Preference in wine can speak volumes about a person’s taste across the board. Do you love grilling red meat over an open flame, followed by a robust pull from a cigar? Is your yearning for pristine beach weather and briney oysters a year-round obsession? These hankerings call for different wine pairings — which alone comprise a culinary school forged over centuries of meticulous study.
This holiday season, you should consider giving wine as a gift, but only if you’re serious about doing the legwork. It’s easy to give someone wine under the guise of thoughtfulness, but grabbing any old of two buck Chuck off the shelf might actually smack of a cheap and easy present. If you want to give someone the right wine, here’s some things you should consider before heading to your local bottle shop.
Know the recipient’s taste in food
In order to find the right bottle, you’re going to have to know the recipient of this gift pretty well. Wine pairings are a broad church. This quest is best complimented when the wine recipient is a bonafide foodie. You don’t need to be a sommelier to know some of the basics: lighter meat and fish are typically paired with white wines, while bolder reds pair nicely with darker meats.
Food & Wine conveys some of the general knowledge surrounding seafood and wine pairings:
Silky whites — like Chardonnays from California, Chile, or Australia — are delicious with fish like salmon or any kind of seafood in a rich sauce.
And red meat pairings:
California Cabernet, Bordeaux, and Bordeaux-style blends are terrific with steaks and dishes like lamb chops with frizzled herbs. The firm tannins in these wines refresh the palate after each bite.
If you’re not sure what your prospective recipient’s taste is, you can ask a few subtle questions to reveal it. Try inquiring about what they’re making for dinner that week, or if they have any restaurants they love to frequent. Knowing this person’s general food taste will be enough to lead you on the path to a wine they’ll probably start regularly buying on their own.
Get a sense of where this person likes to travel
Wine-producing regions are scattered far and wide across the globe, and there’s a good chance this person’s wine taste will gel with their penchant for experiencing certain cultures. The recipient doesn’t need to be an experienced world traveller, but if they happen to be a raging Francophile, or romanticize the rolling hills of Tuscany, they’ll probably appreciate something from France or Italy.
If you’re not quite sure where this person has had their passport stamped, maybe ask where they’d eventually like to visit. If they’ve always wanted to visit South America, maybe an Argentine Malbec or a savoury Chilean Pinot Noire is in order. Understanding what their bucket list travel destinations are might help you better understand which region of the world to pluck your bottle from.
Consider weird, funky wines
Feel free to get weird, if you think the recipient will appreciate it. Not all wines adhere to centuries of tradition, and if unconventional taste is a point of pride to this friend or family member, definitely consider branching out with an orange wine or a Pétillant Naturel (Pét-Nat for short).
Orange wines aren’t made from oranges, but by a more patient, novel adaptation of making traditional white wine. As Wine Enthusiast explains:
Orange wines, also known as skin-contact wines and amber wines, are made from white grapes. They possess both the flavours of white varieties with the texture and tannins common to red wine. It’s the result after the grape skins are allowed to ferment with the pressed juice.
Pét-Nats also creep into unconventional territory and might earn you some aficionado points. They’re crisp and fizzy and rooted deep in the méthode ancestral tradition of wine-making. As VinePair explains:
The wine is bottled prior to fully completing its first fermentation, allowing carbon dioxide to be produced by the natural sugars found in the grapes. The méthode ancestrale was originally used in Limoux in the south of France in the early 16th century by winemaking monks.
If there’s a rich history behind the wine you’ve picked up, your friend has all the more reason to pop the bottle with major gusto.
How much should you spend?
This all depends on how much the recipient appreciates the gesture of going the extra mile to find a great bottle, and how much they enjoy wine generally. But if you’re buying it for someone who’ll really adore your efforts, apportion a budget worthy of any traditional holiday gift. That said, you don’t have the break the bank.
The right amount to spend on a bottle for someone is the amount you were going to spend on a tech gadget, kitchen tool, gift card or anything else you were thinking of giving that person. It’s relatively straightforward to find a rare or well-aged bottle at a specialty wine shop: Just call ahead and chat with your local merchant about the amount you’d like to spend. But keep in mind that a $50 bottle can deliver just as much enjoyment as a $200 bottle, while conveying the thought that you appreciate the recipient’s excellent taste just as well.
When in doubt, go for a versatile wine
Luckily, if you’re in a crunch for time, the guessing game can be thwarted by choosing a wine that pairs well with basically anything. According to the wine website Decanter, some generally versatile wines are Riesling, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Barbera, and Chenin Blanc.
For a general rule, you might want to avoid something overly acidic if you’re not trying to be particularly bold or daring with your gift. As Sunny Hodge, owner of the London wine bar Diogenes the Dog explained to Decanter: “Good all-rounder wines are expected to be inoffensive, so avoid extremely high acidity whites, big tannic reds, and [anything] too dry or too sweet.”
Chat up the local wine merchant
You are now equipped with an arsenal of knowledge to take with you to the wine store. Whoever is standing behind the counter should be able to help you expand this know-how and maybe even help you dig further beneath the surface en route to a fantastic score. Your local wine peddler is there to help guide you to the right price point, and perhaps to point you toward an exciting new orange wine or Pét-Nat. You could come prepared with a script, but everything you’ve already learned should more than equip you to walk in there like a seasoned pro.