At this time of the year, people can be understandably fearful of giving wine to their wine-loving or worse, wine-geek, friends. So, here are some fail-safe suggestions, both vinous and educational. Plus, an essential but inexpensive gift item that would be a perfect as a stocking stuffer.
Let’s start with the vinous.
Cognac and Sherry are, perhaps, the two categories that wine lovers know least well. Even those who consume wine every night with dinner rarely drink Sherry or Cognac regularly. So, you don’t need to worry about embarrassing yourself by giving a bottle of either.
Cognac is a distillate made from grapes grown in the Cognac region of France. The three critical pieces of information on a Cognac label are the area from which the grapes came, the amount of aging, and, perhaps, most importantly, the producer. Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne (no relation to the bubbly wine region) are the top two areas within the greater Cognac region. On many labels, you’ll see the term Fine Champagne, which means the grapes came from a combination of the two areas, with Grande Champagne contributing more than half the blend. I find Cognac from a lesser-known area, Borderies, that ranks just below Grande and Petite Champagne in prestige, particularly attractive because the best have a wonderful floral component. They can be hard to find, but are worth the search.
The longer a Cognac has been aged, the smoother and more complex it is. Those labeled VS (Very Special) and VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) have been aged for a minimum of two and four years, respectively. The best for gifts are those labeled Napoléon and XO (Extra Old), which have been aged for a minimum of six and ten years, respectively because there are more refined than the younger Cognacs. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $200 a bottle. Some prestige Cognacs, XXO (Extra Extra Old), Ancestral, and Hors d’âge (Beyond Aging) receive even greater aging, but are best left to the “one percenters.”
There are many great Cognac producers. Courvoisier, Hennessey, Martell and Remy-Martin are the four largest and account for 90 percent of the market, by some estimates, which means they are widely available. All of them make excellent Napoléon and XO Cognac that are easy to recommend. Camus, a family-owned producer, makes an exceptional Borderies. Other small producers whose Cognacs I enthusiastically recommend are Delamain, A. E. Dor, Ferraud, Frapin, Geffard, Paul Giraud, Hine, Peyrat, and Voyer.
Even Sherry aficionados have a difficult time explaining Palo Cortado, which makes a bottle from that category an easy choice. The most useful definition for me comes from Javier Hidalgo, 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, the story goes, these were barrels of fino that didn’t develop as anticipated, but were, nonetheless, delicious, unique and reserved for the family. Think of them as an elegant and complex Amontillado. After it became apparent that the family could drink only so much, these barrels were bottled and sold as Palo Cortado. They will run $50 to $100, but, unlike table wine, a Palo Cortado does not need to be consumed in one sitting. It can last open for weeks. In addition to Hildago, look for one from Lustau or Williams and Humbert.
The choice of a wine book this year for your wine loving friend is, as the saying goes, a no-brainer. Jane Anson’s Inside Bordeaux is simply spectacular. She has the perfect credentials for writing this book: British by birth, Anson has lived in Bordeaux for close to two decades. She has been the long-time Bordeaux correspondent for Decanter, the world’s more important wine magazine. Plus, she writes beautifully and, most importantly, is unequivocal in her assessments.
There have been plenty of great books about Bordeaux. Look no further than Stephen Brook’s The Complete Bordeaux: The Wines, The Château, The People. But Anson’s is different and unique. In addition to the vast details of the individual properties, she focuses on the terroir of the appellations and on that of each of the château, so the reader has an insight into what makes them unique. Of course, you learn lots about the now-out-of-my-price-range Classified Growths (who knew Lafite formerly made a white wine?). But you also get jewels of recommendations of lesser known and affordable properties.
Take these in the section on the Haut-Médoc, “another best bet is the 17ha Ch. Meyre . . . the vines are in two areas with 13ha around the château on limestone with clay and sand, and another section closer to the Gironde river on a gravel outcrop” and further along “In the category of Great Unknown Bordeaux Wines is Ch. les Vimières. . .”
