Let’s be honest. Who doesn’t go for that extra glass or two of wine as the holidays kick into high gear and the parties start piling up? Wine, after all, is an irresistible lubricant; it helps us ease into the holiday spirit and celebrate (or tolerate) the season. But we all know there can be too much of a good thing (sometimes way too much). So with that in mind as you plan a holiday party, it’s worth remembering that not all wines are created equal, which may seem obvious – except when it comes to alcohol in wine.
In fact, alcohol levels vary widely. Pay attention to them–they’re often in tiny type on the label–and look for wines that are on the lower to moderate side of the alcohol spectrum. This will make holiday drinking for you and your guests all the more enjoyable. While some equate big fruit and high alcohol with quality (think 15 percent California Cabernets and Chardonnays), these are definitely not party wines.
Far better to go with wines in the 12- 14 percent range, which won’t leave you feeling like you’re fighting with the wine after a glass or so. For me, whether for parties or for everyday drinking with meals, this is the alcoholic sweet spot. Very simply, these moderate-alcohol wines are more refreshing, better with a variety of foods and (maybe this is the best part) will increase your chances of feeling good the next day at work.
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They are almost always the wines I look for. The world is full of interesting wines in this range, as you’ll discover from the six whites and six reds I’ve given you below. Some of these are from well off the beaten wine path, and most are quite affordable at $20 or under.
$17. Alcohol 13%. There are many dimensions here, which emerge as the wine warms up a bit in the glass, releasing peach and apple notes accented by white flowers and gunflint.
$18. Alcohol 12.5%. From the highest elevation in Rueda, where the under-appreciated verdejo grape is king. When I visited this fall, commercial director Diego Martinez told me the goal is to produce authentic wines with character and soul. The ’14 is complex and refined with pear and citrus, touches of cinnamon and white pepper and a long, creamy finish from aging on the lees for five months.
$14. Alcohol 11.5%. An excellent, fresh quaffing wine bursting with grapefruit and green apple notes and made from organic grapes.
$20. Alcohol 12%. Young and fresh with gorgeous fruit, including white peach, orange peel and touches of honey, pineapple and white flowers. A blend of 70 percent Albariño with the rest Loureiro and Caiño Blanco.
$24. Alcohol 12.8%. Pear, pink grapefruit, lime and cut flowers combine in this refreshing and round Sauvignon.
$15. Alcohol 12%. This unusual white variety, native to Georgia, was introduced to the U.S. by the pioneering Dr. Frank winery. The wine is light in character but loaded with complexity. Tastes of white peach and strawberry are accented by hints of green olive and coriander and a little honey on the finish.
$20. Alcohol 13.8%. Always a top California value, the ’13 vintage is no exception. Drinks like a more expensive Cab, with a blackberry-blueberry core, a touch of dark chocolate, a decent tannic structure and good balancing acidity.
$22. Alcohol 13%. This one will make you think of Beaujolais beyond the frivolous Beajuolais Nouveau released soon after harvest each fall. Made from very old organically grown Gamay grapes and fermented with indigenous yeasts, A great example of what Beaujolais can become, with lovely blue and red fruit, a balsamic note and an earthy undertone.
$15. Alcohol 14%. Takes a certain personality to call your $15 wine “The Art of Living.” But when I visited the winery and met Javier Ajenjo, a founding partner and Neo’s resident rock star (he also plays guitar in a band and runs a recording studio at the winery), it all made sense. Using innovative, tannin-taming fermentation techniques, Neo is all about creating wines that can be enjoyed young. This crowd pleaser made from the region’s signature tempranillo grape has concentrated dark-berry fruit and a touch of spice from a few months in oak.
$20. Alcohol 14%. A more traditional Ribera that’s delicious in a fresh, fruit-forward style, with raspberry and cherry notes, a subtle oak layer from just a year of barrel aging and bright, underlying acidity.
$17. Alcohol 13%. A great example of this unique northern Italian variety showing concentrated black and red fruits, touches of cinnamon and black licorice and a steely minerality.
$14. Alcohol 13%. This earthy Chianti Classico has nice real depth for the price, with red plum and blueberry notes and touches of balsamic and graphite. (Criterion Collection is a line of private-label wines sold in Whole Foods.)