Wine etiquette is a minefield. In theory, the wine you bring to a holiday gathering should be offered as you would any gift. Translation: Don’t expect to enjoy the bottle with the evening’s meal. It is for the host’s cellar (or broom closet), a treat to enjoy down the road.
That is what most etiquette experts insist, and it is grounded in sound theory. Those preparing dinner, assuming they are wine aficionados, may want the option of serving suitable beverages of their own choosing. In a sense, wine for dinner is like gravy, a sauce for the food. You wouldn’t bring beef jus to a roast-chicken dinner (or any jus at all, I hope). The cook is in charge.
There is an exception, of course. If you know your hosts well and it’s your usual drill to bring the beverage, by all means go to town with your pairing skills. And if the choice is white, chill it in advance.
So much for theory. There is no way to tell whether a host has read the official wine-etiquette memo. The night you happen to bring a tannic young Barolo crafted to reach its peak in 2035 may be the night its cork gets pulled before you’ve had a chance to doff your coat.
If you can’t bear to massacre a wine before its time, hedge your bets. Bring something regal enough to look smart under the tree but supple enough to demand no cellaring beyond the minute it takes to remove your outerwear.
Fontodi Chianti Classico 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95
A benchmark Chianti producer, Fontodi crafted a beauty in 2009. It’s like cherry liqueur infused with aromas of fall forest and spices. The very fine 2008 vintage is still on the shelves in B.C. and it, too, is worth the price. $33.99 in B.C., $27.20 in Que., $40.01 in N.S.
Pietranera Brunello di Montalcino 2006 (Italy)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $35.95
Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany’s classic highend sangiovese-based red, is built for cellaring. But the tannins here hardly bite with astringency. It’s fresh and bright for a six-year-old, striking the perfect balance of cherries and earthiness.
Mission Hill Quatrain 2009 (BritishColumbia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $45 in B.C.
A powerful red, this combines the Bordeaux grapes merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc with peppery syrah. It’s a mouthful and marvellously layered, showing plum and berries laced with espresso, vanilla, cigar, earth and spice. It would benefit from five to 10 years in the cellar but pays immediate rewards. Decant it if possible. Also available elsewhere through missionhillwinery.com.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate CabernetSauvignon 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
I have sampled decades-old vintages of this wine that were splendidly complex, trading their youthful fruit for secondary flavours of earth and tobacco. But like most Australian reds, it’s a crowd-pleaser from the start. Full-bodied and succulent, it offers up rich cassis and dark chocolate, hinting at the earthy essence that will build over time. $22.99 in Man.
Domaine Chanson Clos des Marconnets Beaune 1er Cru 2009 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $49.95
Supple yet tightly structured, this pinot noir from Burgundy shows excellent concentration, with nuances of cherry and raspberry, soft texture and modest grip from fine-grained tannins.
Domaine Durieu Lucile Avril Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2009 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $42.95
Here’s a now-or-later wine par excellence. The fruit in this grenache-heavy blend is exceedingly ripe and the acidity is low, making it a nice candidate for early consumption. But there’s a strong tannic backbone to preserve it well for a dozen years at least. Currant-like fruit mingles with licorice, spice and roasted meat.
La Formica Amarone Della Valpolicella 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $47.95
If you like chocolate-covered espresso beans but prefer to curb your sugar intake, try this wine. It’s nothing if not festive, with added notes of raisin, herbs and spices. Smooth and ripe, it hides the 16.5-per-cent alcohol well.
Foncalieu Réserve du Crouzau St. Gervais Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2010 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
This is an expansive, ripe Côtes du Rhône, with 15-per-cent alcohol and an irresistible price. Concentrated and creamy in texture, it shows abundant ripe fruit laced with herbs, spice, hints of coffee and boiled meat.
Township 7 Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.99
Smooth and initially sweet, it dries up nicely toward the finish, with blackberry, vanilla, cocoa, toasty oak, coffee and caramel flavours. Available in select provinces through township7.com.
The Foreign Affair The Conspiracy 2010 (Niagara)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $19.95
Len Crispino, former chief trade representative for Ontario in Italy, and his wife, Marisa, started this estate out of a love affair with Amarone, the rich red wine of the Veneto region, which is based on partially dried grapes. The Conspiracy, a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, is inspired by the Veneto style called ripasso, in which fermenting juice mingles with leftover skins and seeds of Amarone. The pomace provides additional food for the yeast, raising alcohol while adding richness. The wine delivers sweet cassis, cherry and vanilla flavours, with a hint of dark-roast coffee.
Terra Noble Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Chile)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
There is good complexity here for the money and the structure to improve with three to six years in the cellar. Ample cassis, dark chocolate and vanilla flavours gain interest from a savoury character hinting at cedar and black olive.