Do you have a most-memorable holiday gift? Mine dates back to childhood (big surprise). I'd like to say it was something classic, such as a toy train or a sled. But it was Twister, the game with a coloured dial and plastic polka-dot floor mat. You would spin the dial and put a foot or hand down on the corresponding dot colour. People took turns and, before long, you'd end up in a tangle, toppling to the ground in hysterics. My fantasy was to get tangled up with Antoinette from grade school, but I never summoned the courage to ask her over. Sigh. Citizen Kane had Rosebud. I've got wistful memories of Twister.
The main sort of gift that turns my crank today – and I speak as an adult with so much scary clutter at home that I am starting to wonder whether Molly Maid has put me on call-block – is something that fits neatly on a shelf (like a book or CD) or something I can ingest. Perhaps you know people who are similar. If they are serious about wine, and I mean serious, consider the ultimate geek's gift this season: Jancis Robinson's Wine Grapes ($185, Ecco/HarperCollins).
In the mid-1980s, Robinson, the high-profile British wine critic, wrote what she described as the first consumer guide to wine-grape varieties. It was called Vines, Grapes and Wines and remains in print, a standard for those with a keen interest in the subject. Wine Grapes is her entirely new and much more comprehensive follow-up, a 1,242-page hardcover penned with fellow critic Julia Harding and grape geneticist Jose Vouillamoz. The authors wisely keep to the 1,368 grape varieties they deem relevant to the wine lover, though even that is stretching matters. You will find all the stars, such as pinot and chardonnay, as well as at least 1,000 that will never, ever make it onto a sommelier-class exam, let alone into your mouth (think khindogni and hondarribi beltza). The detail is impressive and the writing is clear and accessible.
If a $185 reference book misses the mark, there's always wine or booze. And when they're done with the gift, they can always play spin the bottle.
Spearhead Brewery Hawaiian Style Pale Ale (Ontario)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $13.95/6-pack
Spearhead made a joyful splash when it arrived on the craft brewing scene last year. Its motto, "beer without boundaries," testifies to an experimental philosophy. The Moroccan Brown Ale, for example, is flavoured with dates, figs, raisins and cinnamon. And this superb Hawaiian ale gets its twist from pineapple. The fruit is subtle, though, a perfect counterpoint to the dry-hopped citrus– and pine-like bitterness, like a Pacific island planted with Christmas trees.
Burmester 10-Year-Old Tawny Port (Portugal)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $24.95
Tawny Port gets its rusty hue from time spent in barrel, which oxidizes the formerly deep-red fortified wine. That process also mellows flavours, imparting a nutty character. Roasted nuts come through loud and clear here, along with nuances of candied orange. The acid balance is perfect, sweet but not cloying and wonderfully complex. $29.90 in Que.
Cascina Cucco Cerrati Barolo 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $39.95
This is marvellous Barolo and attractively priced for the vaunted appellation – just the thing for that Italian-wine lover on your list. Complex and penetrating, it offers up prune, dark chocolate, earth, tobacco and a tarry nuance of fresh-paved road. The tannins are mighty and astringent. It's a good candidate for 10 to 20 years in the cellar.
Piper Heidsieck Bodyguard Champagne(France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.95
Non-vintage Champagnes, such as this one, are supposed to taste the same year after year. They're blended from wines of several harvests to overcome vintage variability. But Piper has clearly improved with the current bottling. "Bodyguard" is a reference to the rubberized holiday-issue red exterior with a texture of crocodile skin. The wine is like lemon pie, with perfectly balanced acidity and energetic mousse. Various prices across Canada.
Vincent Girardin Les Vieilles VignesPuligny-Montrachet 2009 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $52.95
Girardin is a fine Burgundian producer, and this chardonnay hits the mark. Buttery but not flabby, it moves seamlessly into toasty terrain, with supple fruitiness and lively acidity.
The Glenrothes 1995 Speyside Single Malt(Scotland)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $84.95
Glenrothes specializes in vintage-dated Scotch whiskies versus the multi-year blends that are the norm, so the flavours vary subtly depending on the vintage, like wine. The distillery also represents a marked contrast to the trendy, heavily peated whiskies of Islay. I get clear cereal grain from most of their whiskies, despite time spent in wood, and there's dry oatmeal here along with notes of pear, honey, butterscotch, spice and saddle leather. The price above represents a $5 discount in Ontario till Jan. 6. $89.99 in Nfld.
Stratus White 2009 (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $44.20
Santa might approve. He lives at the North Pole, and I believe the closest permanently inhabited land mass belongs to Canada. An elegantly packaged white with a minimalist label featuring a cloud formation, this is an aromatic blend of semillon, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, viognier and gewurztraminer. Medium-full-bodied and richly fruited, it shows nuances of apricot, spice and vanilla, with well-integrated oak. stratuswines.com
Innis & Gunn Connoisseur's Oak Collection 2012 (Scotland)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $14.95/3-pack
This three-bottle gift box comes with a stemmed glass in the fourth compartment and makes an easy-to-wrap gift for the quality-beer fan. Scottish brewer Innis & Gunn specializes in strong, sweetly rich offerings aged for a brief period in wood for added nuances. The 2012 box contains the Original as well as Winter Treacle Porter (with an essence of molasses) and Highland Cask, the latter mellowed in wood that once contained single-malt whisky. I like the Highland Cask best, with its fruity core smoothed out by toffee and vanilla.