How to pick the perfect holiday wine for anyone

Holiday wine purchases can be a challenge. Any bottle needs wide-audience appeal at parties and family gatherings. They’re often half gift, half something you’re hoping to enjoy yourself. You want a bottle to impress – but also be affordable. Let us help you navigate the holiday winescape.

Large-Format Bottles – Just Do It

Nothing feels better than walking into a party with a large-format wine – except maybe watching someone else walk in with one. Magnums (1.5 liter bottles) are a great place to start, but when you go bigger, so does the party. 

Champagne has the best names for these options – they’re biblical kings and patriarchs: Jeroboam (3 liters), Methuselah (6 liters), Salmanazar (9 liters), Balthazar (12 liters), Nebuchadnezzar (15 liters) and, the largest, Melchior (18 liters). That’s 24 standard bottles of wine. 

The Wine and Cheese Place co-owner Aaron Zwicker recommends a Leviathan magnum for a party. The crowd-pleasing red blend is appropriately large and festive, but will definitely be drained even if not everyone is drinking wine. “I like it in a magnum because you get out under $75,” he said. Everyone’s happy. 

If price is no problem, The Wine Merchant does some serious large-format business. Owner Jason Main said most are private orders, but the shop does carry some king-size bottles you can pick up for royal prices.

photo by jonathan gayman

Wine to Make Your Mom's Friends Happy

We’ve all met them (or been them): people who will only drink chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon. Wine can be confusing and expensive. If someone has a good experience with a bottle, it’s hard to blame them for sticking with what they know. 

But if you don’t like the stereotypical, inexpensive cab or chardonnay grabbed from the grocery by holiday hosts, you don’t have to just smile and sip it. We’ve given up trying to make our mom’s friends try a grüner vetliner or albariño, but that doesn't mean we’re showing up with a buttery oak bomb.

“Oregon’s a nice source of good chardonnay that is West Coast, but not the overdone California style,” said Zwicker. Try the 2016 Domaine Drouhin RoseRock ($18, available at The Wine and Cheese Place) for round floral and peach notes and solid minerality. 

Parker’s Table’s Simon Lehrer recommended butter haters look to the Finger Lakes region in New York for “light, crisp, clean” wines – like Wagner Vinyards’ unoaked version ($12, available at Parker's Table). 

Both Main and Chateau Maplewood owner Brian Hobbs suggested South African bottles like Estate De Wetshof Limestone Hill ($18, available at Chateau Maplewood). “You’d almost think you’re drinking a more expensive Chablis,” Main said. 

He also called out the northern Italian Alois Lageder ($14, available at The Wine Merchant) as a unique bottle combining Italian winemaking creativity with a lively Germanic style reflective of the region’s close neighbors. 

photo by jonathan gayman

If you can’t fool your guests with a cabernet franc, look for cabernet sauvignons from Washington. Lehrer said they're a little more balanced and earthy than a classic Napa Valley bottle. 

“[They] have dark fruit and spice, but it’s not a massive fruit bomb that’s crushing your palate,” Hobbs said, recommending Jones of Washington ($18, available at Chateau Maplewood). 

For a little elegance, Main suggests Australian cabernet sauvignons, calling out Leeuwin Estate Prelude Vineyards ($23, available at The Wine Merchant) from the Margaret River region. 

“They don’t just rest on the fruitiness of the grape,” he said. “They have a minty, eucalyptus note and an earthiness that pairs well with food.”

If you got the uncle who will only drink cabs from California for the gift exchange this year, Zwicker said to go for a Star Lane Vineyard bottle ($45, available at The Wine and Cheese Place). 

“It’s a cool juxtaposition to a Napa cab,” he said. Better known for pinot noir, the Santa Barbara winery owned by St. Louis’ Dierberg family grows in a cooler climate than Napa. “To me, their wines have more of that Old World, leathery element – more acid, not big fruit.”

photo by jonathan gayman

What to Buy Your Cool Wine Friend

Whether it’s for a gift or a dinner party, trying to pick out a bottle for someone who’s into wine is terrifying. If you have a trendy drinker in your life, you probably already know they want a natural wine, but might get a little lost in the details. 

Along with organic or biodynamic growing methods and little intervention in processing, the natural wine trend is characterized by young, iconoclastic growers with wild branding and small-name varietals. These four bottles will please even the hippiest wino.   

1. Delinquente Wine Co. Tuff Nutt 
Pét-nats are the darling of the natural wine world. This naturally sparkling bottle is fresh and drinkable, made with a regional Italian grape (bianco d’alessano) surprisingly grown in an organic Australian vineyard. $20, available at The Wine and Cheese Place

2. Sablonnettes Menard le Rouge 
A plummy, earthy, unfiltered red made from hand-harvested grapes, this is a weird one. Lehrer described it as “intensely funky,” which would make it ideal for natural wine lovers who enjoy a challenge. $19, available at Parker's Table

3. 2Naturkinder Black Betty 
Lehrer described this red as funky, fruity, light and bright. It’s made in Bavaria from foot-crushed grapes and is named after the first lamb born and raised in its biodynamic vineyard. $48, available at Parker's Table

4. Yetti and the Kokonut Savagnin
Made by a couple friends also growing crazy varietals in Australia, this 100% savagnin comes with wild tropical fruit notes to match its pineapple color. $43, available at Parker's Table

The Good Stuff You Can Afford
No shade on cava and prosecco (where you can typically find more bang for your buck when it comes to quality), but it feels so good to gift someone a bottle from the French region for which all sparkling wines are nicknamed. 

Collet is a solid, real-deal Champagne for under $30. Lehrer said it’s light, soft, has mild toastiness and the tiny bubbles you want from Champagne. 

“It’s not over-the-top in any direction,” he said – not super yeasty or acidic – which makes it a great crowd-pleaser.  $30. Available at  Parker’s Table

Heather Hughes Huff is managing editor at Sauce Magazine.