“I like wine, but I don’t know much about it. And I don’t want to spend the time and effort to learn a lot about it,” a friend told me. “I just need to know which type of wines will impress people who know more about wine than I do.”
It was an unusual request, but one I suspect many people can relate to: Which wines should we have on hand for special occasions and special people? Wines that aren’t for every night but are suitable for welcoming our boss, a special client or that wine-geeky friend who won’t shut up about harvest conditions of this or that vintage, whether the vineyard faces southeast or southwest, and the advantage of limestone soils over granite.
My friend asked me to recommend a half-dozen wines costing “no more than $50 a bottle” that would “impress anyone.” The mandate was no more specific than that, so I filled in some details. The selection should cover the basic types and styles of wine to fit any menu, but it should also be interesting enough to entice a dedicated wine geek without being too esoteric.
Which categories to recommend? Champagne or sparkling wine, certainly, to celebrate a landmark or turn an ordinary occasion into a special one. Chardonnay, if only because it’s the world’s most popular white wine. Pinot noir as the sexiest red, and a cabernet-style wine as the most powerful. For dessert, a port or late-harvest wine would offer Old World sophistication. And one wild card, drawn from across the varieties.
My friend had one other condition: “I should be able to buy it at my favorite store, the one on Connecticut Avenue near the university.” That meant Calvert Woodley near the University of the District of Columbia, so I checked the store’s website to make sure my picks were on hand. But you could put together a similar selection at any fine wine store; ask your favorite salesperson to help with your own list.
A good champagne can easily be found for $40, and Calvert Woodley features Henri Abelé at that price. For a splurge, a magnum (double bottle) costs only $70. Nothing impresses better than a magnum of champagne. An edgier choice would be the Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Sainte-Anne for $47. It’s a “grower champagne,” meaning the winery grows its own grapes rather than buying them, as the larger, familiar-name Champagne houses do. Grower champagnes are not necessarily better, but they can be quite distinctive, and they are certainly trendy.
Chardonnay provides a wide range of possibilities, including a blanc de blancs sparkling wine or a white Burgundy. I’d go with the Ramey chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast region of California ($43). Or sticking with France, try the Thevenet Domaine de la Bongran Viré-Clessé 2009 – a great vintage, already with some age on it – for $40.
Pinot noir also suggests Burgundy; California’s Russian River Valley and Sta. Rita Hills; and New Zealand’s Central Otago region. I tend to favor Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Bergstrom 2012 Cumberland Reserve at $45, from a top producer in a fantastic vintage, should do the trick.
You’re in excellent hands looking for a Bordeaux at Calvert Woodley. I suggest the La Réserve de Léoville Barton 2009 ($50) or the Chateau Larose Trintaudon 2010 ($26), two reliable cabernet sauvignon-based wines from outstanding vintages. Both are young, so decant them a couple of hours before serving. If you favor a California cabernet, try the Chateau Montelena 2012 or the Frog’s Leap 2013, both $50, from Napa Valley.
For dessert, nothing impresses more than a fine port. Vintage ones can be pricey, and deciding when to drink them or how long to age them in your cellar can be tricky. Look for an aged tawny, such as the Fonseca 20 year old ($50). Even the most jaded wine lover will appreciate that one.
For the sixth and final wine, try something offbeat, even local. Calvert Woodley offers the delicious Boxwood 2015 Rosé for $18. With Virginia known for its viognier, the Horton 2014 ($17) is always a reliable choice. The entire list could be played that way, in fact, weaving in one or more surprise bottlings from your trips through local wine country.
These are just suggestions, of course. Tailor your list to your own palate, and by all means rely on your local retailer for advice on which wines to choose for special occasions or for everyday sipping.