How to Choose the Right Special-Occasion Wine, According to a Pro

Choosing a special-occasion wine can be a confounding experience. This advice from a top wine professional promises to make it a lot easier.

Wine pouring into a glass
Photo: Mark Swallow / Getty Images

We've all been there: Some special occasion or another — an anniversary, a graduation, a milestone birthday — calls for an equally important bottle, but actually choosing which one to open causes sleepless nights, anxiety-filled days, and relentless questioning whether or not you're adequately honoring the moment with the one you've chosen. At least, that's what most of us deal with. The lucky attendees at "The World's Best Special-Occasion Wine" presentation at the 2022 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, hosted by Mark Oldman, award-winning author and founder of Bevinars, likely won't face the same conundrum: They've been prepared.

Over the course of his decadent session, Oldman not only featured some of the premier wines in the world (2019 Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino, anyone?), but delved into the minutiae of what actually makes a wine worthy of being enjoyed on special occasions.

"The threshold factor is whether the wine is uncommonly delicious," he explained. "To find out, a panel of wine-loving friends and I blind-tasted and rated hundreds of potential choices a few months ago. We asked, 'Is the wine so good that you crave another sip? Is it complex, showing layers of intriguing scents and flavors? Is it balanced, with no one factor, such as acidity or oak, standing out too much or too little? Does it have persistence, or does it seem to evaporate too quickly off of your palate?'"

He continued: "But taste is only the starting point. A special-occasion wine must unequivocally transmit a sense of specialness to its recipient. Price, of course, is a time-honored signal, suggesting the wine's value in the marketplace and, whether we admit it or not, creating excitement among those who drink it (and later Google its price). For me, wines worthy of the most special occasions, like those featured in my Aspen seminars, need an additional dimension. It can be [one] or more of the following: Is it a top offering from a leading or even iconic producer? Is it rare, [for example] from an older vintage, tiny production run, or an area that is special but not obvious? Put it another way, [is] it rare enough to excite a jaded palate? Does its packaging captivate, [for example] it has a stunning label, unique glass, or a large format bottle."

All of these should be considered when trying to narrow down a special-occasion bottle. For Oldman's part, all of the wines he chose for his presentation in Aspen fit the bill perfectly. The 2012 Champagne Collet "Esprit Couture" Brut, he explained, is "Sourced from premier and grand cru grapes, [and] the Champagne is housed in an impossibly sexy, hand-blown Art Deco bottle, the kind of retro art object Leonardo DiCaprio's character would be holding in The Great Gatsby." The 2016 Henschke "Mount Edenstone" Shiraz Eden Valley, he told us before the 2022 Food & Wine Classic, "…finds one of the country's most revered producers sourcing grapes from a legendary vineyard in a remarkable vintage. The result is a powerful, velvety stunner that will send audience members off in a happy, hedonistic stupor."

Sometimes, of course, you have a lot of people who will be toasting the special occasion, and therefore need a lot of wine. In that case, a large-format bottling from a highly respected producer is often the show-stopper you're looking for. For that, Oldman highlighted the 2019 Martaella Estate Pinot Noir from Benovia. "What is better than a bottle of one of Sonoma's great single-vineyard Pinot Noirs?" he asked. "How about the equivalent of 24 bottles in one — an 18-liter or melchior (mel-cure), a bottle type so unusual that it took the winery weeks to track down one to fill. At my presentation it will be fitted with a tap so that a few lucky audience members can take tap hits."

In the end, it's just as important to keep an open mind when selecting a special-occasion wine as it is for any other bottle whose cork you'd like to pop. The wine world, after all, seems to be expanding all the time, and taking advantage of it all is crucial. "The diversity of special-occasion-worthy wines has indeed expanded as an ambitious new generation of winemakers and improved winemaking technology have revitalized forgotten grapes and revamped wine regions throughout the world," Oldman noted. "To be sure, the classics will always be a good idea, which is why I include blue-chip categories such as Champagne, fine Chardonnay, Brunello, and Australian Shiraz in my 'Special Occasion' seminars. But with the wine-drinking public increasingly craving new experiences, they are more and more open to spending for more adventurous wines such as white Hermitage," like the 2017 M. Chapoutier Hermitage Chante-Alouette Blanc that he featured in his presentation, "or even further afield, a fine red wine from Provence" like the 2019 Commanderie de Peyrassol "Le Clos Peyrassol" Red Côtes de Provence.

In other words, keep an open mind, drink broadly, and respect the classics but maintain a willingness to explore the entire world. You never know when you'll find the next perfect bottle to mark a special occasion.

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