Richard Jennings' Wine Gift Guide

Top wine gifts as recommended by Richard Jennings


I’m a wine reviewer and geek who currently tastes and writes notes on over 7,000 wines per year. In scoring wines, I prize balance, minerality and lively acidity, along with complexity of aromas and flavors.

I love Burgundies, Champagne, German Rieslings, Northern Rhones, Italian wines, Jura wines, Spanish wines, Greek wines and even wine from my home state of California. Over the years, I’ve tasted enough in each region to find out for myself who the best producers are, and I can appreciate both traditional and modern styles when they’re done well. In other words, I seem to have the broadest palate of anyone I know.

When it comes to holiday gifting, I often do give wine as presents because I’m very familiar with what my friends like. And my friends know I will have tasted whatever I am giving them, so they can be guaranteed of getting a quality wine they will enjoy. Value is also important. Who doesn’t want to spend a little less on a gift that will taste like something that costs a lot more?

In selecting wines for my gift list, I’ve gone for the 10 categories of wines that will most appeal to the various types of palates out there. I’ve got Champagne for the sparkling lovers, a Cabernet and a Syrah for those who need their big reds, a 2010 Chablis for the Burgundy lovers, an Italian and a Pinot for my foodie friends, a nice Chardonnay for those who prefer whites, a Spanish wine for the more adventurous, a Rhone for the Rhone lovers, and a Port for those who like it sweet.

In each category, I’ve gone for a wine I’ve rated highly that also represents a good value, and that’s readily easy to find. I’d be happy to receive any of these myself as gifts, and I think that’s one of the most important criteria in gift giving—would I select this item for myself?

Wine image via Shutterstock


I list Champagne first because it is the most holiday oriented of wines and is enjoyed by almost all wine lovers. And for going to holiday parties, it always seems like the right gift—one that everyone can enjoy that very evening if the host so chooses.

I taste a lot of Champagnes, at least a few hundred a year, and regularly follow the major houses and top growers in both their non-vintage and vintage offerings. Year after year, I am struck by the consistency, excellent quality and relative value from the houses of Charles Heidsieck and Pol Roger. These are my two favorite houses at all price levels.

Since 1985, Charles Heidsieck has been owned by the Rémy-Cointreau Group, which also owns Krug. The house possesses 30 hectares in Ambonnay, Bouzy and Oger. Their regular Brut is generally good, and the Rosé Reserve is a very reliable rosé. The sweet spot, though, in terms of quality and value is the Brut Reserve, which can be found most places for under $45.

In the under $100 category, there’s a lot to choose from even though that’s a fraction of what many of the top vintage Champagnes from the greatest houses sell for, i.e., $300 and up. My pick this year is Pol Roger’s 2000 Extra Cuvée de Réserve Brut, which happens to be drinking very well now. This house was founded in 1849. They currently own 85 hectares of vineyards, which supply 45% of the needed fruit, and they purchase the rest from Pinot villages.

Under $50

NV Charles Heidsieck Champagne Brut Reserve - Light yellow color; yeasty, baked apple, tart pear nose; tasty, poised as always, baked apple, tart pear palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points

Under $100

2000 Pol Roger Champagne Extra Cuvée de Réserve Brut - Light lemon yellow color with abundant mousse; very leesy, yeasty, lemon rind, mineral nose; tasty, rich, yeasty, mineral, lemon rind, tart lemon palate; long finish 95 points

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet is an easy choice as a gift for business acquaintances and the like when you aren’t so familiar with their wine preferences. What’s hard is to avoid spending a huge amount for a wine that doesn’t taste like all that much.

An admirable producer whose Cabernets are at a consistently high level, and whose stated goal is to keep prices fair, is Silverado. Diane and Ron Miller purchased their first vineyards in the 1970s and initially sold their grapes to top Napa producers. They ultimately acquired six vineyards in Napa and started making their own wines in 1981. The family farms their nearly 400 acres organically.

The last few vintages have been particularly strong for them, featuring delicious black currant and blackberry fruit. The 2008 is the vintage that’s most widely available in the market now, for about $40.

At the under $100 level, I have to recommend Dunn. Dunn has been making complex, ageworthy Cabernets, primarily from Howell Mountain fruit, since 1979. They specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon and produce two bottlings—a Howell Mountain with 100% Howell Mountain fruit, and a Napa Valley, also based on Howell Mountain fruit but including up to 15% grapes from elsewhere in Napa. The Napa has traditionally been approachable at a younger age than the Howell Mountain. The amazing thing is that these wines, which have been consistently good for over 30 years, are still comparatively well priced at under $100 a bottle.

Under $50

2008 Silverado Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley - Very dark ruby color; ripe black currant, ripe berry, light caramel nose; tasty, ripe black currant, blackberry, ripe black fruit palate; medium-plus finish (84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc; 18 mos. in 93% French, 7% American oak; 14.6% alcohol) 93 points

Under $100

2008 Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley - Opaque red violet color; lovely, lifted, pencil lead, cassis, cedar nose; tight, tasty, tart cassis, cedar, cherry palate with good grip and sweet tannins; medium-plus finish (reminiscent of a ripe, fine Pauillac) 94 points

2010 Chablis

For those of us with Burgundy lovers on our list, the best values and quality levels this year can be found in the minerally, high acid and ageworthy Chardonnay-based wines of the Chablis region. 2010 was an exceptional vintage there, and I’ve tasted many great wines so far from 2010. These are wines that can be enjoyed now, or laid down for several years.

