The $12 (or less) wines of Christmas: reds and whites for holiday fun

How much something costs isn’t always a good indicator of its quality — and that rule is especially true when it comes to wine. Whether you’re looking to complement a holiday dinner with a bold red or a sweet white or you want to have a bottle ready for friendly gift exchanges, there are plenty of wines available in local stores this season that won’t break the bank and are also so tasty, you’ll be glad you had the extra pocket money to spend on more bottles.

I’ve rounded up 12 wines, all priced at $12 or less at local stores, that pair well with the holiday spirit and any feasting you’ll want to do this month.

Louis Latour Duet is a good wine to start this list, if only because it’s become popular this winter. When I talked to a couple of wine experts in town, both had this wine on their lists of top holiday picks for similar reasons: a round, fruity softness and aromatics off the charts. A white chardonnay-viognier French blend, it’s a nontraditional wine, local sommelier Daniel Kelada said, “that does a wonderful job of highlighting the qualities of two equally expressive grapes without one overpowering the other.”

Another solid white is the Pizzolato Pinot Grigio, notable for being made with all organic grapes. It’s distinctive of the style in Italy, Whole Foods’ Seth Stewart said, because you’ll pick up less citrus notes in this one than in others. But underripe pear and hard peach are evident both in the nose and the flavor.

Globerati Sauvignon Blanc and Simmonet Febre Saint Bris are also white wine standouts. Stewart recommends the bright, fresh Chilean sauvignon blanc as a palate cleanser that also would go well with starter courses such as clam chowder or shrimp cocktail. The crisp Saint Bris, Kelada noted, is “the white oddity of Burgundy” — “a traditional French sauvignon blanc from a not-so-known sauvignon blanc region. … If you like salt, this wine is for you.” Its average price range in stores might fall a little higher than $12, but the extra buck or two is well worth the bang you’ll get from it.

Kelada also makes a sparkling wine a personal tradition of his during the holidays. Cleto Chiarli Vecchia Modena, a Lambrusco Sorbara varietal (a red Italian grape), isn’t quite like other sparkling wines he’s tried. It combines a frothy, velvety texture and tart strawberry flavors to make a very food-friendly beverage, “the perfect accompaniment to hard aged cheeses, cured meats and even honey glazed hams,” he said.

And how about red wines? These are essential to any winter feast.

Pinot noir varietals are often go-to grapes for washing down a holiday turkey dinner, and Trader Joe’s offers two of these wines at the right price point, both from private labels: Vintjs Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon is a juicy, medium-bodied ode to the dark grape, with a nose of stone fruit and spearmint; Liberte Pinot Noir (with a fierce tattooed lady on the label) is more fruit-forward, while still carrying some of the offbeat funk a good pinot noir can have.

My current red grape of choice is malbec, and Stewart pointed out the Bodegas Belgrano Malbec, full of woodsy hints of smoke and stewed blueberry notes, is a solid example of the Argentine grape. Pair it with other meats besides turkey, such as roasted duck or ham, or even spaghetti with meatballs.

He also showed off the Leyenda del Castillo Rioja, his favorite red this holiday season. Although Texas has become known for tempranillos, the Spanish have long heralded the grape as a national treasure, and it’s celebrated in this rioja with a big fruit finish. Although it’ll overwhelm a turkey course, Stewart said it’s a bold match for sirloin steaks or pork chops.

If you want some Texas terroir represented, go with McPherson Cellars Les Copains Rouge. “A Texas charmer,” Kelada said, “this red blend is savory and pleasantly fruity at the same time.” Many Texas wines are often more expensive than this $12 limit, but I found a bottle of McPherson’s rosé in the Les Copains series — nuanced with delicate berry and herbal notes — for $11.67 at Spec’s.

Two final red wines you might want on your table include a Portuguese wine, featuring toasted dark berries and a rich depth of flavor, called Herdade Do Esporao Monte Velho. It’s a gateway wine “for cabernet drinkers who want to venture out to other grapes,” Kelada said.

Whatever else you chose, end your evening with the velvety, hearty Charles & Charles Merlot, the epitome of a Washington State merlot, Stewart said, with a full-bodied blend of black and blue berries in the finish.

“It’s that proverbial cognac by the fire after a big holiday dinner,” he said.

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