Spring is in the air, Passover is in progess, Easter is this weekend, and it is Dinner Week on The Kitchn. Are you planning a special get-together or dinner party? Wondering which wines to choose? Do you want to impress guests with your wine selections, yet stay well within budget? Read on for tips on what to look for. If like me you are always hosting some sort of dinner gathering from the most casual pizza get-together to multi-course meals that take lots of preparation, you are well aware that wine is one of the things that can completely blow your budget.
Often the temptation is to go to the local store or supermarket and pick up the most keenly priced big brand. While staying within budget, these wines are often a little dull. That is why I spend a lot of time scouring wine stores (both online and brick & mortar) seeking out the gems, which are way higher in quality than their modest price would suggest.
Look for unusual grapes, unusual places or unusual styles. Today there is so much choice for the wine consumer. One trend that I have noticed is the huge increase in wines made from unusual — almost forgotten indigenous varieties, as well as wines coming from unusual places — be it less well known areas of well-known wine countries, or countries that we are unfamiliar with when it comes to wine, such as Hungary, Slovenia, Greece, Georgia to name but a few. Even within the US look beyond California to states such as Oregon, Washington, New York, Virginia and Texas.
Sparking gems from Austria to the Jura, France
Personally I love to start any dinner off with a glass of bubbly. While I am a devoted Champagne fan, it is often too expensive, especially with large numbers of guests.
Cheaper alternatives like Prosecco or Cava are both excellent, but isn’t it wonderful to offer something different that your guests may not have tried before. This week I tried something different – a slightly sparkling Grüner Veltliner from Austria called Pünkt Genau. Just mildly sparkling it had a regular screw-cap closure (so no worries about having to finish the bottle – but it was so delicious, that we did).
Another great value sparkling style that is a firm favorite in our house is Crémant du Jura, from southeastern France. It is made using the traditional method just like Champagne and one of our favorite producers is Domaine de Montbourgeau. Crisp with fine creamy persistent bubbles, it never fails to impress and generate great conversation.
Whites from Greek Assyrtiko to Hungarian Furmint
I could list many exciting white wines but for simplicity I am limiting myself to two that consistently over deliver on the quality to price ratio. First up is a dry Furmint from the Tokaji region of Hungary. If Hungary features at all on our wine map it is probably for the great sweet Tokaji Aszú wines, or maybe you have sampled the legendary red ‘Bull’s Blood (Egri Bikaver)’.
While Furmint is the most important grape variety in making Tokaji Aszú, over the past few years producers have started to focus on making dry wines. For those unfamiliar with the variety, Furmint is a high acid variety, so deliciously crisp. It is not terrible aromatic instead showing more subtle aromas of orchard fruit, apple compote, hints of honey and spice. It is fairly broad on the palate with a creamy, waxy texture. In some ways it resembles Chenin Blanc from the Loire. The one I have chosen is from Chateau Pajos and, in my book, a real find!
My second white recommendation is an Assyrtiko blend from Greece. Any of you who follow me regularly know I am a huge fan of Assyrtiko (and all Greek wine). Assyrtiko has its roots in the beautiful island of Santorini and makes deliciously crisp, taut, minerally wines. It is now also grown in many other Greek wine regions such as the Pelopponese, and often blended with other native varieties such as this one ‘Kallisto’, which is a blend of Assyrtiko and Robolo (another indigenous variety from the island of Cephalonia). It is a delicious unoaked wine, with a great spicy kick. It is fruitier and slightly softer on the palate than its varietal counterpart from Santorini.
Reds from Lagrein in Alto Adige to Dornfelder on Long Island
As with the whites I could list plenty of delicious wines here. It was a difficult decision but finally I came down on an Elena Walch Lagrein from Alto Adige in northern Italy, and a Channing Daughters unusual red blend from Long Island that includes a little ‘Dornfelder’ as well as Merlot, Syrah, and Petit Verdot in the mix.
Lagrein is indigenous to Alto Adige. It makes for deeply colored wines that are packed with black fruit. For me, Lagrein is marked by an amazing purity of fruit, perhaps something to do with all that fresh alpine air where it grows. It also has great acidity, making it perfect for the dinner table and just enough tannin to provide grip without puckering the mouth.
I choose the Long Island blend for two reasons. Firstly because it contains Dornfelder, an unusual dark skinned grape of German origin, which is particularly suited to cooler climates. Secondly because it is from Long Island, which I often consider an unsung hero when it comes to winemaking states in the United States. This wine is juicy, bright and brimming with dark cherry-berry and plum fruits. Pepper and spicy notes add complexity.
Impressive Wines with Excellent Value
When selecting these wines, I gave myself a max of $20 per wine and in fact tried to come in way below where possible. For the six wines I averaged just under $15.50 per bottle. Not bad for such an impressive line up.
Below you will find the full details on the wines as well as pricing.
• NV Punct Genau Brut , Weinvertal, Austria – Mildly sparkling Grüner Veltliner, $16 (but I got it on sale for $13.59)
• NV Domaine de Montbourgeau, Crémant du Jura, France, $17.99
• 2008 Chateau Pajos (Pajos Angtaloczy) Dry Furmint, Tokaji, Hungary $10.99
• 2009 Kallisto, Regional Wine of Ilia (Pelopponese), Greece, $15.99
• 2009 Elena Walch Lagrein, Alto Adige, $16.99
• 2008 Channing Daughters Rosso Fresco, North Fork of Long Island, New York, $ 16.99
I would love to hear from readers on other unusual good value wines that impress your dinner guests.
Until next week enjoy!
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.
Images: Mary Gorman