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Wines to Give
by Eunice Fried

Ever since Eve gave Adam that apple, choosing the perfect gift has been a time of indecision. How simple our choice would be if one gift fit all. But a gift that pleased every taste would lack tang. The perfect gift, on the other hand, is a reflection of the person who gives it. It is original, imaginative, unexpected. And if the recipient happens to be a wine lover, the task becomes an easy pleasure.

Certainly, there is a wide range of excellent Bordeaux, Burgundies and Champagnes. Good choices, great gifts and always appreciated. But if you are looking for the undiscovered, the uncommon, the new, the old or the rare, I recommend the following.

Graham's Vintage Port 1977 ($150), 1980 ($95):
Graham's, which was founded in 1820, is one of the leading producers of high quality Ports. Its Vintage Port in particular is known to be rich, powerful, well-structured and full-bodied with generous fruit flavors that leap forward. Vintage Port is this fortified wine's greatest expression, declared only in exceptional harvests and only after it has been aged in oak barrel for two years. This happens rarely more than three times a decade, which is why Vintage Port accounts for only two percent of all Port production. Taken out of cask and bottled at the young age of two, Vintage Port usually needs another 10 to 20 years or more in glass to develop its full potential, thus these vintages, 1977 and 1980, approaching maturity, would be especially welcome gifts. And what to expect from a well-aged Vintage Port after so many years in bottle? A smooth, polished gem with intricate facets of depth and flavor and balance, a beauty to behold, a glory to drink.

Dow's 20 Year Old Tawny Port ($47.50):
One of the greatest of non-vintage Ports is well-aged Tawny, and one of the best—if not the best—of all aged Tawnies is Dow's 20 Year Old. An elegant wood-aged fortified wine matured in oak casks, it is slightly drier than most aged Ports and thus, infinitely versatile. As its name implies, it is golden tawny in color, and it has a fine-scented, complex aroma that evokes citrus fruits and especially tangerines and a hint of roasted nuts, a taste that is rich and deep with a concentration of multi-layered flavors and a texture that is liquid satin. And particularly nice is that it is ready to enjoy when you give it.

Almaviva 1998 ($85):
The offspring of a joint venture between Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux and Vina Concha y Toro of Chile, Almaviva is an upper class red Chilean wine that speaks with a French accent. The 1998 vintage is a well structured, deep shaded wine with intense fruit, a hint of cinnamon in the aroma and a full and textured body, and it is brimming with luscious flavors. Composed chiefly of Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Camenère and Cabernet Franc and aged in French oak barrels, it is made from Chilean-grown grapes and by the combined efforts of both the Chilean and the French winemakers of the two partners. There is still a small supply of the elegant 1997 and even a few rare bottles of the silky 1996, Almaviva's first vintage.

The Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Gris 1998, Oregon ($17):
David Lett of The Eyrie Vineyard in Oregon was the first person to bottle Pinot Gris in the New World, in 1971. Until then, Pinot Gris was produced only in Germany and Austria as Ruländer and in Italy as Pinot Grigio, with the finest rendition of the grape coming from Alsace. Lett took Alsace as his standard of excellence which is evident, particularly in his 1998. A year that yielded a small crop of superb quality, it shows itself to be a worthy descendent of its Alsace relative. The wine, a blend of organically grown grapes from Lett's four vineyards, emphasizes varietal character and has fruit flavors that are like a bowl of apples, pears and figs flavored with a lick of spice. It is a complex wine, medium-full in body, well-balanced and although it has not been aged in wood, it has an aroma that hints of vanilla, a flavor usually drawn from oak.

Simunye Sauvignon Blanc 1999, South Africa ($17):
From Zelphi Wines come this extraordinary South African Sauvignon Blanc made by Zelma Long, who was one of the first women to become the winemaker of a prominent winery in California and is now considered one of the world's outstanding winemakers. As she and her husband, viticulturist Philip Freese, wait for the vines in their new South African vineyard to mature, they have purchased grapes and crafted, with Michael Back of Backsberg Estate, a Sauvignon Blanc that epitomizes how well this Southern Hemisphere country does with the grape. Simunuye (pronounced see-MOON-yay) is Zulu for We Are One, symbolizing the new South Africa and the three partners. And in a way, it also describes this wine—well-knit, finely balanced, all of a piece. With its pale straw color and fruit aromas that mingle pear and melon and citrus, it is a clean, refreshing, silky-textured delight.

Wölffer Estate Cuvée Sparkling Wine Brut 1996 ($29):
This sparkler is made from the traditional grapes of Champagne (86 percent Chardonnay, 14 percent Pinot Noir) and by the traditional Champagne method. And its taste, with persistent bubbles, a cleansing acidity, the interplay of flavors that bring to mind vanilla and toast and a mingle of fruits are reminiscent of Champagne. But it is made at Sagpond Vineyards in the Hamptons on Long Island, New York State. Its German-born owner, Christian Wölffer, has built a modern American winery with a distinctive European character that is clearly reflected in this sophisticated sparkling wine. It can be purchased at the estate (631-537-5106), in New York State and Florida and nationwide via wineshopper.com.

Blandy's 15-Year Old Malmsey Madeira ($46.50):
Madeira has been called "the immortal wine" for good reason. It is singular in its taste, in the way it is aged and in its ability to live longer than most—if not all—of the world's wines. It is also rarer than other fortified wines (Port and Sherry). Madeira comes in four classic styles of which Malmsey is the sweetest, richest, fullest-bodied and most mellow. Blandy's 15 year old bottling displays all these qualities plus a honeyed, lightly nutty character. It is not only the ultimate dessert wine, it can readily be dessert in itself.

Vintage Madeira, which is relatively rare, is made only in the best years and solely from one grape variety grown in that year. If you can find a true Vintage Madeira (a reputable wine merchant can special order one), look for Blandy's Malmsey 1954 ($240) which will be even sweeter and fuller than the very rich 15 year old version; or Leacock's Bual 1966 ($160), an elegant, sweet, complex, medium rich dessert wine. Vintage Madeira should not be confused with vintage-dated solera Madeira. The date on the bottle of the latter refers only to the year the solera was begun; it has since been refreshed many times over the decades with young wines so that there is hardly a thimble of original wine in the bottle.

Joseph DeLissio — "The River Café Wine Primer," 2000, Little Brown and Company ($25.95):
No matter how much or little wine knowledge one has, there will be pleasure and joy in reading this book written in clear, direct, often humorous language without pretense, without wine snobbery and with a world of good sense and good advice. The very knowledgeable Mr. DeLissio has been wine director of the River Café in New York City for 20 years and has won numerous awards for his wine lists. Here, he has created a non-intimidating primer that covers not only the wine regions of the world, grape varietals, winemaking and other basics but also includes invaluable information on tasting, evaluating and buying wine, on the restaurant wine list, on winemaking, wine laws, wine auctions and dozens of other useful pointers. It is a wine course that reads like an intelligent conversation with a good and knowing and perceptive friend.

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