The gathering around the Christmas table is a moment I cherish each year. It is an opportunity for me to rummage through the cellar for special bottles of wine I've been saving for the right occasion. Unlike many other collectors, I don't keep a running inventory of what's in the cellar. I often come across gems from long ago that I'd forgotten I had.
Sometimes it's a vintage port from the '60s, or maybe it's a Bordeaux from the '70s, though that wasn't an especially great decade for Bordeaux. California cabernet sauvignon from the '80s is showing very well these days, and Italian wines from the '90s, when the renaissance of Italian wine was in full swing, are at peak maturity.
After 40 years of collecting great and some not-so-great vintages, they're all there gathering dust, just waiting for the right moment. But that's my collection. Not everyone has the luxury of simply descending a few stairs to lay their hands on a mature red wine from an exceptional vintage long ago.
If that's your situation, I have a solution. If you can't go old in your wine selection for the Christmas table, think big. Go for greatness. Reach for that stunning bottle of wine that will fit the occasion even though it's young.
I'm often asked what my favorite wine is. There's no right answer to that question — too many amazing wines to pick just one. So what I say is this: If you were to put me on a raft and push me out to sea and say I could only have one wine to take with me, it would be something — anything — that had the name Gaja on the label. I say that because I know there is not a more meticulous winemaker in the world than Angelo Gaja, the genius of Italy's Barolo and Barbaresco regions. I know that if I tell you to pick up any bottle of Gaja, you will be impressed.
If there's one thing I've learned over 40 years as a wine collector and more than 25 years as a wine journalist, there are certain producers I can always count on. They make brilliant wines because they stick to their principles and refuse to accept anything less than perfection.
France has its own producers of that ilk. For example, you can trust the name Chapoutier. Michel Chapoutier makes impeccable wines in the northern Rhone Valley and the Languedoc. Jean-Luc Colombo, the famous winemaker of the Cornas region, is another whose wines never fail to impress.
The Champagne producer Bruno Paillard is another. Italy's two finest sparkling wine producers, Ca' del Bosco and Ferrari, would give just about any Champagne you could name a run for the money. And California is no slouch when it comes to bubbly. You would be hard-pressed to be disappointed in a bottle from Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Carneros or Roederer Estate.
California is also home to my go-to producers for cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and merlot. If a cabernet would suit your needs for the Christmas table, you can't miss with a bottle from Spottswoode, Nickel & Nickel, Far Niente or Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. The wines from these producers are brilliant, and they are brilliant every vintage. What's more, they are the wines collectors covet, so rest assured they will impress your dinner guests. My merlot go-to is Duckhorn for the very same reason.
Pinot Noir, which used to be a tough sell, is a hot commodity today. There is no shortage of exceptional pinot noir, but my old standbys for pure decadence and reliability are Merry Edwards and Dutton Goldfield. I will say the same for the Merry Edwards and Dutton Goldfield chardonnays.
Add to that exceptionally high bar Merry Edwards' sauvignon blanc and Dutton Goldfield's gewurztraminer — each the finest wine of its type made in America — and you get the idea that anything you purchase from either producer is going to be top-shelf. I might say the same of Spottswoode, whose sauvignon blanc rivals that of Merry Edwards. In the world of sauvignon blanc, those two are at the absolute top of the heap.
Of course there are other worthy producers and brands too numerous to mention. These are just a few of my personal favorites. My point is that you don't have to have an overflowing wine cellar to make your wine selection for Christmas dinner fit the occasion. Visit your favorite wine merchant, and make a beeline for the top names. Go for greatness. You will pay a little more, but it's Christmas. Have yourself a merry merry!