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Wine Picks: Best Wines for 6 Situations

Certain wines are ripe for specific occasions. That sparkling wine you toted back from Sonoma might be a perfect choice for New Year's Eve — but not at a family barbecue where you are the only one toting around a Riedel goblet. Want to impress your boss — or your date? If you're the least bit unsure of your own taste (or hers), you may want a bottle with a critic's stamp of approval.

Here are our solutions to six common wine-buying dilemmas.

Housewarming Gift

Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad
  • Origin: Penedès,Spain
  • Price: $20-$23

When presenting someone with the gift of wine, the last thing you want to appear is cheap. And it’s definitely going to look like you spent more than $20 on this Spanish cava, whose pewter base features an intricate grapevine design (and a metal crest of the Segura Viudas family). But looks aside, this is a quality Brut that’s 67% Macabeo grapes and 33% Parellada grapes. This mellow wine also expresses lots of fruit, with a long finish and lots of complexity. Who wouldn’t want to open a chilled, crisp bubbly to celebrate a new home?

Barbecue Bottle

2009 Colores del Sol Malbec
  • Origin: Mendoza, Argentina
  • Price: $10-$12
  • Finding a great wine for a cookout is no easy task. You want something that can stand up to your meat’s smoky, grilled flavor, and hold its own with any sweet or spicy sauce. But in hot summer weather, you don’t want a wine that’s particularly heavy or concentrated. Malbec, the current “it grape” from Argentina, is the best choice. This bottle is an inky purple in the glass; its blackberry notes go well with the sauces slathered on ribs or chicken breasts. There’s a touch of sweetness on the palate, preceded by blueberries on the nose and a light smokiness. Soft, rounded tannins on the finish linger without overpowering. Another bonus: Given this bottle’s low price, you can pick up a few to share.

Critics’ Pick

2007 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay
  • Origin: Napa Valley, California
  • Price: $45-$50

Taste is inherently subjective — so if you’re trying to impress someone with your connoisseurship, try a wine with a pedigree. With this chardonnay, from the winery whose 1973 vintage won against Burgundy chardonnays in the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting — the subject of the 2008 film “Bottle Shock” — you get a consistently good wine. And don’t take our word for it: Ratings include 91 points from Wine Spectator, and 90 points both from Wine Advocate, and Robert Parker. Expect a very approachable, mineral palate tinged with herbs, flowers and fruit (peach, pear and apple). The nose is gorgeous and luxurious, with aromas of peach blossom.

Dessert Wine

2008 Conundrum White Table Wine
  • Origin: California
  • Price: $19-$26

Because of its honeyed green apples and peaches (plus tropical fruits), and its nose of lavender and honeysuckle blossom, this wine pairs nicely with most summer desserts — from slices of peach pie to cheesecake or cr me brulee. The finish is laced with minerals. Each year Conundrum releases this wine under a new vintage: The 2008 vintage features Sauvignon Blanc grapes from the Napa Valley, Muscat Canelli from California’s Central Valley (Tulare County), and chardonnay and Viognier grapes from Monterey County’s famed Mer Soleil vineyard. The composition changes each year, and the proportion of grapes used is never completely revealed — hence the name “Conundrum.”

Best Value

2008 La Vieille Ferme Red Wine, Rhône Valley Vineyards
  • Origin: Côtes du Ventoux, France
  • Price: $8-$14

Some 90 percent of wines sold in the U.S. cost under $20 — but plenty are no bargain. Meanwhile, French wines are often out of the value range, costing double what you might pay for comparable bottles from Argentina or Chile. Rh ne Valley Vineyards, however, breaks the mold with a few bottles that are magnifique — like its La Vieille Ferme (in French that means “old farm”) Red Wine. This wine combines Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault grapes to produce a mouthfeel that’s full, rounded and soft — but after tart cherry notes, there is a slight bite of milk chocolate on the finish. Jam-packed with red-fruit flavors (like strawberry and cherry) as well as spice notes, this wine is a definite crowd-pleaser as well as an excellent food-pairing wine.

Eco-Conscious Option

2009 CalNaturale Chardonnay
  • Origin: Mendocino, California
  • Price: $14 (for a 1-liter package)

Worried about the carbon impact of shipping heavy bottles to your local wine shop? CalNaturale packages its wines in tubular, lightweight Tetra Pak containers, reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with transport and delivery. Its chardonnay, made from organically grown grapes, has a floral nose, traces of minerals, notes of ripe apples and pears, and a lemon-y bite on the finish. If you need a quality wine to drink at a picnic or after a long hike, throw this baby in the cooler on a bed of ice, let it chill and then slowly sip.

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