Top 43 wines to buy now

Paul Giamou / Istock; illustration by Serge Bloch
Our competition drew submissions from the West as well as far-flung locales
Shopping for a wine-lover's gift? Here are some of our judges' favorite bottles from the Sunset International Wine Competition

GOLD MEDALISTS FOR $15 OR LESS

Consider this your best-buy list.

  • Bogle 2010 Petite Sirah (California; $11). Spot-on, with brassy blueberries and blackberries, spice, and substantial tannins.
  • Chalone 2010 Chardonnay (Monterey County; $13). This has it all: ideally ripe apple, citrus, and green melon; a streak of minerality; and a hint of caramel.
  • Fog Head 2010 Highland Series Reserve Chardonnay (Monterey; $15). Tropical fruit and a touch of lemon oil give this bright wine lots of personality with a crispy side.
  • Four Vines 2010 “Naked” Chardonnay (Santa Barbara County; $12). A basketful of fresh peaches, with a touch of butteriness and keen balance.
  • Hahn 2010 “GSM” Grenache 62%, Syrah 34%, Mourvèdre 4% (Central Coast; $14). Juicy cherry flavors, pepper and spice notes, and solid structure.
  • J. Lohr 2010 “South Ridge” Syrah (Paso Robles; $15). Supple and long; juicy boysenberries and cassis kissed by chocolate and vanilla.
  • Milbrandt 2011 “Traditions” Pinot Gris (Columbia Valley; $13). Pretty white-blossom nose with pear, stone fruit, and citrus.
  • Wente 2010 “Southern Hills” Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay; $15). Effusive cassis aromas, blackberry and blueberry flavors, and a velvety mouth-feel.

BEST BUBBLIES

Food-truck take-home is a fine excuse to pop open a sparkler any night of the week. Below are some of our top performers.

  • Berlucchi NV “’61” Brut (Franciacorta DOCG, Italy; $30). Excellent balance with crisp citrus and apple and a hint of baked biscuit.
  • Cleto Chiarli NV “Amabile” (Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC, Italy; $12). Dark red and fruity, with the slight tannins and sweetness Lambrusco fans love.
  • Freixenet NV “Elyssia” Gran Cuvée Brut (Cava DO, Spain; $20). Sophisticated, rich, and zingy, with yeasty aromas, peach, pear, ginger, and subtle toastiness.
  • Gloria Ferrer 2007 Méthode Champenoise Blanc de Blancs (Carneros; $28). Toast, brioche, apple, and citrus on an elegant frame, delivered with great verve.
  • Laetitia 2007 Méthode Champenoise Brut Rosé (Arroyo Grande Valley; $28). Delicate strawberry, cranberry, citrus, and pleasant yeastiness; focused and crisp.
  • Schramsberg 2004 Reserve (North Coast; $110). Heady brioche, toast, and light cocoa aromas; baked apple and cranberry flavors round out the mid-palate, with a brisk, effervescent finish.
  • Valdellovo NV Extra Dry “Anno Zero” (Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG, Italy; $16). Scents of white peach and melon lead to a full, creamy mouth-feel and a long, refreshing finish.

BEST CABS

They call Cabernet Sauvignon the “king of reds.” These earned the title with top-tier scores.

  • Amaro 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley; $30). A pleasing herbal, green olive, and graphite side joins rich cassis.
  • Black Stallion 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; $65). Graceful, fresh, and balanced, with gravelly minerals, blackberries, and understated oak notes.
  • Hollywood & Vine 2008 “2480” Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; $83). Savory smokiness and sweet vanilla frame well-ripened black cherry and currant; rich yet fresh.
  • Midsummer 2009 Tomasson Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; $44). An extracted, flashy wine, with deep color, toasty complexity, and freshness.
  • Pepper Bridge 2009 Estate Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (Walla Walla Valley; $60). Deep and luscious, with blueberries, black cherries, and lively acidity.
  • PerryMoore 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; $100). Lovely grip, with concentrated black fruit, crushed herbs, and spices.
  • Riboli Family 2009 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford; $52). Full-bodied and seamless, with ultra-concentrated black fruit and a palate-cleansing close.
  • Sterling 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; $26). Aromatic and darkly decadent with plum, boysenberry, mocha, and vanilla.

