Few things bewilder the uncultured masses more than picking a decent bottle of wine. Admit it, you chose your last four bottles because you liked the label, or because it’s the same vintage you’ve already guzzled down 75,000 milliliters of, or because it cost three bucks, and it rhymes with “stuck” (as in a rut).
But the splurgiest of all splurgy holidays is nigh—New Year’s—and you would be embarrassed to arrive at that fancy dinner party toting a bottle of André or Ernest and Julio Gallo. You want the good stuff, and you want to sound like a sommelier when describing it to your hopelessly pedestrian company. You want a wine with a good back story, so you can impress that hottie in the LBD standing awkwardly beneath the mistletoe.
We’re here to help, now that we've consulted with a few folks who can talk about wine without talking out of their rears.
The catch-it-while-you-can white. That’d be Dr. Loosen Riesling Blue Slate Kabinett, $22 and it can supposedly be found at Costco, says Mike Veseth, editor of the Wine Economist blog and author of more than a dozen books on the stuff. That particular riesling, named for the “most typical type of slate” in Germany’s Middle Mosel, comes from vineyards grown on “incredibly” steep slopes, Dr. Loosen promises, and the resulting drainage results in “zippy, mineral-drenched wines that are fruity, crisp, and refreshing to drink.”
Climate change is making this varietal harder to grow, at least with the same result, Veseth tells The Daily Beast. Warmer temps are maturing Loosen’s grapes so quickly that they are beginning to fill with alcohol before the fruit is really ripe and tasty.
“On the back label, [Loosen] says ‘I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to make this wine,’” Veseth says.
The catch-it-while-you-can red: It’s Le Vieux Donjon Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2010 from France’s Rhone region. That particular year saw unusually even growing days and unusually cool nights and an unusually long growing season, leading to “perfectly balanced” wines, says wine merchant Steve Baker, owner of the Authentica Wines shop in Eugene, Ore.
“It was an odd thing in a very warm area to have those things come together,” Baker said. And such conditions may not converge again.
The “change is good” pinot. Climate change isn’t all bad news for all wine regions, of course. Some parts of the world are reaping the benefits of warmer temperatures, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley is a prime example. That’s why Robert Brittan moved there in 2004 from California, which once could call itself the “holy grail of cool-climate pinot noir,” Baker says. While California’s Napa Valley is known for its cabernet (we’ll get to that!), “pinot takes a defter hand,” Brittan tells The Daily Beast, and “everybody wants to test themselves.”
Brittan passed the test, Baker says, with his 2009 Basalt Block Pinot Noir, so named for the distinct basalt soils of his 127-acre vineyard in McMinville.
“There are black fruits, mineral components, things you wouldn’t expect in a pinot,” Baker says.
Old-school-vine-wine. Most cabernet varietals come from grapes grown on vines that are 10 years old or less, says Avram Dietsch, international marketing and operations manager at Delicato Family Vineyards in Napa. That’s because cab vines just don’t hold up for that long. But the “head-trained” (as opposed to snaked into a wire trellis) vines in Lodi, Calif., are anywhere from 40 to 100 years old. The root stock can grow to 8 inches in diameter, twisting and turning into the soil. Those head-trained vines are free-flowing, and they allow fruit to fall to the ground as it naturally would, meaning what’s still on the vine gets just the right amount of energy.
The result: wines like the 2011 Gnarly Head Zinfandel, which Dietsch recommends partly because his company controls 60 percent of Lodi’s head-trained vines but also because in cold temperatures, zinfandel is a good option, “rich, yummy, and versatile with food.” And at $10 a bottle, it’s a nicely affordable option.
Champagne for cool people. Champagne, as even the most ill-informed winos tend to know, is named for the region in France where champagne grapes grow, but that region is finding itself increasingly warm, Veseth says, threatening to break its stronghold on the fizzy stuff.
Poised to fill the void: English sparkling wine. “People say English sparkling wine is the champagne of the future,” Veseth says. “And there are studies that suggest that the marketing costs of champagne are higher than the actual production costs. It’s famous for being famous, in a way.”
Up until a year or so ago, English sparkling wine was very hard to find in the U.S. (nobody imported it). Now there’s at least one place that carries at least one variety, Ridgeview Cavenish, and it’s wicked reasonably priced at $29.95 a bottle.
Champagne for the 99 percent. Ninety percent of champagne exported from the region is produced by owners of just 10 percent of the vineyards, Baker says, because “all the big grand marcs, they buy all this massive amount of juice in tanker trucks from all over Champagne and make these vast quantities. Where are they getting it? From small growers who grow the grapes, sell it in bulk.”
But in the last few years, thanks to a renewed emphasis among wine drinkers on “terroir,” loosely translated to “a sense of place,” more and more growers in the region have decided to buck the big manufacturers and make their own “grower champagne,” 2,000 to 10,000 cases at a time and preserving the regional character of the varietal. A good example is the 2006 Guy Charlemagne Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru, which comes from a “Grand Cru” village (that’s the best kind) in the Cote du Blanc region of southern France. It’s “Blanc de Blanc—all chardonnay,” Baker says, “and the significant thing about this wine is the fact that it’s not only damn good but its neighbors are Salon and Krug, which start at about $200 a bottle. This guy sells his wine for about $55.”
A climate-change taste test. Fifty years ago, the difference between a cabernet from Napa and a red from Bordeaux was stark, reflecting the cooler temps in the latter region. But in recent years, those climates have found themselves with much more in common, so the wines from those regions have become harder to distinguish, Veseth says. So pick up a Napa cabernet, maybe the 2009 Antica Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and also a 1982 Greysac, Médoc strap on a blindfold, and see if you can figure out which is which.
We hope this helps, in more ways that one. Thomas Jefferson is often misquoted as saying "By making this wine vine known to the public, I have rendered my country as great a service as if I had enabled it to pay back the national debt,” when really it was some other dude you never heard of who said something that kind of sounded like that. But since we’re in no shape to be paying down the country’s national debt at this point, this list will have to suffice.