Need a holiday gift for the wine needy? Go ahead, spend a lot of money if you want. But your recipient might not understand just how much trouble you went to for that gift or how much of your hard earned cash went to finance it.
Why? The Web, that tool of transparency, revealing the prices for all wines and, worst of all, revealing the “lowest” prices for those wines.
Even if that rock-bottom price represents the last bottle at a pawnshop in Nova Scotia, it’s cheap and it makes your gift look cheap.
The answer? Lack of transparency. Pick a wine that is confusing, a label that’s hard to read or easy to misinterpret. For that, I say, go Italian. The wine names are sometimes indecipherable — OK, maybe not as hard to read as the Gothic script on old German wine labels. And they often put critical words like Riserva (“reserve” and unlike in California, in Italy it actually means something) in the tiniest print.
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An average gift recipient will quickly tire of any Internet search and simply assume you paid a lot. Mission accomplished.
But you needn’t pay a lot. Tenuta Rapitala on Sicily makes a dandy red from the Nero d’Avola grape called Campo Reale, usually less than $15. Castello Monaci makes a Zinfandel cousin called Artas Primitivo Salento, about $38; it’s a Zin-ful brew of powerful red fruits. Or maybe something with serious heritage: the Brunello di Montalcino region makes expensive and long-lived wines, but they make an easier drinking and cheaper version called Rosso di Montalcino. Col d’Orcia’s is quite lovely; you might find it for less than $25.
Maybe your recipient deserves the real thing, not Brunello’s little brother but the big strapper itself. Frescobaldi’s Castelgiocondo Brunello di Montalcino combines power and complexity with at least a nod toward elegance. Cheap it’s not — often around $75 — but it will age well if the receiver decides to regift it in a decade or two.
Both of these Montalcino based wines are made from the Sangiovese grape, more famously connected with Chianti. But at a nearby town, Montepulciano, it’s given even more respect by name, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Noble wine though it may be, they don’t call the grape Sangiovese there; they call it Prugnolo Gentile, a story for a day when you’re not madly last-minute shopping. Avignonesi’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (usually about $30) may be the benchmark for the wine.
Ruffino has a lofty Tuscan wine called Modus, composed of Sangiovese mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. You’ll drop close to $25 for this one.
Still, Italian names alone can induce an aura of exotica: Col Solare in Washington State is a Cabernet-based blend, mostly from Red Mountain, created by a partnership between ubiquitous Ste Michelle and Tuscan legend Piero Antinori. It’s less than $50 and less Italian than it sounds, but exotic, yes. Tasty and long-lived? Certainly.
California’s Italian ancestry is enshrined in many of its famous names, but Ca’ Momi’s Chardonnay is providing something other than fame and prestige: tasty, correct and affordable Chardonnay — $22 or so. It may not rise to the level of a fancy gift, but I’m pouring it at dinner.
Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant who for decades has happily educated the public about all things drink. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the coveted titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column to The Star’s Food section.