MOST OFFBEAT WINNERS

Love the unusual? Loathe drinking the same thing everyone else is? Here’s your beverage list.

  • James Arthur 2011 Edelweiss (Nebraska; $17). This white grape was developed to withstand cold winters. Here, it’s slightly spritzy and semisweet, with bright Granny Smith apple flavors and a clean, balanced finish.
  • William Chris 2011 John Dale Vineyards Blanc du Bois (Washington County, Texas; $28). Yes, Blanc du Bois is a grape, too, in this case with characteristic honeyed florals, tropical fruit, and mouth-filling texture.
  • Chiarito 2009 Fox Hill Vineyards Negroamaro (Mendocino; $32). Dried herbs and crispy-edged brownies spice up ripe dark fruit and dusty tannins.
  • Sea Mist NV Cranberry/Raspberry Wine (Oregon; $14). Beautiful definition of cranberry and raspberry fruit, with impressive richness and a smooth finish.
  • Peter Vella NV Sangria (American; $11). If you don’t have time to make your wine punch from scratch, this is the way to go.
  • Eaglemount NV Ginger Cider (Washington State; $14). Clean and long—ginger hits just the right note on the nose with the apple aromas.

PERFECT ZINS

All-American Zinfandel is great with a pungent, spicy, fruity turkey dinner.

  • Ancient Peaks 2010 Zinfandel (Paso Robles; $17). Cranberries and cherries are sprinkled with spices and brightened with acidity.
  • Fritz 2009 Estate Grown Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley; $25). Red cherries keep this one bright, but darker berries, licorice notes, and earth keep it interesting.
  • MacLeod Family 2010 Indian Springs Ranch Zinfandel (Sonoma Valley; $28). Textbook Zinfandel: wild raspberries and spicy black pepper in a mouth-filling style.
  • Meadowcroft 2009 Zinfandel (Sonoma County; $34). Rich, deep fruit, with good structure and balance and just a hint of toast.
  • Scott Harvey 2010 Mountain Selection Zinfandel (Amador County; $22). Well-ripened red fruit with a dash of briary spice and a firmly structured, racy finish.
  • Shenandoah 2010 Special Reserve Zinfandel (Amador County; $11). Great balance between fruit and acidity. Brambly berries touched with spice.
  • V. Sattui 2009 Black Sears Vineyard Zinfandel (Howell Mountain, Napa Valley; $42). Peppery, with exuberant red and black fruit and a long, spicy finish.
  • Zinfatuation 2010 Zinfandel (Amador County; $10). Shy aromas rebound with mouth-filling texture and firm structure.

GREAT GIFTS

Challenging people on your holiday gift list? We’ve got the perfect bottles for your...

  • Brother: Troublemaker by Austin Hope NV “Blend 3” (Paso Robles; $20). A classy response to all those years of his teasing.
  • Old college roommate who’s turned into a wine snob: Goldeneye 2009 Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley; $55). Hedge your bets with a variety that’s hot, but with a bottle that has the pedigree of an illustrious Napa winery (Duckhorn) behind it.
  • Pop culture–obsessed friend: Barrymore 2011 Pinot Grigio (Delle Venezie IGT; $20). With this winning Grigio, Drew Barrymore joins the legions of celebrities jumping into the wine biz.
  • New spouse: Fidélitas 2011 Semillon (Columbia Valley; $18). The name is the message: fidelity, loyalty, honor.
  • Recent college grad: Fetzer 2010 “Valley Oaks” Moscato (California; $8). Don’t waste big bucks on the bottle you tuck in this stocking—22-year-olds know the wine to drink now is the sweet white the likes of Drake and Gucci Mane have been rapping about.
  • Boss: Jordan 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley; $52). A role model of a California Cab.
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