Our social media feeds and news channels are filling up with people getting vaccinated as of late. And while we may not be having rooftop or poolside ragers right off the bat, we will be gathering in groups — vaxxed and unmasked — sometime soon. And for wine lovers, it’ll be a great time to pop a splurgy bottle of wine. Usually, purchasing bottles that cost the price of a smartphone or a modest designer bag are reserved for special occasions, and are hopefully shared with an intimate group of like-minded besties.
Emerging from a national nightmare and breathing in front of people again sounds like a special occasion to this wine lover. The idea of popping off on random conversations while popping bottles and taking normal life for granted again is both exciting and sorely missed. And if you have the means, or want to throw down because our world is healing and you just need a special occasion, it’s time to splurge.
When you buy an expensive appliance, I’m sure you do a lot of research — reading tons of reviews and trying to find the right one that will last. Spending the same amount of money on a bottle of wine can require an entirely different galaxy of research, including vintage reports and reviews like mine that you may not want to read. You just want a baller bottle, and you want it to be good.
The good news is that bottles in higher price ranges are all good, mostly great, and often mind-blowing. These wines are built layer by layer with precision and almost unimaginable skill — reflecting a sense of place from the swath of earth that bore the fruit and the light the sun reserves for that location. So, since almost all pricey wines are good, the decision of which to spend on comes down to your personal preference.
Below are some wines that made me sit down and grab a fan and a drool cup. When it comes to this category of price and quality, yields are lower, less of the wine is available, and vintage variation is real. This means availability can be iffy.
I tried to spread the love and show you wines that are not all the first baller bottles that would pop into your mind. There is Burgundy and Champagne, of course, but also some varietals that may be unfamiliar. You are in good hands. These wines are a great starting point, and once you’ve had the best of a region, it’s fun to explore the more everyday styles and get a sense of what you like about wine from that part of the world.
This wine comes from one of the warmest regions in Sonoma County: Knights Valley AVA. This is a testament to how a good wine with a high alcohol content can age and evolve.This rich and earthy Merlot has settled into a comfy aroma of blueberry liqueur. The fruit core has reduced to a nice medium weight, allowing some savory wafts of pepper on the peripherals of your senses. The wine is ready now.
Northern Italian wine from the Dolomites is something that dreams are made of. Grapes grow at high altitudes — retaining their natural acidity and enjoying more sun hours than the vineyards below. The result is wines that have curved angles, arresting aromas, and meaty fruit cores. This blend of Bordeaux varieties will command your attention until the bottle is empty. Aromas of cooking herbs like tarragon and oregano dance in unison with smells of cherry liquor. The tannins are folded into the body of the wine, giving it depth and complexity. You’ll need a special kind of generosity to share this wine.
In Burgundy, the Chardonnay-based white wines stand out from their counterparts. They have a crisp, lean focus to them, not leaning too heavily into oak. The use of wood in the area is sparse, and when it is used, there is a reason. This extremely focused and succulent wine does just that. It sees a little bit of oak just to bring the depth from the center of the wine a bit. Lightly toasted country bread with a plume of flinty smoke wafts up into your senses with a hint of buttered popcorn. The structure is defined, yet weakens in pockets to reveal the amazing fruit depth. This Chardonnay will never leave your memory banks.
Real talk: This wine blows my mind. Smelling this wine, I lose time. I never want to stop breathing it in. This is what the mighty Syrah is like in its purest, most expressive form. Some think (including myself) that this is the grape’s apogee of character. In the hamlet of Hermitage in France’s Northern Rhone comes wines like this one. Smoked bacon sits in the center of this wine, as tarragon and oregano aromas filter your senses. As it opens, these culminate into herbed raw meat with a savory fruit core that rests on your palate like crushed velvet. The aromas and mouthfeel of this wine makes it the standard from which you’ll judge every other Syrah you come across.
If the zombies are at the gate, and I have just enough time to run down to my baller-ass cellar (that I don’t really have) and grab a bottle of wine to use as a cudgel and sip when safe, it’s a Barolo. Some of the most age-worthy wines in the world come from the Langhe hills in southern Piedmont made from the Nebbiolo grape. This gem comes from a single vineyard called Monprivato, owned solely by the Mascarello family. It expresses power and complexity wrapped up in elegance. The smells are reminiscent of leather shops, forest walks, and savory cherry tarts dusted with cinnamon. The natural acidity holds up the depth of the wine as your senses take in the fruit and the tannin structure melts around the edges.
Grown on the massive plateau in the western region of Castilla y Leon, Spain, this wine is made from 70-year-old vines of Garnacha. It’s always nice to splurge on old-vine wine, especially when it’s from a vineyard (called Tamboril) that is less than three acres. Dark chocolate and cherry liqueur drift into your face, along with subtle smells of Mediterranean herbs. The tannins are just beginning to soften — gradually breaking the structure of the wine down into a delicious, chewy fruit. This is rustic elegance.
Grower Champagne is a term flying all over the wine world. It just means that vineyard owners and growers who would usually sell their fruit to larger Champagne houses opt to make their own wine exclusively from their own fruit. It makes for some interesting examples that stand apart from the norm. This is one of them, and it’s stunning. You’ll be welcomed by smells of strawberries and cream. As the bubbles settle into calm DNA strands, sliced pear pops up on the nose. The palate is angular, with mineral edges cutting through the fruit and then fattening up a bit as the wine comes to room temperature. Whether on its own or with caviar and potato chips, this is a different kind of Champers.
Clos de Vougeot is one of the most famous vineyards in the wine world. It was developed by monks in the Burgundy region called Côtes de Nuits, and has been maintained ever since. These days, it consists of 100 different parcels of Pinot Noir owned by around 80 different producers — some of whom own only one row. This is the height of small production, quality wine. I figure if you’re going to splurge on a Burgundy, why not make it a history lesson as well? This bottle comes from one of those 100 parcels. And wow, is it unique. Aromas of jerk sauce and even the char of grilled meat fold into the smells of aged balsamic and cherries. The mouthfeel defines delicate with plentiful natural acidity — lifting the core of fruit and carefully into playful elegance.
Yeah, you read that right. A magnum. Schramsberg is America’s sparkling fine wine. These bubbles from one of Napa Valley’s most historic wineries have graced White House wine cellars of presidents from Nixon to Obama. There’s no better way to celebrate the return of normalcy than with two bottles’ worth of an amazing American Sparkler (still working on making this term a thing, DMs are always open). Pop that big ol’ bottle and breathe in the dizzying effervescence of orange peel and a dose of ginger. Revel in the layers of sliced pears, lightly toasted pastry, and a squeeze of peach. It’s balanced, harmonious, and, dammit, you’re worth it.