In the chapter on St-Estèphe, she advises that Ch Laffitte-Carcasset is a “good-value Cru Bourgeois.” Only someone with Anson’s experience can give this kind of valuable and detailed advice about these less well-known estates. The maps and illustrations are superb. Turning the pages is a joy. If you have even a passing interest in Bordeaux, you’re making a mistake by not owning this book. (Published by Berry Bros and Rudd Press and sold by Sotheby’s Wine in the USA, $80.)
I give similar high praise for Ian D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy and his sequel, Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs. You’d never know from his exquisite prose that D’Agata is a physician and molecular biologist by training. With these books, he has produced two scholarly texts that are a great pleasure to read. In Native Wine Grapes of Italy, he tells you where specific grapes are grown and, importantly, who are the top producers. He’s not afraid to give his opinion either, as an excerpt from the section on Lambrusco shows: “After all that [people trashing Lambrusco], you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that Lambruscos were best forgotten, but there are thrilling Lambrusco wines to be had too; and not just lip-smacking delicious dry Lambrusco rosso and rosato, but great sweet ones too. Wine snobs will sneer at the latter wines, but I don’t see the problem: if some fetishists prize fruitiness and sweetness in their wines above all else, who am I to argue? And besides, I like those sweet wines too.”
In Native Wine Grape Terroirs, you learn about the differences among Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti and Barbera del Monferrato in a succinctly and clearly written single paragraph. They are essential reference books for anyone interested in Italian wines. Which book to buy? Frankly, I’d suggest both since they complement each other. (University of California Press, 2014 and 2019, respectively; each about $45).
The above-mentioned books are for the established wine lover. For the wannabe or those just starting out, the 7th edition of Wine for Dummies by Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW and Ed McCarthy is a good place to start (Wiley Publishing, about $22). In clear prose without a patronizing tone, the authors unravel what for many is an intimidating subject. The reader gets an essential understanding of wine—what to expect from a given bottle—which gives them the framework and confidence to expand their knowledge on their own. The book’s layout allows readers to return to learn more as they explore new categories of wine. Full disclosure: the authors are friends and colleagues here at Wine Review Online. With that acknowledged, it’s a terrific book for anyone with a yearning to learn about wine.
There is no better beginners’ book about wine than Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. On its 35th edition and with over four million copies sold, it is the world’s best-selling wine book. And with good reason—it’s fabulous. Zraly is a superb teacher and his easy going, slightly irreverent at times, style is evident in his writing. I guess my enthusiasm for his book is summarized best by the fact that I gave a copy to each of my daughters. A perfect gift for students of finance or law who, sooner or later, will be handed a restaurant wine list when entertaining clients.
After the September 11th tragedy, Zraly moved his widely successful Windows on the World Wine Course to other locales. With Covid-19, he’s adapted again and gone on-line with Zoom® format. Regardless of the setting, his teaching is brilliant and entertaining. In these one-hour classes, he explores a topic with four wines that are delivered in advance so during the class you taste along with him. I took his one-hour Spanish class, found it entertaining and educational. He has the rare ability to teach something to everyone, from novice to expert, during the same class, regardless of their level of experience. The class fee is $50 with the four bottles adding between $100 and $150. A gift certificate would make a great present. For more information go to kevinzraly.com
And now for the essential stocking stuffer: A Champagne stopper.
It will transform the way you think of Champagne. No longer it is a “special occasion” beverage, but rather a nightly aperitif. You can spread the $50 cost of a bottle of Roederer NV Brut Premier over five nights, with a large, 5-ounce, glass a night. Alternatively, you and companion can each enjoy a reasonable, 4-ounce, pour over three nights.
A Champagne stopper looks like an oversized bottle cap with short wings that clamp under the rim of any bottle of any kind of bubbly. It allows you to re-stopper the bottle, maintaining the fizz, for another day. It’s easy to use—both attaching and removing it from the bottle is a cinch. It keeps the Champagne or sparkling wine fresh and bubbly for four or five days. Don’t forget that if, by chance, the fizz is gone on day five, the still wine that remains is still fresh and ideal for deglazing a pan in place of white wine. (About $10.)
E-mail me your thoughts about what you’re giving your wine friends this year at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein
December 9, 2020