Whether you're a wine enthusiast with a great palette and skinny wallet or a habitual connoisseur of Two-Buck Chuck, choosing the right wine for a special occasion can be tough.
This pressure increases exponentially with the onset of cocktail party season. You're expected to bring a bottle and have a sneaking suspicion that everyone else noticed that sale on Yellow Tail, too. To aid you in your quest for vino-supremacy, I've compiled a handy guide to party-ready bottles from Chicago's best independent wine shops. They come from all over the world, and not a single one costs over 15 bucks. All you have to do is take the credit.
Picada 15 Blend 2007 at In Fine Spirits
Not only does this bottle scream, "Hey, I know my wine," it also offers proof that you know where the hell Patagonia is. The kind folks at Andersonville's In Fine Spirits pulled out a map for me—but I was already sold at the 15-percent alcohol content. This all-purpose red doesn't slack on character; with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and malbec all making cameos in it, the profile is practically schizophrenic. A decanter does wonders for this Picada blend, which transitions subtle fruit flavors into a huge red that remains effortlessly drinkable.
Fairvalley Chenin Blanc 2007 at Kafka Wine Co.
Ideal for those who prefer cider to wine, Fairvalley's Chenin Blanc explodes with ripe pear flavors and has an almost-tropical finish. The fruity simplicity of this South African wine is likely because these precious grapes never touch oak. A product of the Fairvalley Workers Association, this golden tipple is promoting a progressive worker-owned environment and helping to build a fledgling South African community.
Massaya Classic Vin Rouge 2006 at Fine Wine Brokers
Here's a wine that can weather the most eclectic crowd. In fact, it's been doing just that since Biblical times. Dubbed "the bread basket of the empire" by the Romans, Lebanon's Bekaa Valley is a fertile nest of gorgeous grape varietals. Massaya Classic's mix of cinsault, cabernet sauvignon and syrah reflects this diversity, and the resulting blend pairs perfectly with any cuisine. Hearty berries mingle with distinctive floral tones, an odd perfume brought together with dashes of pepper and anisette. It's a great transitional red for people who prefer docile wines, but would like to venture onward.
Palmina Tocai Friulano 2006 at Lush Wine and Spirits
Tocai Friulano is a big hit in northeastern Italy, but criminally unpopular stateside. American palates would do well to think of this varietal as similar to a sauvignon blanc, but infinitely more kind to food pairings. The impossibly crisp, dry nectar offers a bold lemon taste, balanced nicely with bits of honey and spice. Grown in California's Santa Ynez Valley, this distinctive white is ideal for pairing with Italian antipasti. Oddly, Tocai Friulano also happens to be one of the few varietals that lends itself very well to asparagus. Yep—asparagus. If you're hosting, try wrapping blanched stalks in prosciutto and serving them alongside the Palmina. Your guests will think you're a genius. Literary bonus: Kerouac loved to drown his sorrows in cheap bottles of the Tocai varietal.