Picking wines for a living is like wearing a straitjacket. Not, incidentally, just because some people think wine nuts like me are a bottle short of a case. It's a price-ceiling thing.
For 10 months of the year, many reader e-mail requests say something like this: "Can you recommend a red and a white for my daughter's wedding? Make sure it's good or the happy couple's Big Day will be ruined. Oh, and my limit is 10 bucks a bottle, eight if you can swing it."
There are decent wines for less than $10, no question.
I try to write about them. And I fully appreciate the need to keep a lid on budgets, especially where the slippery slope of wedding spending is concerned. But great wine, sadly, usually is a luxury, an often stupidly expensive one. Then late November rolls around and, suddenly, the limits seem to fly out the window like a screaming eagle (that's the name of California's most expensive red, in case the cheeky reference was lost on you). "Can you recommend a fancy wine that I can send as a holiday gift to my prized law-firm clients, something in the $75-to-$100 range?"
Off comes the straitjacket. But the odd thing is, I often find myself low-balling with a more reasonable option. Maybe it's how I was raised. "Are you sure you want to go that high?" I'll ask. "There's a terrific Saint-Joseph on the shelves now for $32 and it drinks like a more vaunted Hermitage from just up the road in France's northern Rhône Valley. They're both made from syrah, but the Hermitage will set you back at least three times the coin."
When you taste thousands of wines a year, you learn there's a big brand premium, as they say in marketing business, built into famous labels. Big-game hunting is efficient for consumers with fat wallets and little time or stamina to taste through a myriad of less acclaimed offerings (and I'm not about to slag Mouton or Lafite). But for those with a keen nose, confident palate and inclination toward value, there's fun to be had in hunting down a relative bargain.
The following reds aren't dirt cheap, but I think they'd make solid gifts, even if the labels don't telegraph bottomless wealth.
Jean-Luc Colombo Les Lauves Saint-Joseph Syrah 2007 (France)
White pepper leaps out from this textbook Saint-Joseph, followed by juicy black-skinned fruit and nicely integrated tannins. Full-bodied, it will drink well for eight years.
E. Guigal Gigondas 2006 (France)
From a top name in the Rhône Valley known for super-expensive Côte-Rôtie, this smartly tailored, full-bodied offering exhibits sweet fruit, licorice, peppercorn, a hint of beef jus and chewy tannins. It could evolve nicely for up to a decade longer.
Rignana Chianti Classico 2007 (Italy)
Classic Chianti flavours of cherry, spice and funky earth in this medium-bodied, soft-textured red. The 14.5-per-cent alcohol is up there for a Chianti, but it yields more of a caressing warmth than medicinal heat. Cellar it for up to two more years.
Bertani Villa Arvedi Amarone della Valpolicella 2006 (Italy)
Pleasantly dry for an Amarone, this wine has a rich core of cherry and chocolate lifted by good acidity. Cellar for up to eight years.
Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino 2005 (Italy)
Splendidly crafted and clean, it has an essence of cherry liqueur, background of herbs and good acid lift. It's got intensity without heavy baggage. Age it for up to 12 more years.
Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Chile)
This cab has notes of cassis, mint and coffee, with a slightly dusty texture and fine-grained tannins. Cellar for up to eight years.
Tin Barn Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc Merlot 2005 (California)
This one is full-bodied, with a prominent blueberry note, spice, hint of cherry candy and taut acidity. Lay it down for up to six years.
Stolpman Vineyards Hilltops Syrah 2007 (California)
Pricey but impressively big, this tightly wound syrah from the Santa Ynez Valley shows concentrated dark-skinned fruit, tobacco, espresso and smoke with a hint of animal hide. It should evolve well for six years if the alcohol stays in check.
Pisa Range Estate Black Poplar Block Pinot Noir 2007 (New Zealand)
From the central Otago region that's causing a stir among pinot fans, this steroidal offering is opulent and expansive, with warm alcohol (14.5 per cent) and flamboyant berry-like flavour carried on a seamless, velvety frame with spice. Open it over the next four years.
Las Rocas Garnacha 2008 (Spain)
Medium full-bodied and exploding with herbs, this underpriced, seductive red eventually adds delicate cherry and whiffs of smoke and spice to the mix. Quaff it now.
Raimat Abadia Crianza 2007 (Spain)
Did they squeeze this from maraschino cherries? Almost tastes like it. It's delectably juicy, with secondary notes of vanilla, herbs and gentle spice. A great value you should drink now.