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Whether you're having dinner at your boss's house or attending a holiday soiree with friends, a bottle of wine can be a great gift for oenophiles and grape-loving amateurs alike.
While a classic Cab or classy Dom will rarely let you down, lesser-known bottles add an unexpected flair that makes the evening a bit more memorable. And with a little know-how (or help from your local wine purveyor), your chosen vino can be as personal as a hand-knitted hat. We asked Don Sritong, manager of the West Loop's Just Grapes, to curate a list of his preferred picks for different kinds of drinkers.
Best bang for your buck under $15
As a general rule, Sritong recommends finding bang-for-your-buck wines by choosing ones that come from little-known vineyards or regions and opting for less popular wines (such as whites Chenin Blanc and Albarino and reds Tempranillo and Nero d'Avola). For reds, Sritong highlights the 2005 vintage of Garnacha de Fuego, a $10 wine from Spain grown at 3,000 feet elevation on 55-to-95-year-old vines. It's meaty, full-bodied and great paired with a burger or pizza, and if grown in Napa, would cost three times as much. For the white, he selects the 2005 Pine Ridge blend of Chenin Blanc and Viognier from Clarksburg, California. The $15 wine has pineapple and peach notes, a floral aroma and finishes with a crisp acidity.
For the know-it-all
While the sparkling Shiraz, served cold, is a hot commodity in Australia, it's rather unknown in the States. The $13 Rumball, from the premier southern growing region Coonawarra, is a slightly bubbly bottle that's strong in flavor and light in texture—a fun, surprising party pick. Other picks include the Scanavino Barbaresco, a 2000 vintage from Piedmont, Italy, made with the Nebbiolo grape, which offers the elegance of Pinot Noir and the backbone, structure and tannin of a Cabernet; it's a steal at $22 (the grape normally costs $50-$200). The Catena, a 2004 vintage from Mendoza, Argentina, is the Malbec for grape purists. The $25 bottle is similar to a Petit Syrah and offers an earthy, blackberry flavor that's true to the grape.
For those who like it sweet
Sritong describes the experience of drinking Michele Chiarlo's 2003 Nivole as "drinking a cloud soaked in peach and apricot." Made with Moscato in Piedmont, Italy, the barely bubbly bottle has a low alcohol content of seven percent and is excellent served over vanilla ice cream (chill in the freezer for 30 minutes, so the ice cream soaks up the flavor). The drink comes in a dainty half-bottle for about $11. For a darker drink, the 2000 vintage Castello di Meleto from Chianti Classico in Tuscany is made from the Vin Santo grape and tastes like liquid gold; $30. The drink offers dried peach, apricot, almond, hazelnut and caramel notes, has a clean finish (not the syrupy flavor many dessert drinks conjure) and pairs well with pecan pie.
If you're gonna splurge
It's nearly unheard of that a wine costing $55 would earn 97 points out of 100 from leading wine critic Robert Parker. Yet the 2004 vintage Mitolo G.A.M from McLaren, Vale in South Australia defies convention, pulling off the intensity of ripe blueberries, blackberries and hints of licorice while maintaining an elegant touch. In whites, Sritong vouches for the $50 2004 French Viognier E. Guigal from the Condrieu vineyard. Oily in viscosity but racy in acidity, the drink captures hints of citrus as well as violet and minerals. For a serious bubbly splurge, skip the Dom Perignon and upgrade another 20 bucks to the $150 Krug Grande Cuvee. This blend of three top vintages from the past year has a yeasty, toasty flavor and notes of baked apple pie.
For the open-eyed novice
There are two ways to treat the novice: Stick with the conventional or step outside of the ordinary. For the conventional crowd, try the 2005 Sullberg Merlot from Sonoma, California, a soft plummy fruit bomb for $12. A medium-to-full-bodied Chardonnay is another safe bet: Try the 2004 Cambria from Katherine's Vineyard in Santa Barbara, which offers hints of oak and melon. For the more adventurous, Sritong recommends the 2002 Citizen Zinfandel from California's Alexander Valley; the $14 bottle is smooth and juicy with concentrated notes of berry, vanilla and pepper. For something sweet, try the 2005 Naia made from Verdejo grapes in Rueda, Spain. The $13 pick has a zingy acidity and flavors of ripe apricot, peach and honeysuckle.