The East Village Wine Geek Keith Beavers is the owner of In Vino [215 East 4th Street, Manhattan] as well as The Alphabet City Wine Company [100 Avenue C, Manhattan]. He’s one of the colorful and passionate columnists featured in The Brooklyn Bugle… coming soon.
Ah, the Holidays. New York is full of festivities and gatherings and friends and family. Everyone is shopping for someone (and a little for themselves…don’t lie…you know who you are); braving the crowds and the cold to find that perfect gift.
Speaking of the perfect gift, what about wine? People have been coming into the shop as of late wondering what to do about certain situations. I have put these sitches into three categories.
Wine is already pretty confusing. What do you do for the categories of holiday events?
There is the intimate dinner with good friends or family. There is the ubiquitous holiday bash with too many people to hone in on a single type of wine. Then there is the “Secret Santa” sitch where you are buying wine for an employee, boss or a client.
Well there is a solution for each of these. They are not iron clad because everyone is different, but there are some comfy generalities that can be locked down and relieve some stress.
It is similar to Thanksgiving in that the flavor party on a holiday table can be various and hard to pin down one wine to it. So, if you are looking to save some pennies in this “economic climate”, go for an affordable Montepulciano from Abruzzo. These wines from the eastern coast of Italy are round and medium bodied with a nice fruit depth and a little bit of spice thrown in for good measure. The soft tannin structure of Montepulciano is medium and not at all intrusive, so it is one that everyone at the table will like. The prices of these wines are usually very reasonable, ranging from $9 to $12 or $15. And usually the label looks very old school and Italian. Aesthetics always helps.
If you want to spend a little more on friends and family you can go for a Bordeaux which is always a nice looking bottle with a label that says Chateau something on it with a classic font. The thing about Bordeaux is that it doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. They are all pretty much blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. Some are Cabernet Sauvignon based (meaning the majority of the blend is Cab) and some are based on Merlot. It just depends on what you are looking for, and your wine merchant should be able to help you find the right blend for your get-together. The price for a really nice, affordable, well rounded Bordeaux can be anywhere from $17 to around $40. The friends and fam will love them because they are smooth and elegant and go great with all kinds of food.
For white wine it is always nice to bring some bubbles. Prosecco is a fun one to bring because it can be on its own or mixed. Prosecco is a late ripening grape in the Veneto in Italy that is made into a semi-dry sparkling wine with a little bit of a bite and a hint of sweet. On its own it is a great aperitif. You can also mix it with some Campari and a lemon twist for a spritzer or fill half of a flute glass with Prosecco and the other half with peach juice for a Bellini or OJ for the famous Mimosa. Prosecco can be very affordable as in $13-14 a bottle but you can also spend in upwards of $20 or so for a nice one.
If you want to bring a still white wine maybe try to keep it mineraly, crispy and fun. For friends and fam I would go for a Gavi Di Gavi from Piedmont in Northern Italy. The grape is actually called Cortese but is most known for being produced in the town of Gavi. Cortese is a light crispy wine with hints of citrus and sometimes subtle almond notes on the finish. It goes great with food (especially seafood) and is not too pricey. These bottles are found in that wonderful sweet spot of between $10-20. It can say Cortese or Gavi on the label. Either way it is the same grape.
For the ubiquitous holiday bash one must decide how well one knows the host of any given event. You don’t want to bring a bad bottle but you also can assume that it will be emptied in no time at all and there is a chance you may not even get a glass or even a sip.
So the safe bet is to go for the Garnacha wines of Spain, which are always well priced, and medium bodied and spicy with deep soft fruit. These are definite crowd pleasers that won’t break your wallet. Garnacha wines range from $9 to about $20, which is a nice range that can fit any bash whether you know the peeps, or not.
For white wine I always like to bring a bubbly. They are festive and fun and make for great background noise at a holiday party with the popping of the cork and the short, excited yelps of everyone within range of that cork happily ducking out of the way but staying near to get a glass of it.
Cava is Spain’s celebratory sparkler and is usually consumed for baptisms and such. They are always well priced happily in the, “sweet spot” and dry with hints of sweetness. Don’t worry too much about the brut, extra brut, dry, extra dry indications on the label. You are going to a party where everyone is probably bringing some sort of bottle of alcohol there will plenty for people to choose from. If you really want to know the differences between them you wine merchant will be able to explain it, but for Cava if you are in a hurry just grab it and go. It will be appreciated. I promise.
And now the category creates the facial stress lines. I call it the Secret Santa category because that is essentially what it is: a gift for an employee or a boss or a client, etc. Someone that you like and appreciate but don’t want to spend too much money on; nevertheless you want to get something reasonably nice to say “thanks”. It can be a tough one. And the reason I know is, having a wine shop for only two holiday seasons now, I’ve seen a large number of people looking lost in the sweet spot. They want something nice but not expensive. They want the receiver to feel it was a thought out gift and not some useless tchotske.
Well, it is always a good start when I see bosses and co-workers in the shop at the holidays. Wine is a wonderful gift.
Stay with red wine for this category. There is a perception that white wine, especially in the winter, is not as expensive and as much of a financial commitment as red. This is not the case but it is cold outside and a bottle of red fits the whole scene more than white generally.
And within this pocket of holiday shopping I would go for Southern French wine. These wines are some of the most affordable from France and are delicious blends with all kinds of comfy flavors that all kinds of people are going to like.
The areas to consider are the Cote Du Rhone, The Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence and Southwest France. There is no need to go into too much detail right now because if your reading this you are just looking for a nudge in the right direction but I will say this:
They are most always going to be blends of a plethora of “indigenous” grapes form the area. They may or may not have the blend specified on the label. The winemakers are getting better at it but there is still some résistance to this day to telling the consumer what is inside the bottle. Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan, and Cinsaut are the most popular grapes of Southern France and vignerons (French winemakers) play around with them in the cellars to create their own identities. In general these wines are going to be earthy with hints of spice and herbs but with very deep fruit and soft yet prominent tannins. They are un-intrusive and perfect for a cheese party or for a proper dinner as they go great with all kinds of food. They are also light to medium enough to drink by themselves if desired. All in all they are very versatile wines.
And the labels are all over the place too. This part of France is kind of going through an identity crisis right now trying to figure out how to present themselves so you might see one bottle with the classic chateau in a sketch with fancy script them right next to it a minimalist modern oval of a label with nothing but one word on it. So with the help of your wine merchant you can find the right blend with the right label for the right employee, boss or client. The price range of these awesome, peppery, earthy wines is right in the sweet spot of $10-20. Happy shopping! Maybe buy a bottle for yourself.
The most important advice I can give beyond the quick general guide to good holiday wine is TRUST YOUR WINE MERCHANT. A good relationship with a wine shop is the best way to give and receive good wine. Shop owners are there to provide not only wine but personalized service. They should love all their wines. If a wine merchant put a bottle on the shelf they should know something about it. Try to find a passionate wine shop that cares about their product. Then you are assured a great wine and a relationship providing great sound advice for many future bottles to come.