Sommelier and lover of all things fine and wine, living and working in the beautiful Niagra wine country of Ontario, Canada.
The Art of Giving Wine When You Aren't Sure What They Like
It's that time of year when we all start to turn our thoughts to the quickly approaching holidays. Being in the grip of Covid-19 means that the season will look very different this year, but you can still let the special people in your life know how much they mean to you with the thoughtful gift of wine. Most especially with large holiday events not possible, a special bottle of wine will come in handy for small-circle home entertaining.
But how do you buy wine for someone when you aren't exactly sure about their taste preferences? This has been my all-time, number one, most-asked wine question in my two decades of selling wine. So fear not, dear reader, as I now give as a holiday gift to you this detailed guide. It will help you to buy confidently if you are confused about which bottle would be the best bet when you want to show someone you care.
What NOT to Buy
Walking into any wine store to pick up gifts without a firm plan in mind can be an overwhelming experience. A sea of confusing labels all compete for your attention in a cacophony of choice. Therefore we will start by reducing the seemingly endless array of options through the process of elimination.
Unless you are very sure that the gift recipient likes any of the following styles (in which case you are unlikely to need this advice) or the person is exceptionally well-versed in the subject of wine is open to trying all kinds of obscure styles, it is advised that you avoid gifting the following wines. Wine is a highly personal beverage, and although you may be temped to want to introduce someone to something unique or unusual, few people are truly super adventurous when it comes to their wine taste preference. Your well intentioned and gift may be re-gifted, returned -or worst of all: opened and not enjoyed, causing the rest of the bottle to be wastefully dumped out! Best gift-giving practice when you are unsure is to play it on the safe side.
The following may all be good wines, but they tend to be too specific or niche to go with when you are flying in the dark and trying to pick something to give as a gift from the vast world of wine.
Wines to avoid giving as gifts:
- Fortified wines such as port, sherry, Madeira, Marsala or any other wine with spirit added, as these tend to be mainly enjoyed by those with an acquired taste for them.
- Dessert wines such as late harvest or ice wine, as the intense sweetness and syrupy mouthfeel of these wines can be very off-putting for some
- Fruit wines, which are also not typically for everyone.
- Wines made from rare grape varieties or from very obscure or unestablished wine regions.
- Flavoured or infused wines such as Vermouth, mulled wine, or Greek retsina wine
- Wines on the extremes: very light or overly powerful reds, excessively rich, oaky and buttery whites or wines with too much unbalanced sweetness (like sweet Italian Asti Spumante or Vin Santo, or sweet styles of Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Muscat or Chenin Blanc), or wines with very high acidity such as one would find in classic Portuguese Vinho Verde or very dry Alsatian Riesling.
- Rosé or blush (pink) wines as they tend to be seasonal, don't age well if the recipient doesn't drink it right away, and also are not for everyone
- Heavily discounted wines. Chances are that they are not selling for a good reason.
- Wines "made" by celebrities. Unless your recipient is a big fan, these wines tend to offer less value per dollar due to the marketing premium related to celebrity branding.
- Homemade wine. Unless you are a professional commercial winemaker who experiments in your garage in your off-hours, others (polite as they may be) are never going to be as enthralled with your fermented home creation as you are.
- Large-format bottles, as they are difficult to store due to their size (they don't fit on wine racks) and are a large commitment to finish once open.
- Wine packaged in specialty bottles such as tree ornaments or animal shapes - the look may be fun but wine inside is usually the lowest possible quality.
- Canned, boxed, or tetra-packed wine. Alternative packaging carries a "cheap" stigma and should be avoided as gifts.
Third Best Choice: Red Wine
If your recipient is male you have a slightly higher chance of hitting the mark with a red wine, as statistics show that overall men generally tend to gravitate to red wines over white. Expect to pay slightly more for red wine than white as there is more cost and labour involved in the longer red winemaking and ageing process.
- California Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon -some of the most popular red wines in the world, and for good reason. They are very easy to drink. Look to spend over $25-30, and avoid cheaper brands as they are very hit-or-miss below this price point if you are unfamiliar with the producer and vintage.
