Party season is a fine time to consider the sage words of that estimable social commentator Fran Lebowitz: "Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine."
I suppose if I had to make a wine recommendation to myself this holiday season, it would be simply that: Lay off the boozespeak. Enthusiasts can forget that blathering on about overoaked barberas and the decline of cellar-worthy white Burgundies will put at least half the dinner table – the interesting half, no doubt – in a coma. So, before I do my professional business below, I'd humbly like to offer a few more etiquette suggestions for the holidays.
When buying for a crowd, stock up on crowd-pleasing wines. This should be self-evident, but when you're passionate about drink, you might be tempted to share your zeal for German spatburgunder with people who believe that acidity belongs in salad dressing, not red wine. At times like these, your best friends are cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, chardonnay and pinot grigio.
Remember that wine is not enough. Pick up some brandy, port, whisky and vodka. A well-stocked booze trolley gets things moving – and your guests out of the kitchen.
Resist the urge to overspend like liberal governments. They can raise more revenue with higher alcohol taxes; you can't. At the same time, try not to serve the really cheap stuff unless you're keen to make it an early evening. There's an old French proverb: The best use of bad wine is to drive away poor relations. It almost sounds like a Lebowitz line.
Tito's Handmade Vodka (United States)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $35.90
Former geologist Tito Beveridge (his actual name) is not one for ostentatious, smokedglass packaging. The bottle is bare bones and the label rustic.
But this is classy country vodka, made in Texas. Distilled six times in a genuine, non-automated way with an old-fashioned pot still, it's very smooth and remarkably balanced, with a sweet start and dry, spicy finish.
Previously available in small quantities in Ontario, it's now widely distributed in Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Newfoundland.
Ayala Majeur Brut Champagne (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $49.95
Baked apple, bread dough and flowers on the nose replay on the palate, joined by a rounded, satisfying feel, notes of grapefruit and roasted nuts, fine bubbles and chalk on the finish.
Good value for champagne. Available in Ontario.
Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Chile)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
This red comes from a vineyard planted in 1920, the Pleistocene epoch in vine-age terms. Decades of root growth yield concentrated berries, evidenced here by the wine's intensity. Perfect ripeness and pure cassis at its core are enhanced by notes of coffee, chocolate, vanilla and a hint of mineral. Substantial, grippy tannins on the finish will soften with three to five years. Ideal for roast beef or rack of lamb. It's $33.75 in Quebec and $36.38 in Manitoba.
The fine Cuvée Alexandre Merlot is available in British Columbia for $27.99.
CanTinian Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2009 (Argentina)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $26.95 in B.C.
The name is a contraction of "Canadian" and "Argentinian," reflecting the owners' intercontinental existence. B.C. couple Dana Rothkop and Debbie Crichton started this winery in Mendoza in 2007 from an established vineyard dating back to 1923, though some of the vines were planted in the early 1970s. This reserve, a gold-medal winner in Argentina, is full-bodied and powerful, smooth at first, with intense dark fruit and chocolate, then a punch of bracing spice. Serve it with something massive. (Brontosaurus burgers come to mind.) Both this and the very good CanTinian Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($16.80) are available at select private wine stores in B.C.
Terre Nere Rosso di Montalcino 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
Very ripe, with a hint of raisin, this is a red that lives up to Rosso di Montalcino's sometimes overstated reputation as a baby Brunello, the great Tuscan red based on sangiovese. I like the earthy-savoury character and velvety texture. Ideal for mushroom risotto or wild-boar sausages.
Available in Ontario.
CedarCreek Cabernet Merlot 2008 (B.C.)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.90 in B.C.
The label may deceive. It's in fact a multilayered blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, pinot noir, malbec, syrah and petit verdot. Full-bodied and well-structured, it offers up plum, raspberry, cedar, spice and darkroast coffee, with juicy acidity on the finish. Perfect for mediumrare beef. Available at B.C. liquor stores and from the winery through www.cedarcreek.bc.ca.
La Valentina Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Montepulcianos at this price often merit attention, bearing scant resemblance to the popular bargain quaffers costing $8. This one's medium-full-bodied and concentrated, with a floral aroma, flavours of cherry, tobacco and toasty oak and gum-sticking tannins on the back end. Great for grilled red meats. Available in Ontario.
Fonseca Bin No. 27 Reserve Port (Portugal)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
A perennial good buy, this ruby-style port delivers plum jam and Christmas pudding flavours on a thick, syrupy texture, ending with a kick of spice. I previously scored this product 90 points, but the current release tastes like it came from a new, different and jammier lot. The B.C. price is $21.99.
Mt. Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $21.95
Light-bodied and tart, this white moves nicely from silky to chalky, with orange rind and tropical fruit flavours. Good for grilled shellfish, goat-cheese soufflés or sushi.