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Wine Gifts: An Expert’s Best Advice

Every holiday season, my wife and daughter and I buy an 80-pound wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano to cut into large pieces for gifts. This year we are planning to add a bottle of wine for a few close friends. What do you recommend to accompany the cheese?

—Christopher Keiser, San Anselmo, CA

I wish I was on your gift list. Parmigiano-Reggiano, made from part-skim cow’s milk in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, is one of the world’s great cheeses, and it pairs nicely with a wide range of wines. That said, certain matches are ideal. In the same way that Stilton works so beautifully with port and Roquefort with Sauternes, Parmigiano- Reggiano matches exquisitely with Chianti Classico, a medium-weight red from Tuscany that’s typically lightly oaked with slightly tart, cherry-inflected fruit. Seek out impeccably made, widely available and reasonably priced 2004 Chianti Classicos, such as those from Querceto or Frescobaldi, which are both priced at less than $15, or the 2003 Geografico Chianti Classico ($14).

A good, though more obscure, choice would be a Morellino di Scansano from the up-and-coming province of Grosseto in Tuscany (Morellino is the local name for the San­­gio­vese grape). Morellino di Scansano tends to be fruitier than its Chianti cousins. Look for the 2003 or 2004 bottlings from Moris Farms ($16) or La Doga ($19). For a wine that’s actually made close to Parma, the region famed for producing Parmigiano-Reggiano, try a Gutturnio (made with Barbera and Bonarda grapes) from the Colli Piacentini appellation, such as the 2004 Castello di Luzzano Romeo ($16).

But my favorite wine pairing for Parmigiano-Reggiano would probably be a dry, frothy, zingy, slightly chilled Lambrusco Reggiano (which has nothing in common with the cheap, sweet Lambruscos of the 1970s). The cows that produce the milk that becomes the cheese actually graze quite close to the Lambrusco Reggiano vineyards. Medici Reggiano Lambrusco ($12) is my favorite.

People often say that a premium Champagne, like Dom Perignon or Cristal, is a perfect gift. But what makes these expensive Champagnes better than regular nonvintage cuvée Champagnes? What is "prestige" Champagne anyway, and is it really worth the extra money?

—Luke Scheuer, New York City

You’re right to ask whether a prestige Champagne is worth the extra cost—typically about quadruple the same producer’s basic nonvintage bottling or its cuvée. For example, Moët & Chandon’s "Brut Imperial NV" costs $35 a bottle, while the firm’s top-of-the-line bottling, Dom Perignon, costs around $140. In the case of top-of-the-line Champagne, there are some very solid reasons why you really do get what you pay for—most of the time.

For starters, the price of a prestige Champagne directly reflects the cost of the grapes. A great Champagne is a blend of the best grapes of the best vintages. The lesser grapes tend to end up in the basic bottling. Then there’s the cost of time. Champagne gains texture and complexity during the aging process as it rests on its lees (the spent yeast cells left over after fermentation is complete). The better the Champagne, the longer it ages. For example, the intense 1996 prestige Champagnes are only now making their debut in stores. Finally, there’s the cost of packaging. An elaborate package adds to the cost of a prestige Champagne—and there isn’t a prestige Champagne made that doesn’t come in some sort of impressively fancy package.

A few of my personal favorite prestige bottlings include Pol Roger’s powerful yet elegant Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill in either the 1995 or 1996 vintages (both cost around $160); the aristocratic Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé Brut ($200 for the 1995); and the sophisticated all-Chardonnay 1996 Salon Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil ($299), made entirely from grapes of a single grand cru village. (In Champagne the very best villages, rather than the vineyards, are rated "grand" and "premier" cru.) Finally, there’s Dom Perignon, the best-known prestige Champagne in the world, which somehow maintains an impeccable level of quality despite large production numbers. (The company will not release exact figures.) Look for the 1998 Dom Perignon ($140), which is drinking beautifully now.

Of course, there are some very good nonvintage Champagnes from producers who also turn out impressive prestige wines. For example, try Henriot’s lean, yet ripe Souverain Brut Nonvintage Champagne ($36) before sampling its prestige 1990 Cuvée des Enchanteleurs ($115). Or taste the rich Bollinger Special Cuvée Nonvintage Champagne ($36) before pouring its deep-flavored R.D. (late disgorged) 1995 bottling ($150). Just don’t go backward in the same evening by starting with a prestige Champagne, then moving to a nonvintage wine. Even a superb nonvintage wine isn’t as impressive once you’ve tasted the best—and that’s what a prestige bottle is meant to be.

Is it possible to buy older vintages of great wine to give as gifts—for instance, a wine from the birth year of my friend who’s turning 30? Where can I find older bottles, and how can I tell if they are actually still good?

—Jonathan Whitlock, Spartanburg, SC

First, you’ll need to do a bit of research. Start by checking vintage charts to find out if your friend’s birth year was also a good year for wine somewhere in the world. (You’ll find a good vintage chart on eRobertParker.com, the Web site of wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr.). One of the best places to start looking for an older wine is Bordeaux, as the wines tend to age well. Unfortunately, anyone turning 30 in 2007 is out of luck when it comes to Bordeaux because 1977 was a terrible vintage. On the other hand, it was a great year for vintage port. Producers such as Dow’s, Taylor’s, Graham, Warre’s and Sandeman all made superb 1977 vintage ports. They’re also reasonably priced—between $75 to $150 per bottle—and they’ll all drink beautifully for years to come. For the widest possible selection, try surfing the Web via Wine-Searcher (wine-searcher.com), which scans the stocks of more than 7,800 suppliers around the world by vintage year as well as by producer.

One of my favorite sources for memorable (albeit expensive) gift bottles is the Antique Wine Company (antique-wine.com), a London-based firm that maintains an extraordinary list of wines, some over a hundred years old. Gift bottles are placed in a handsome presentation case along with a vintage report for the year, an original copy of the London Times published on the day of the recipient’s birth and a custom-engraved plaque—which can be prepared with as little as two days’ notice. A gift package of Sandeman’s 1977 Port from Antique Wine Company costs $450 plus $150 for overnight shipping to the United States.

Since the fabulous 2000 Bordeaux vintage wines were released, I’ve been buying two cases of it every year for my son, who was born in 2000, with the idea of storing these bottles for at least 20 to 25 years. What is your recommendation for good Bordeaux to buy in the $30 to $45 price range?

—Gary Freilich, New York City

In deciding to lay down 2000 Bordeaux for two decades or longer, you’ve singled out dense, rich and generally tannic wines, the best of which will last decades. But be aware that this millennium vintage was expensive from the beginning, and it’s difficult to find wines in the comparatively modest price range you’ve specified. Worthy 2000 wines include Château Roc de Cambes, Château de Fieuzal, Château Fontenil, Château Rouget and Chateau Cantemerle.

But here’s an alternative idea: Rather than purchasing cases of modest Bordeaux, why not consider using the money to buy a couple of magnums (which is twice as big as a regular bottle) of a higher-quality Bordeaux? The size of a magnum helps the wine inside age more slowly. I’d suggest Château Talbot ($150 per magnum), Château Pape Clément ($290 per magnum) or Château Kirwan ($325 per double magnum).

Peter Hellman is a wine columnist for the New York Sun and a frequent contributor to F&W.

Published December 2006
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