Gifts That Keep Them Sipping
He couldn’t have been more than eight years old. Wide-eyed, gap-toothed and giddy with anticipation, the kid gingerly descended the stairs to a basement bathed in a festive glow from the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree.
His mom and dad were waiting as the kid entered the room with a mix of caution and excitement. Suddenly, the lights switched on and what did appear but an electric train set speeding magically along a track that had been set up by Santa Claus himself.
That kid was me, all of eight years old, and, to this day, the thrill of Christmas morning has never diminished.
Nowadays, instead of trains and table hockey games and stockings full of all things sweet, it’s the not-so-cleverly disguised wine bags and boxes that send my adrenalin soaring as the holidays approach. Oh, I know, it’s all about the kids now and their excitement, but, damn it, not knowing what’s in those decorative bags and boxes drives me bonkers. Adults can dream, too, right?
I am blessed with a thoughtful wife and children who have received the message loud and clear. Not socks, ties or cheap cologne. Spare me the golf shirt, slippers and gourmet popcorn. It is wine that fuels my seasonal joy, a mystery bottle or two of something different, something exciting, no matter the price or pedigree. Surprises are encouraged (but acting on those subtle hints left around the house is pretty sweet, as well).
When we lived in Calgary, my wife would simply go to my favourite private wine store, Willow Park Wines and Spirits, and seek out Gerry Buchner and ask him what bottles make me weak in the knees. Gerry knew my tastes and always had something delicious and surprising to recommend.
And now my kids, 15-year-old twins, have learned to peruse wine websites for top-scoring vino and cross-reference what’s good with what’s available at the LCBO or Vintages close to where we now live. They tell my wife and she makes the seasonal purchase for them.
Kistler Chardonnay, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon, Jim Barry Lodge Hill Riesling, gems from Alsace, Napa Valley, Bordeaux and Burgundy in all the right vintages … they have all ended their journey under the Christmas tree for grateful little me.
But I know shopping for the perfect bottle can be a daunting task for even the wine savviest of shoppers. You want to blow their minds. You want the boom!-pow!-wow! factor under that tree. And it has to fit into your budget.
Life would be so much so simpler if we could simply walk into a wine shop and purchase First Growth Bordeaux (2009, please) or grand cru Burgundy (2010, if you’re asking) or top Supertuscans and cult Napa Valley Cabernet. But where’s the fun in that? So let’s break it down as we get ready to shop till we drop this holiday season.
Be smarter than everyone else
In fact, I hope it’s not too late already. Have you ever been to a wine store in late December? It looks as if a nuclear bomb has exploded and left only the crap wine on the lower shelves, the cheap stuff, the really bad stuff. Let’s face it. December is the month of giving, and for a lot of people the giving starts with good booze.
So shop early and pay attention.
If you live in the coddled provinces of Ontario or Quebec, where there is but one wine store, the LCBO or SAQ, you are racing against millions of thirsty savvy wine shoppers all eyeing the same wines.
So get ahead of the fray and get in the know. Vintages has a twice-monthly publication that brims with useful information on Christmas buys. The November 24 issue is the main “icon” wine publication for Christmas featuring the finest wines in the world including a good selection of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines. The last Classics Collection Catalogue printed edition (now going online only) came out on October 16 and also includes superb classic wines that can be ordered and picked up before Christmas. The SAQ has its own publication called Cellier that’s heavy on European Old World treasures.
If you live in any of the Canadian provinces with private stores (lucky you!), your choices of unique and fine wine increases exponentially. You get to actually physically shop for vino that’s hand-picked by the proprietor. Get to know your purveyor of wine, take in the tastings, get on the mailing list and buy what you think will wow who you are buying for.
I have some cool yule suggestions for you (children, are you paying attention?).
I like to be creative in my choices and scour the magazines and shelves for treasures that are unique and sure to please. I look for that wow factor with a dash of intrigue thrown in.
The Ravenswood Icon Native Sonoma Mixed Blacks 2008, Sonoma ($75) fits the bill of exactly what I look for in a Christmas wine. It’s different (a crazy blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane and Alicante Bouschet from pre-Prohibition vines); it’s stunning on the palate with thick, concentrated fruits and layered spices; and it will age beautifully.
The Ruffino Serelle Vin Santo del Chianti 2008, Tuscany ($25/375 mL) also caught my eye. This is another wine that will have your recipient in awe of your wine-buying prowess. Vin Santo is a sweet Italian specialty where the grape bunches are slowly dried in the vinsantaia, a cellar characterized by its constant natural ventilation. The result is a gorgeous dessert wine with deep amber hues and complex flavours of candied tropical fruits, mango, marzipan, figs, citrus peel, honeycomb and sweet spices.
Looking for something a little more, shall we say, affordable? It has to be different and punch well above its weight class to be a true Christmas wow-wine.
I’d suggest Bodegas Castaño Hécula Old Vines Monastrell 2009, Yecla ($12). This is a hidden gem from Spain with a bold nose of raspberry, violets, light spices and a touch of blueberry. It’s rich and complex on the palate with bountiful fruit and subtle spices.
And there’s nothing wrong with wrapping up wines with famous names under the Christmas tree. Try the Chateau St Jean Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Sonoma ($20) or the iconic symbol of Napa Valley, the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($35). Both are excellent choices.
Think outside the box
The competition for Christmas wines is fierce. Chances are the hot wines that are being released will disappear from store shelves as soon as they get there.
Pro tip: Regular shoppers will ask their favourite liquor store consultant to put aside the bottles they want, and their wish is usually granted. So if you leave your shopping to hope and chance, you will be disappointed.
And don’t limit yourself to what you can find on store shelves. There’s an entire industry built on “consignment” wines from the hundreds of wine agencies spread across the country.
By only buying wine at the retail store level, shoppers are missing out on thousands of the premium wines not available to the general public.
Artisanal, small-production wines are often only available by buying directly from a wine importer (or agency).
You are advised to get on the mailing list of the agencies that specialize in what’s for sale exclusively from interesting wineries. The wine can be ordered online and shipped to your door. The only drawback is that you will likely have to purchase six or 12 bottles, and you may have to wait a while for your order to arrive.
I found some wonderful Christmas wines at one of the newest agencies to start up in Ontario, Noteworthy Wines (@noteworthywines on Twitter), based in London. Co-owner Bill Wittur has done a fine job of building a small but exciting portfolio of unique wines.
I loved the both the Zantho Grüner Veltliner 2011, Burgenland, Austria ($15), with lime-citrus, apple and slate minerality, and the Zantho St Laurent 2010 ($15) with blueberry, black cherry, raspberry jam and currant flavours.
Noteworthy has done well finding good wine at affordable prices that you won’t find anywhere else. Even the Tenuta Le Velette Rasenna Orvieto 2011, Umbria, Italy ($13) was a lovely surprise with green apples, melon and citrus. It’s a great choice for the wine lover on your Christmas list who is looking for a unique bottle of wine at a fair price.
Christmas is about the warmth of the season, sharing with family and friends. It is made with memories and anticipation, laughter, too much food and everything sweet. The wine that accompanies all of that, whether you are giving it, receiving it or just sharing it by a crackling fire, should never be a chore. Buy what you like, buy what you think they like, sit back and enjoy. And one more thing: Happy holidays to all!