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It's that time of year again: time to stock up and then empty out the wine rack in just a matter of days, playing Santa to the Bacchanalians between hostess gifts and holiday entertaining.
So, we thought that, in the spirit of celebration, everyone could use a boisterous personal shopper to help navigate the bargain wine racks and bin ends at their local liquor store or Trader Joe's. We've armed you with exactly a case worth of our favorite wines and vineyards, choosing varietals that were new and trendy and also some tried-and-true favorites (gathered in just under a decade of waiting tables in fine dining establishments—the best way to make one writing paycheck meet the next!)
The hardest part about selecting a wine for a hostess gift, or to bring to somebody else's holiday meal, is figuring out what to pair with an unknown menu. To skirt that issue, we picked wines with both drinkability (greasing the wheels of conversation with relatives and colleagues seen infrequently throughout the year) and the ability to be paired with a wide range of traditional family meals, from rump roast to feasts of the seven fishes and all the myriad side dishes in between.
Here are Shoestring's top picks for the 12 best-value wines under $12 this holiday season, covering the grape spectrum: three red wines; three white wines; three bubblies; one rose; one port; and one dessert wine.
From all of us here at Shoestring, Salute!
Rex-Goliath Cabernet Sauvignon, $7
A recent find at Trader Joe's, Rex-Goliath wines have flavors and body that belie their price tag. According to winemaker Michael Kafka and the hilarious website for "Rex the 47 pound rooster" and his wines, "No one wants to believe us when we tell them that they can have this wine for under $10...We can also confirm that this is the ultimate hamburger wine." So, whether you come from a family of wine snobs or wine scoffers, bring this bottle to holiday dinner and everyone will eat their words. Available at Wine.com.
2004 Peachy Canyon "Incredible Red" Zinfandel, $12
This is a steak-and-potatoes staple in our house, a bold yet smooth 100% zinfandel from Paso Robles that can handle the weight of a steak au poivre yet isn't chewy or spicy like a cabernet. It has a berry and black currant flavor that pairs well with comfort food and a relaxing by a crackling fire (or, if you're an urban dweller like us, that free HD version from On Demand). This is a huge crowd pleaser that delivers on every dollar. Now available at Trader Joe's.
2004 Lan Rioja, $13.25
Tempranillos, as introduced to me by a friend at Food & Wine magazine, were trendy a few years back, and I've later found that they're good for holiday meals—good for roasts, heavier meats, and sides—making this tempranillo blend the perfect choice for a traditional feast (even at a few dollars over budget). Jen Adams of Palate to Pen, also Shoestring's food and wine editor, recently held a rioja tasting panel and the Lan scored fan favorite honors for both food pairing and solo drinking, with intriguing vanilla and red berry flavors. Available at Wine.com.
2007 Bodega Lurton Torrontes, $8
For years, I had been grabbing this bottle (then at two for $12) from my corner wine shop as a staple for cooking, entertaining, or just generally chilling in front of the TV after particularly grueling days. Now, after Travel Pants returned from a year of living abroad in South America, I know it to be the blissful product of two French brothers who emigrated from Bordeaux to Mendoza and made a beautifully low-cost wine from Argentina's premier grape. It's also one of the best wines out there for pairing with cured meats and cheeses, and my all-time favorite appetizer: mission figs stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in prosciutto and drizzled with honey. Also try the Bodega Lurton Pinot Gris, available at MorrellWine.com.
2006 Shooting Star Aligote, $11
Normally, one would recommend a New Zealand sauvignon blanc for the crisp and citrusy white wine pick, but this year we'd love for you to try an unusual standout from Washington wine country instead. I fell in love this winery when working, during graduate school, at a local seafood restaurant opened by a childhood friend of my editor. Shooting Star, an "offshoot" of Steele Winery and the brainchild of winemaker Jed Steele, and its aligote are my hands-down favorite wine pick for any Mediterranean family enjoying the feast of the seven fishes, or any family whose holiday traditions involve fish or salty meats. If you're ordering from their website, splurge on a bottle of the Steele Pinot Noir Carneros ($20), another personal favorite. Go to SteeleWines.com for more information and to find a retailer near you.