- Spanish Rioja, excellent value and delicious wine that over-delivers at any price
- The most well-known style and/or highly produced varietal from any given region such as Cabernet Franc from Ontario, Pinot Noir from Burgundy, or Shiraz from Australia.
- French Bordeaux over $50 -a classic region that demands higher prices for its highly sought-after collectible wines, but as gifts these bottles are sure to impress
- Chilean reds from small producers: These tend to offer very drinkable wines of reliable quality at a competitive price compared to mass-produced Chilean discount wine brands
Second Best Choice: White Wine
Although a very slightly less popular overall option, white wine has the intrinsic benefit of pairing perfectly with holiday meats such as turkey, goose, ham, and the traditional Christmas Eve seafood buffet. It is also served cold and is definitely more thirst-quenching and "quaffable" than red wine, making it a great choice for warming up the party. Your gift recipient will appreciate you saving them a trip to the bottle shop for a special holiday dinner wine or entertaining wine.
Safe white wine suggestions:
- Off-dry Riesling: One of the most food-friendly and refreshing of all grape varieties, Riesling produces great wine in almost all climates, just make sure that it isn't excessively sweet.
- Pinot Gris: Pinot Grigio's sophisticated older sister. Similar flavours as the notorious crowd-pleaser younger sibling but usually with considerably more elegance, depth, and complexity.
- Unoaked Chardonnay: Avoid overly oaked styles of Chardonnay as they tend to overwhelm delicate food flavours and definitely are not for everyone. Unoaked versions keep the lovely lush fruit and mineral character that make this grape magical without all the woody, buttery notes that some people can't deal with.
The Best Choice: Sparkling Wine
Sparkling wine, the most infamous example hailing from the French winemaking region of Champagne, is bar none the best and safest holiday gift to give when you have no idea what the person likes. The official drink of celebration, consuming sparkling wine on New Year's Eve is nearly ubiquitous in western society. It is also the single most flexible food-pairing wine (it goes with everything). Sommeliers and chefs alike know this as an almost insider's secret: sparkling wine makes all food taste better. The crisp, zesty nature of sparkling wine cleanses the palate between bites of food very effectively, making every bite taste like that first, most delicious morsel (exclusive tip: as I am a sommelier and NOT a chef, this my sneaky way of tricking people into thinking I am a much better cook than I actually am.)
Sparkling wine carries an elegance and caché that other wines just cannot touch. Plus, nothing brightens up a holiday mood like bubbles!
Some excellent sparkling wine gifting recommendations include:
- VQA Niagara or British Columbia (Canada) sparkling wine: With a very similar growing season and generally using the same grape varieties as Champagne (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier) this bubbly delivers great bang for your buck and is very highly internationally regarded.
- If you are looking to impress, you simply cannot beat the classic, French Champagne. However, expect to pay $50++ for an entry-level bottle of reasonable quality from a recognizable brand.
- Cremant de ... *Alsace, Bourgogne, Bordeaux, Loire, etc*: These are sparkling wines from France -but not the specific commune of Champagne. These wines can be of stellar value, with excellent examples in the $15-25 range.
- Spanish Cava: Made in the traditional Champagne method, these lovely bubbly wines are not only delicious but are of very good value; incredible Cava can definitely be found for under $30. A solid personal all-time favourite, any gift of Cava sends me over the moon. (Hint hint!)
Add Extra Value to Your Present With the Gift of Education
When giving any wine, it is extremely helpful to the recipient if you give them a little bit of guidance on how to enjoy the wine (even if they are experts!). This can easily be obtained by consulting the wine sales staff and including a small note with the gift that reads something like: "I hope that this sommelier-recommended wine as a perfect match with turkey adds a joyful sparkle to your holiday dinner. Alternatively, cellar for up to five years for added depth and complexity. The best of the season to you and yours, sincerely (your name here)." This small thoughtful inclusion not only personalizes the wine drinking experience but also elevates your gift to the next level and shows how much effort you put into finding a gift that will be loved.
To you and yours, all the best this holiday season and beyond. Cheers!
© 2020 Alina Trefry