My picks for the best price/value options I’ve tried yet from this stellar vintage are from one very well known producer, Domaine William Fèvre, where the quality has been getting better and better in recent vintages, and from a much less well known producer, whose proprietor/winemaker happens to be the current head of the Chablis Winemakers Association, Domaine Séguinot-Bordet.

Domaine William Fèvre owns substantial parcels in some of the greatest vineyards, and regularly makes some of the finest Chablises, especially since the oak treatment has been dialed back following the sale of the domaine to Joseph Henriot in 1998. The wines are now made by Didier Séquier, who came from Bouchard.

The Séguinot-Bordet Chablis Vieilles Vignes is an astonishing value, at under $23. The Fèvre Les Clos, from Chablis’s greatest grand cru, will set you back about anywhere from $80 to $95, depending on where you find it.

Under $50

2010 Domaine Séguinot-Bordet Chablis Vieilles Vignes - Light yellow color; lively, tart apple, pear, tart lemon nose; tasty, crisp, precise, tart lemon, tart pear, mineral palate showing salinity and medium acidity; medium-plus finish (from vines averaging 65 years old) 92+ points

Under $100

2010 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos - Bright light yellow color; mineral, tart lemon, very fresh and sweet oyster jus, light lime nose; very tasty, lime, mineral, deep tart green fruit palate; needs 6-plus years; long finish 95 points


Continuing on with wines for our white wine loving friends, it’s hard to go wrong with one of the increasing numbers of great California Chardonnays available these days.

There’s a lot to choose from, though, so this is a tough category to distill down to two choices. Based on value, however, I’ve got to go with the Chanin Bien Nacido, which can be found for an average of $30, for my lower priced suggestion. At the higher priced level, I’ve got to go with deliciousness and track record by recommending the 2009 Mount Eden, a relative bargain at under $55.

Gavin Chanin started his eponymous label in 2007 at the age of 21. He learned winemaking working harvest for Hamilton Russell in South Africa, Bell Hill Vineyard and Carrick Winery in New Zealand, and starting as a cellar rat at Au Bon Climat and Qupe, wineries where he’s now assistant winemaker. He has sought out older vineyards with particular soil types in the Santa Barbara area, and picks his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir earlier than others there. He then ages in largely neutral barrels for about 14 months. The results are very impressive, not to mention a good value: complex wines with lots of flavor, minerality and vibrant acidity.

Mount Eden produces some of the most admirable, consistent and ageworthy expressions of terroir to be found anywhere in California. Their 2009 Chardonnay is the latest in a long line of exceptional Chardonnays from their cool climate, mountain-top Santa Cruz Mountains vineyard.

Under $50

2009 Chanin Chardonnay Bien Nacido Vineyard - Light yellow color; very nice, tart pear, baked pear nose; tasty, flavorful, tart pear, baked pear, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ points

Under $100

2009 Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Estate Bottled Santa Cruz Mountains - Light yellow color; lovely, floral, honeysuckle, ripe pear nose; tasty, poised, ripe pear, floral, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 94 points

Pinot Noir

Many of my friends love Pinot Noir, which is hard to beat for its versatility with food. I tasted over 800 Pinot Noirs this year, so I had plenty of choices in coming up with my two recommendations in this category. When I crunched the numbers, I discovered that one of the two best California Pinots for the money I’ve tasted in the past year came from the same producer as my top Chardonnay recommendation—Mount Eden. The other comes from a producer on the Sonoma Coast that has produced remarkably consistent, ageworthy Pinots for nearly a decade now, Fort Ross.

Under $50

2009 Fort Ross Pinot Noir Fort Ross Vineyard - Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; lovely, tart cherry, tart raspberry, roses nose; tasty, tart cherry, roses, black raspberry palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points

Under $100

2008 Mount Eden Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled - Light medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; roses, tart cherry, dried cherry nose; tasty, delicate, tart cherry, tart raspberry, roses, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 94+ points

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  • Did Richard Jennings ever live in Roswell New Mexico?

    Dec 06, 2012 at 1:51 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Jennings
    Hand of Snooth
    780161 126,347

    Hi John. No, I never had the pleasure of living in Roswell.

    Dec 06, 2012 at 1:58 PM

  • Snooth User: Russ Beebe
    1100415 1

    An outstanding lineup, Richard - most especially in the way you presented it as gifts you would enjoy receiving yourself. A very practical (and delicious) viewpoint!

    Dec 06, 2012 at 3:55 PM

  • Snooth User: PFBG
    454785 1

    The picture shows a Rosso not a Brunello. Altough you can have very good Rossos, they don't compare to the simplest Brunello. Don't you agree?

    Dec 06, 2012 at 5:55 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Jennings
    Hand of Snooth
    780161 126,347

    Russ, thank you for the kind words. I always try to select gifts for people that I would be happy to receive myself, and that philosophy has served me well.

    I totally agree that it would be the very rare Rosso that would hold a candle to most Brunellos, but there are also some lousy Brunellos out there, so we'd have to make rare exceptions. Good catch though.

    Dec 06, 2012 at 6:26 PM

  • Snooth User: zinfandel1
    Hand of Snooth
    154660 1,084

    I have always gave the RAMOS PINTO 20 yr. tawny for gifts. Is the Taylor Fladgate just as good?

    Dec 09, 2012 at 8:52 AM

  • How about a muscat?

    Dec 09, 2012 at 11:34 PM

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