Special occasions are just that…special. Popping up just a few times a year, they call for the best food, people, and definitely the finest drink. It is on these occasions that the Reserve bottles, the ones gathering dust on the top shelf, are brought out, ceremoniously opened, and passed between family and friends.
The month of December is particularly full of special occasions that require what I like to call “special occasion wine” – the ones that mandate careful thought before opening and when, how, and what particular accompanying dishes will share the spotlight with them. There’s no avoiding special occasion wines this year, and no matter what your level of wine expertise, the choices can be endless…and often overwhelming.
As an avid Italian wine enthusiast, I have many friends ask me for suggestions to fit this month’s needs: a holiday gathering at a friend’s house, a family dinner, a celebration of an engagement or birthday. This is my favorite time to share my love of Italian wine, a time when it is drank the way it should be drank – with friends, family, and stories.
Picking the Perfect Special Occasion Wine
I have to admit, however, that even I can get overwhelmed by the selection, and so I pick my wines based on inspiring experiences that I’ve recently had with the wine, during which the wines were introduced to me. This could be either by an especially savvy sommelier or beverage manager at my local Eataly (thanks for all your help, Jason!), a friend’s new suggestion, an actual visit to the winery (when in Italy, do as the Italians do and visit where your product is from), or a local wine event. And it is the latter of these that has recently inspired me to suggest a new set special occasion wines for a range of festivities and price points.
My colleague Beatrice Sartori and I recently attended a special occasion event at the Chicago restaurant Baffo. It was an intimate, star-studded dinner featuring some of my favorites – not to name drop, but Giulio Ferrari and Borgogno were there – and hosted by another pretty well known man himself, Joe Bastianich. This dinner, aptly named Grandi Vini Italiani, featured collector wines, some with very limited availability, that were mind-blowingly meaningful in their selection as well as astoundingly special.
The five bottles at this event were the epitome of special occasion wines and would fulfill any host’s dream, but not everyone can pull the same strings as Joe Bastianich and Eataly to procure the likes of a 1982 Borgogno Barolo. However, the night’s wines do have more easily obtained relatives that will light up any type of festivities. Below, we give you a special occasion wine list, the Grandi Vini way, inspired by our dinner at Baffo with Joe Bastianich.
Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore
This bottle is the most prestigious produced by the Trento Italian methode champenoise giant, Cantine Ferrari. Now produced by the Lunelli cousins, the Riserva del Fondatore is an homage to the founder of the winery, Giulio Ferrari, and his dream to make Champagne method wines with 100% Chardonnay. The wine is a gorgeous golden color, which suggests its 10-12 years aging on lees, the perlage is impressively fine, and the complex nose gives off hints of exotic fruits, citrus, and bread crusts. The wine itself is creamy and velvety with a refreshing acidity that can only come from the Trentino Dolomites.
We poured the 2001 at our dinner, which was named one of the Top 10 Italian wines of 2012 by Wine Spectator. This year is still available at select stores, but the 2002 is out everywhere and a very appropriate substitute for any special occasion.
This wine’s appearance at this dinner had less to do with the aging ability, bold flavors, and overall impressiveness of the others present. Vespa is an affordable, good table wine made by Joe Bastianich and his mother Lidia and not a wine that you’d have to drop a pretty penny to enjoy. This particular night we opened the 2007, however, which was being saved for a special occasion, as that was the year that the Bastianich’s had to throw away 40,000 .75L bottles and 10,000 magnums due to faulty corks. The only wines that survived this travesty were the 3L bottles (since they require a different sized cork), and what we were drinking was a very rare occurrence indeed.
The wine, whose name means “wasp” is full of body yet unpretentious, with a nose of wildflowers, honey, and pear. It drinks well with risotto, poultry, and shellfish, as well as mushroom. The 2007 vintage is exceptionally difficult to obtain, but the current vintage is ready to drink, a perfect price point for holiday parties, and available at wine stores across the nation (if you happen to live in a city with Eataly, one of Joe Bastiniach’s many American investments, look no farther than their wine store).
I have to admit, I was more excited for the 1982 Borgogno Barolo I had at that dinner than I was to meet Joe Bastianich. The 1982 year is considered to be one of the best in the last 40 years of Barolo, and the 25-year-old Borgogno holds an impressive historical significance as being the wine which the Risorgimento leader of Italy chose to celebrate the unification with. The 32 year Barolo was amazing, complex, and thought-provoking, full of roses and mushrooms and a bottle whose presence would make any occasion special. The possibility of obtaining a 1982 Borgogno for any of the upcoming special occasions is slim, however, and in order to create a similar wow factor without having to track one down, Borgogno’s current Barolo is available now. A more economical alternative is the cantina’s No Name, declassified wine in protest to bureaucracy in DOCG regulations.
This wine is super special for the fact that it is just so darn good. Probably the only wine that could follow a 30 year Barolo and still impress, this 70% Refosco blend from Friuli was rich, with mature fruit, chocolate, coffee, and spices. Unlike richer wines from hotter climates, however, it was not heavy. Bastianich claimed that Calabrone, which means “hornet,” was a dream of his. If that’s the case, Joe, keep on dreamin’.
We opened the 8-year-old 2006, but you can find up to 2011 Calabrone available at select wine stores in the United States.
Castello della Sala Muffato della Sala
Made on the Antinori property Castello della Sala, this sweet dessert wine is a blend of botrytis-affected Sauvignon Blanc, Grechetto, Traminer, and Reisling. Castello della Sala’s wines consistently come up when asking the Antinori sisters which they are most fond of, and anyone who is lucky enough to taste this wine understands why. Its intense floral bouquet and honey aromas are spell-binding and the wine is a perfect end to any holiday meal.
Muffato is only made when grapes are affected by the noble rot, botrytis. This wine in various years can be found on the shelves of specialty wine shops and online sites across the nation.
Did we miss any special occasion wines? Give us your favorites below!