Spin the Bottles

November 2019 View more

By Peter Gianopulos

Although we may all yearn for a holiday season filled with snow-swept walks, festive get-togethers, and some well-deserved free time, the reality can be quite different. Before you know it, Thanksgiving gives way to a gauntlet of open houses, holiday-themed gift exchanges, and New Year’s festivities. Fortunately, there’s a simple stress-busting cure-all for the season’s potential pitfalls: more wine. 

Find the right bottles—or better yet, the perfect case—and you have your gift list taken care off, plus some holiday “medicine” of your own to sip when the stress levels rise. Just ask John D’Alexander, a Court of Master–certified sommelier who oversees the wine program at Che Figata in Naperville. He’s been offering skilled wine recommendations for decades at a number of elite Chicago restaurants—fixtures including Les Nomades, Grace, and Everest.

“Wine can enhance a moment,” says D’Alexander. “You can certainly sit around a fire during the holidays and have a good time with your family. But if you have an amazing wine in your glass, it makes a memorable moment even more enjoyable.” To ensure your holidays are festive, D’Alexander has compiled his ultimate holiday mixed case of wine. 

Purchase Notes
Search online retail emporiums wine.com, findingwine.com, and winesearcher.com, along with larger liquor stores. One taste and you’ll realize it was worth every call and keystroke. 

2018 Klaus Peter Keller Riesling, $28
This bone-dry German Riesling—with undercurrents of fresh-picked peaches and sun-dried apricots—is the Swiss Army knife of D’Alexander’s repertoire. It pairs with just about anything, from turkey to lobster tails. Its producer, Klaus Peter Keller, also makes one of the world’s finest Rieslings: the exquisite 14-percent-by-volume G Max, which retails for $600 and up. That’s built like a linebacker—round and big-bodied—but this entry-level offering is leaner, yet just as versatile. Expect razor-sharp acidity, some limestone, and a boatload of compliments from anyone who tries it. 

2016 Domaine Louis Michel Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles, $60
A stunning grand cru Chablis for only $60 a bottle? Yes, holiday miracles are possible, thanks to the Michel family, who have been producing wines since the 19th century. They’ve bottled a dazzling counterargument to the California cliché that says all Chardonnays should taste like they’ve matured in an oaked butter churn. This grand cru Chablis, fermented in stainless steel, tastes the way the French terroir intended: vibrant, smooth, and clean. It’s the perfect acidic counterbalance to cheese courses, chicken, and fruit platters. Your in-laws—and wallet—will thank you in the morning. 

2016 Didier Dagueneau Blanc Fumé de Pouilly, $43
Here’s a deviously complex wine with a backstory that’s a can’t-miss conversation-starter. Years ago, Didier Dagueneau left the family’s iconic wine business to race motorcycles, fly planes, and go dog sledding. Before passing away from a plane crash, he returned home to infuse his daredevil spirit into his family’s wines. This single-vineyard beauty retains the classic grapefruit profile of a Sauvignon Blanc, then smothers it with more smoke than a barbecue pit. Think gunflint and citrus in a glass, an ideal companion for hams and smoked delicacies. 

2015 Paolo Bea Santa Chiara Umbria Bianco, $40–$60
Orange wines like this stunner from Umbria have been made for centuries by storing white gapes and their skins in clay pots, sealing them with honey, and burying them. The result is a 100 percent natural white wine—with a Halloween hue—that drinks like a red. You get big tannins, clove, and winter spice flavors, plus a full-bodied mouth feel—minus the sulfur and histamines that can lead to red wine headaches. Don’t tell Aunt Edna, but it’s also perfect for moisturizing unwanted fruitcakes. Just dip and serve. 

2018 Couly-Dutheil Chinon Renee Rosé, $14
There’s a complicated calculus to determining just how much wine to buy for the holidays. Buy too little and people start to whisper. Buy too much and the Christmas budget is kaput. Fortunately, this Loire Valley rosé is an evergreen choice, which can be sipped all year round. It’s made with Cab Franc, rare in rosés, which adds spicy bell pepper notes to a traditional strawberry-rose melody. Given the price tag, it’s a steal in any season. 

