin Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire.  Cognac from the Borderies, while not the most prestigious—that title goes to those from Grande and Fine Champagne—are prized for their aromatic profile and lend a floral, violet-like essence to a blend.  Camus is the only producer with an XO Cognac exclusively from the Borderies.  And it’s made almost entirely from their—not purchased—grapes.  Seductively aromatic and intense, the Camus Borderies XO envelops sweetness and spice with remarkable smoothness.  Long and warming, it’s a marvelous Cognac and a great way to end a meal (about $140).  They also make a stunning XO Cognac, called Elegance, in which Borderies comprises about a third of the blend (about $120).


The Pearl of the Côte—The Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée by Allen Meadows

Every Burgundy lover needs a copy of The Pearl of the Côte—The Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée by Allen Meadows ($60, Burghound Books; in the US, available only on-line at Meadows, (aka Burghound) a former financial executive, spends months each year in Burgundy visiting producers and tasting.   His four times a year subscription newsletter contains comprehensive reviews of Burgundies and is the go-to resource for the assessment of the wines of that region.  In short, he has become one of the world’s leading experts on the wines of Burgundy.

Although he includes the fascinating history and evolution of the concept of Burgundy appellations, this is not a book for beginners.  Meadows had done a superb in-depth analysis of the vineyards, producers and wines of Vosne-Romanée and neighboring Flagey-Echézeaux.  As an example, he unravels the complexity of Échézeaux, with its 90-acres, the second largest Grand Cru in the Côte de Nuits after Clos Vougeot and its 84 owners.  He describes in great detail the character of the11 climats (vineyards) that comprise Échézeaux and lists where the 62 major owners have their plots.  And he lays it all out in both scholarly and conversational tones that make it remarkably easy to read.

Along the way he gives minutiae that only a true wine fanatic could love—who knew that the Lamarche family, now the sole owners of the Grand Cru, La Grande Rue, and the Domaine Romanée-Conti traded miniscule pieces of their respective Grand Cru vineyards so they could each control the entire vineyard.

If I were rating The Pearl of the Côte on a 100-point scale, it would get 100.

The Complete Bordeaux by Stephen Brook

Stephen Brook, one of Great Britain’s best wine writers, has set the standard for books about Bordeaux with his, The Complete Bordeaux ($60, Mitchell Beazley, 2007).  Similar to The Pearl of the Côte, The Complete Bordeaux is more a reference book than a cover-to-cover read.  But if you have a question about a Bordeaux chateau, you will find the answer in Brook’s book.  He details the history of each of the major—and many minor—chateaux, the composition of the vineyards and their winemaking practices.  He doesn’t limit himself to just the Cru Classé of the Médoc, but also includes chapters on the lesser appellations, such as Fronsac and Côtes de Blaye & Côtes de Bourg.  And his tasting notes are short and to the point.  It’s an indispensable book for anyone serious about wine.

Wine for Dummies by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW

While The Pearl of the Côte and The Complete Bordeaux will appeal to wine fanatics, for those starting to learn about wine—and even for those who know a fair amount but want to learn more—Wine for Dummies ($22, Wiley Publishing, 4th edition) is the book to buy.   In an easy to follow, but not patronizing tone, Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW demystify the seemingly complicated morass of wine. (Full disclosure:  the authors are friends and colleagues here at WRO.  Even if they were enemies, I would be forced to recommend their book, it’s so good).

December 14, 2010