It's early Saturday afternoon and Arthur's Wine Shop (located on the first floor of Belk SouthPark at 4400 Sharon Road) is already buzzing with swirling, slurping and spitting. One customer poses a wine-match question to owner Robert Balsley, who quickly snatches a bottle from a shelf, pulls out his waiter's corkscrew, twists the cork out and pours a generous sample. The customer smiles as he assesses the wine. Perfect.
Finding a wine store staffed with knowledgeable people is essential in guiding you to the right wine for your taste. This is especially true for the emerging wine drinker since, even at the lower price points, it can get expensive trying enough of the wines to find ones suited to your palate. Random advice about wine via social media is rarely helpful because individual tastes vary. "Wine is not cheap," Balsley notes, "so if you pick it out and it's bad, it's no fun. Sampling is the way to go."
So, where do you start if you need to buy some wines for the holidays? I asked some of the most respected wine guys around town for their take on the best deals and great sparklers to help celebrate the season.
Right now, the 2011 Seven Falls Winery "Wahluke Slope" cabernet sauvignon from Washington state at Arthur's is a steal. Balsley describes this wine as "big, bold with outstanding structure ... and a pleasant surprise for only $14.99 a bottle."
Tim Wallace, owner of The Wine Vault (9009 J. M. Keynes Drive), is bullish on Bula, a $16.99 Spanish red blend. He says this wine is "big, fruit-forward, with Bing cherry flavors, that goes down as easy as Lindsay Lohan — so, pretty easy. Acids, tannins and richness are all in check here and beautiful."
At The Wine Shop (2442 Park Road), manager Brian DuBois goes old school with his choice of the 2010 Chateau Les Barraillots Margaux, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc/petit verdot. At $29.99, he says this wine is a "spectacular deal from the excellent 2010 vintage in an elegant, well-balanced package."
In the ever-expanding wine universe, sparklers have found new fans. In 2012, sparkling wine shipments to the U.S. were at their highest levels since 1987, with moscato-based varieties driving the growth. Moscato is a popular lighter-styled Italian semi-sparkler. If, however, you are looking for more dazzle on New Year's Eve, our local experts offer other suggestions.
Balsley, for example, recommends going pink with California's Schramsberg "Mirabelle" Brut Rose NV (nonvintage). At $24.99, he says, "You will never find a rose bubbly of this quality at this price."
Want sexy? Wallace proposes the Austrian Hillinger "strawberry juice with a spritz" Secco Rose for $16.99: "We down this stuff for Christmas because it is so versatile. And if you leave a bottle in the fridge and the spark is gone, it's still a delicious rose on day two." For larger budgets, Wallace recommends Champagne Barnaut Grand Cru Blanc de Noir (100 percent pinot noir), grown on the foothills of Bouzy, for $50.99. "The intensity, structure, richness of the pinot is slightly orgasmic — at the least, your toes will curl. Rich, toasted macadamias and a strawberry glaze on top of a slightly buttered pastry." That's wine speak for yummy.
Conrad Hunter, owner of The Wine Shop at Foxcroft (7824 Fairview Road), says his bargain sparkler is the Domaine J. Laurens Les Graimenous Crèmant de Limoux Brut from Languedoc-Roussillon, France, for $19.99. But Hunter suggests if you want to go outside the sparkler box, try a wine from the Jura Valley, a cool-weather wine region located in France between Burgundy and Switzerland. Wines from Jura are super hot in the wine world for their unexpected flavors, but are considered "geeky" since they are made from obscure grapes. Hunter recommends either the Michel Gahier Arbois Trousseau 2012 for $36.99 or the Jacques Puffeney Arbois "Cuvee Sacha" NV, a blend of chardonnay and savagnin, for $33.99.
The Wine Shop's DuBois says his best deal for a sparkler is the 2010 Kila Cava for $7.99. This Spanish bubbly has "dry crisp green apple fruit with a slight hint of orange zest and toasty notes." This cava is great on its own, he adds, or as the base for bellinis or mimosas. "With its ridiculously good quality-to-price ratio, there is no need to delve into those cheap 'headache-in-a-bottle' domestic sparkling wines." On the upper end, he recommends Champagne Lilbert-Fils Blanc de Blancs Cramant Grand Cru Brut for $64.99: a "supremely elegant" blanc de blancs with "fantastic texture, almost creamy, with a long, bone dry finish."
And remember, sparklers are not strictly for celebrations. As Bette Davis says in Old Acquaintance (1943), "There comes a time in every woman's life when the only thing that helps is a glass of Champagne."