Liquor stores can be especially enticing this time of year, glistening with glass and the promise of heartwarming decadence. They also seem to be the only shopping destinations free of the waft of scented candles and potpourri.
Trophy wines and gift packages abound. It's a come-hither holiday dance. Piper-Heidsieck just launched Bodyguard Champagne in Ontario, a red, latex-coated bottle textured to feel like the skin of a Nile crocodile ($49.95). Piper's designers took 12 days to scan a croc's scaly hide and build the mould for the true-to-wildlife experience. Belvedere just launched Red across Canada ($47.70 in Ontario, $49.99 in British Columbia), a special-edition vodka in a crimson box, with 50 per cent of profits in support of rock star Bono's global fund to fight bigger killers in Africa: AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
Perrier-Jouet's sublime 2004 Belle Epoque Champagne – the art nouveau bottle painted with anemones – is available in a gift set with two champagne flutes ($199.95). Dom Pérignon also has a two-flute gift set ($231.95 in B.C.). And a personal favourite is back: Jameson Irish Whiskey with a free hip flask ($34.99 in B.C.). The only thing better would be a dreidel-shaped Manischewitz decanter so that adults could play spin the bottle at Hanukkah.
There are many ways to make a beverage statement during the holidays, some more ostentatious than others. Most products below speak more like the offbeat, interesting people at parties. They're available in Ontario unless otherwise noted.
Castarede XO Bas Armagnac (France)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $99.95
Blended from distilled components aged a minimum of 20 years, this glorious brandy offers up dried fruit, caramel and vanilla on the nose and palate. A sweet, smooth entry gives way to honey and seductive old wood.
Christian Drouin Coeur de Lion Selection Calvados (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $37.95
Distilled from cider in northern France, Calvados brandy is an unusual treat. Popular as a flavouring in classical French cuisine, it can be sublime on its own, especially in winter. Dry and spicy, this one delivers warm apple pie on a silky texture. Perfect after dinner.
R. Dumont & Fils Brut Champagne 2004 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $54.95
It's hard to find vintage-dated, cellar-worthy champagne at this price. But this one comes from a small grower rather than a big house that must recoup big advertising expenses. It's round and almost sweet on the palate, with a smoother texture than most bruts, serving up baked apple, peach pie and a nuance of bread dough.
Les Hauts de Castellas Vacqueyras 2009 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95 in Ont.
Here's proof that large winery co-operatives can turn out gems that taste craft-made. Vacqueyras is a baby-brother neighbour of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape district, yielding many full-bodied reds that are a relative bargain. This one is juicy, with flavours of dark berry, flowers, herbs and a kick of minerals and dirt. Pair it with braised red meats.
Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 (California)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $39.95
Bottled with an attractive red-wax seal, this high-octane, 14.4-per cent- alcohol pinot is packed with jammy berry and notes of licorice and herbs, lifted by lively acidity on the long finish. Ideal for rare duck breast or pork tenderloin. The B.C. price is $43.99.
Domaine de Vaugondy Vouvray Sec 2010 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $14.95
Based on chenin blanc, Vouvray in the Loire Valley enjoyed cachet before most Canadians knew much about wine, probably because pronouncing the word makes everybody sound like Yves Montand. Some are sweet, but this light white is bone-dry and gloriously oldschool in that sour, austere way.Expect notes of peach pit, citrus and mineral. Great for sautéed or grilled shellfish. The B.C. price is $19.99.
Château Rochecolombe Côtes du Rhône 2009 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
A blend of grenache and syrah, this full-bodied red sports good concentration for the money, with a smooth core of ripe berry, hints of mineral and herbs and balancing acidity on the finish. It would suit roast poultry or redmeats stews.
Hahn Pinot Noir Monterey 2008 (California)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $18.95
Fruit-forward in the classic California style, this medium-bodied red delivers a sweet sensation, with plum jam in the foreground, an almost syrupy texture, fine, integrated tannins and gutsy oak in the background. It would shine with roast turkey. The B.C. price is $21.99.
Maison Audebert et Fils Domaine du Grand Clos Bourgeuil 2007 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
This is a deliciously dry, medium-full-bodied cabernet franc, attractively juicy, with fine tannins and notes of cherry and dried leaf. It would pair nicely with vegetarian fare based around tomato sauce.
Gray Monk Gewürztraminer 2009 (B.C.)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $18.95
Fair warning: This is on the sweet side, as in off-dry. The Heiss family, from Austria and Germany, pioneered quality viticulture in B.C. and this is a signature of their white-wine style, light and fresh. Textbook notes of rose petal, lychee and subtle spice along with lip-smacking sugar make it especially fit for spicy, delicate textured Thai food. The B.C. price is $16.99.