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Let the glass be your gift wrap

November 21, 2007|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

PROCRASTINATORS, rejoice. Tomorrow's the big day, and more than a few of us will be making a mad dash to the wine shop at the eleventh hour (that is, ahem, today) to pick up something wonderful for the feast. We're probably the same ones who will be at the farmers market this morning or at the supermarket tonight. Yes, we know who we are.

So why not perform a clever flip in the wine shop and start your holiday shopping even before Black Friday gets a chance to darken your mood? That's because this season there are so many intriguing bottles in the higher-proof aisles -- the ones where you find the aperitifs and liqueurs. Just grab a bottle or five as you pick up the Thanksgiving cru Beaujolais, and you've got gift-giving practically wrapped up. Or at least off to a good start.

You may have noticed some of those less familiar bottles and wondered: What does a walnut liqueur from Austria taste like? Is that French orange liqueur any better than Grand Marnier? Or what's behind the mysterious-looking Italian vermouth with the 18th century pedigree?

We tasted through a couple of dozen intriguing selections, and we're sparing you the new absinthe-inspired liqueur from Provence (that almost knocked us off our feet with a single sip), the thick, super-sweet Alpine cream liqueur with the chunky texture and the stone-pine liqueur that tastes like you've just drunk the Christmas tree. Happily, we've turned up some pretty exciting stuff -- for every budget.

Take St-Germain, the new elderflower liqueur all the top mixologists are swooning over -- it comes in a gorgeous belle epoque bottle that seems made for perfume. What a fabulous $30 holiday gift! Or Cocchi Americano, a sophisticated Italian wine-based aperitivo you can pick up for $14. Need something special? We've tracked down the very special aged yellow Chartreuse certain sommeliers have been pouring as an after-dinner drink for their best customers.

The best part of all this? You can pretend to be turning a new leaf with the early shopping ruse. We know the truth: You're a sucker for a gorgeous bottle.

All bottles are 750 milliliters unless noted otherwise.

Famille Adrien Camut Pommeau du Domaine de Semainville aperitif normand. Normandy, France, is home of the irresistible eau de vie Calvados, which is distilled from apples. But there's also an aperitif made there that's not as well known here: pommeau. Made by mixing fresh apple juice into the Calvados (much like Pineau des Charentes in the Cognac region), it's terrific to sip chilled before dinner. Don't let the words "dessert wine" on this bottle from Normandy's Pays d'Auge district fool you; it's a golden-hazelnut-colored aperitif. It's not brilliantly clear, but vaguely cloudy, with lovely aromas of baked apple and honeysuckle. When you sip it, you get the flavor of the whole apple -- core and seeds and all -- delicious. The body's light and silky, and it's fresh and lively on the palate. Available at K&L Wine Merchants in Hollywood, (323) 464-9463,; Wally's Wine & Spirits in Los Angeles, (310) 475-0606, www.wallywine .com; and the Wine House in West Los Angeles, (310) 479-3731, www, about $39.

Carpano Antica Formula sweet red vermouth. This Italian sweet red vermouth, more dark-amber colored than red, is just catching on among cutting-edge mixologists (the bartenders at two trendy new bars in New York's East Village, Death & Co. and PDT, both use it), but it has been made since before the French Revolution. No doubt it makes a mean Manhattan, but it's superb to drink on its own as an aperitif, chilled or on the rocks, with an orange twist if you like. Wonderfully aromatic, it has a bouquet of soft leather and raisins, but not just any raisins; these would be the best ones you've ever smelled or tasted. On the palate, it's much more complex than sweet red Cinzano, tasting of wild herbs and a touch of licorice root. A bargain for the quality, and every bottle is numbered. Available at Fine Wine House in Upland, (877) 981-6555, www.fine; Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463 or (800) 331-3005,; Wally's Wine and Spirits; and Wine House, about $27 for a one-liter bottle.

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