2015 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare, $16
If you think wine labels with cupcakes and dancing unicorns are fun, you’re in for a treat. In honoring the real-life 1936 declaration in Châteauneuf-du-Pape that outlawed UFOs from landing in local vineyards, winemaker Randall Grahm named this rosé “le cigare volant,” or “flying cigar,” the French sobriquet for flying saucers. Fortunately, this bottle is otherworldly in its own right, including its funny UFO label. This California surprise pairs flawlessly with soups, salads, and spicy sides, thanks to a floral—and extremely luscious—profile that’s as creamy as strawberry yogurt. 

2016 Montes Purple Angel, $61
Here’s a Chilean monster made with carménère grapes, which some critics have called “a wine from another planet” because it’s so powerful. Think spiced fruit, dirt, and bramble. Whenever someone tells D’Alexander they like big California cabs, he smiles, pulls this out and pours. “As soon as they take a sip, they say, ‘Now, that’s big and powerful!’ ” he says. “It’s one of those moments where you think you’ve been enjoying something, then you find something even better and you can’t help but ask, ‘Where has this been my whole life?’ ”

2015 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde de Guigal, $50
This is the ideal wine for those interested in delving deeper into the Syrahs of the Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhone Valley. This rich and complex bottle is deeply “animalistic,” full of tobacco notes and game meat. It’s ideal for a country Christmas celebration: venison, rich charcuterie, and a cabin-in-the-woods celebration. But it’s also impeccably smooth as it blends together grapes from two of the best vineyards in the Côte-Rôtie—the Brune and Blonde—for a rich experience like no other. 

2017 Merkin Vineyards Chupacabra, $24
Bargain-hunters take note: One of the trendiest wines of late is being produced—believe it or not—in the town of Jerome, Arizona. Named Chupacabra, after the mythological shapeshifting Mexican demon, the varietals used to produce this wine change every year. The vintage is a beauty: a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Molvedre that produces a luscious juicy fruit flavor and a light body that weds well with seafood and chicken. It’s served in wine bars across New York, in part because the winemaker, Maynard James Keenan, is the lead singer of the band Tool.  

2004 Yiannis Economou Sitia, $62
After years spent working in Chateaux Margaux with the legendary Italian winemaker Giacomo Conterno, Yiannis Ecaneumu took his wisdom back to his native Greece to much acclaim. He’s known for resting his wines for up to a decade before bringing them to market, often releasing them out of order. Perhaps the 2000, then the 2001, followed by the 1998. The result is one of the great, unheralded red wines to pair with desserts. Think raisins, prunes, and blackberry pie in a glass, which slices through sugary wintertime treats with true élan. 

2015 Glaetzer Amon-Ra Shiraz, $71
This is hands down, the most fail-proof gift wine on D’Alxander’s list. Why? This 100 percent Shiraz from Australia is made from ancient vines that are over 130 years old, which translates to a sparse number of grapes and über-concentrated flavors that taste like black cherry and dark plum. It’s not made to be popped open anytime soon. In fact, D’Alexander recommends storing a bottle for a few decades—just long enough for the giver to be invited back for a one-of-a-kind thank-you party.

2002 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay Blanc de Noirs Brut, $2,000
When D’Alexander was a sommelier at Les Nomades, a customer brought in a bottle of 1995 Clos D’ambonnay and encouraged him to take a sip. Suddenly, he was seeing stars. “It changed me forever,” says D’Alexander. Yeasty with tons of fruit, it’s exploding with so many flavors it’s like fireworks on the tongue. Although $120 Krug Grand Cuvees are available, the D’Ambonnay is something special. It’s been produced only five times, when conditions were ideal. If you’re planning to pop an important question this season, this is the Champagne for the moment.