2007 Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc - Viognier, $12.50
If your family indulges in the traditional Yuletide delights of fresh-shucked oysters and roasted duck (or similar seafood and spicy poultry dishes), then this is the wine for you. This blend is fragrant and fruit-forward but crisp, also making it perfect for drinking solo or with handfuls of goat or bleu cheese from the buffet while you're stuck talking to Great Aunt Mildred again this year. Available at Wine.com.
Cristalino Brut Cava NV, $8
Easily the best sparkling wine around for the money, Cristalino's cava is both dry and full of flavor. Spanish cavas are generally not very sweet, making them the best champagne alternative (over California sparklers or Italian proseccos), and the Cristalino scores off the popularity charts in online wine tasting communities and traditional rankings, like those from Wine Spectator. Stock up now by the case and you'll be all set for New Year's Eve! (Plus, at this price, you won't mind adding orange juice for that morning-after mimosa brunch.) Available at Wine.com.
Freixenet Sparkling Cordon Negro Brut, $10.50
Freixenet has been around a long time, and as such, has become to cava what Korbel is to sparkling wine: a staple for any bargainista. Regularly touted by USA Today and Wine & Spirits as the best sparkling wine for your money (and a huge hit with caterers everywhere), this is a crowd-pleasing bubbly that's slightly sweet and slightly dry and everything mellow in the middle. Also check out our third favorite cava, the Segura Viudas for $11, also produced by Freixenet. Available at Wine.com.
Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Blanc, $8
Made primarily from Chardonnay, this sparking wine from Washington state's Columbia River Valley is preferable for the celebrant who wants flavor—specifically, the toasty or oaky flavor typically found in both chardonnay and true French Champagne. Winemaker Rick Casquiero has long made this popular and affordable bubbly in the French champagne method, garnering praise from critics and the masses and winning a place on our list. Abundantly available nationwide. Use the store locator tool on DomaineSteMichelle.com to find stores near you.
2007 Zaza Garnacha Rose, $11
Jen Adams of Palate to Pen also held a rose tasting panel earlier this year, and, of all the dry roses, this one scored off the charts with testers. The consensus was that it was spritzy and fresh, smooth and tart, with notes of black cherry and citrus. While rose is typically a spring and summer wine, enjoy it this holiday season with a risotto of seasonal vegetables, like mushrooms and leeks, or hand a glass to the vegetarian at your family feast (who's probably hogging all the sides, anyway). Available at Kybecca.com.
Fonseca Porto Tawny, from $10
After the guests have gone home or the family is lounging fireside on Christmas Eve, while the kids shriek and run amok to find and open that "one gift" from the stocking hung with care, there is nothing quite like the adult treat of a tawny port nightcap. With ports, and especially with tawny ports, the more aged the better, but of the junior varieties we've always found the Fonseca to be the best bang for your buck. The ripe, red berry and toasted almond flavors pretty much capture the holidays in a glass, making this port perfect alone or paired with a multitude of creamy or chocolate pies, cakes, and cookies. Available at WineRX.com.
2006 Quady Electra Orange Muscat, $12.75
One of my favorite scents and flavors of the holiday season is orange, evoking childhood memories of homes filled with pomanders and mulled cider. This soft, sweet, low-alcohol dessert wine from California's Quady Winery fits the nostalgia bill perfectly, with its orange, peach, and melon flavors that complement fresh fruits or salads with a bit of spice—like an after-dinner salad of mixed greens with strawberries, blue cheese, spicy pecans and champagne vinaigrette, or a blackberry panna cotta. If you're more of a chocoholic, try the Elysium for a few dollars more, at $14. Available at QuadyWinery.com.
Story: Copyright 2008, Shoestring LLC. Photo: Shutterstock.com