Holiday Central

Wines under $20 to impress your holiday party guests

Lisa Thornberg | E+ | Getty Images

Sure, we'd all like to host the party that serves Château Lafite and 1941 Inglenook cabernet, but for most people entertaining these days is done on a budget.

While holiday parties are stronger than ever, you're more likely to find value wine being poured there than you were five years ago. But just because the bottle doesn't command a $100 price tag doesn't mean it has to be swill.

We spoke with a few of Food and Wine magazine's top sommeliers of 2013 to get their thoughts on the best way to impress your oenophile friends without breaking the bank. The only restriction: The bottles couldn't cost more than $20.

Here's what they came up with:

Red wines

Mouton Noir "O.P.P." Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2011 ($18): Oregon Pinot Noirs are hard to top. And Matthew Kaner, general manager and wine director at wine bar Covell in Los Angeles, says the winemaker at Mouton Noir is a hero in the wine world.

"André Hueston Mack ... left the sommelier game for the world of wine production, crafting wines in Oregon while living all the way in Brooklyn," Kaner said. "O.P.P. means something different now than it did in the '90s ... Other People's Pinot. Get you some."

Skouras St. George 2008
Source: Skouras

Domaine Skouras St. George Nemea, 2011 ($13): Hosting a large group that enjoys red wine? Laura Maniec, master sommelier and co-founder of Corkbuzz Wine Studio in New York, said this Greek offering could be a very pleasant surprise.

"George Skouras is one of the best winemakers in Greece, and this is the perfect red for large groups," she said. "It has some of the same fruit as pinot noir but is fuller bodied with soft tannins and also has some elements that remind me of cabernet sauvignon."

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Marcel Lapierre "Raisins Gaulois," 2012 ($15): While this wine is typically used at Thanksgiving, Justin Vann, owner of the consulting company PSA Wines (which helps Houston-area restaurants build up their selections), says it carries well throughout the holiday season, thanks in no small part to its pedigree.

"This is declassified (excess production) gamay from the house of the late Beaujolais cru master Marcel Lapierre," Vann said. "While their pricier wines are built for the long haul, this entry-level offering is meant for immediate, repeated consumption. ... Serve it with a slight chill for tart, red-fruit accented quencher that will get you through being interrogated by in-laws."

White wines

Lenz Moser Gru?ner Veltliner Krems
Source: Lenz Moser

Lenz Moser Grüner Veltliner Krems, Austria, 2012 ($10): This white isn't just one of the cheaper selections on our list but one of the biggest—coming in a one-liter bottle. That means more to enjoy, and Kaner says you're certain to do so.

"This wine is imported by the same people who bring us Stiegl Austrian Lager, a mainstay at my bar in Los Angeles," he said. "It came up in conversation with the brand ambassador, we cracked a bottle, and it's been in our fridge since. [It has a] clean, zesty, rindy quality ... (and is) fruity without being cloying."

(Read more: Eight tips to stick to your holiday budget)

Peter Lauer Barrel X Riesling, 2012 ($17): Rieslings are sometimes lumped in with sweet wines, but "fruit-forward" wines—those where the fruitiness jumps out with the first sip—don't have to be cavity-inducing. And the right one can cut through the fare on your holiday plate.

"Holiday food across the board is accented by richness in some form or fashion," said Vann. "A lot of acid and a little bit of sugar goes a long way to cut the fat of much holiday grub. Riesling doesn't just cut the fat of holiday food, it makes for a religious epiphany of flavor in your mouth. This bottling ... has just enough sugar to bring out the fruit of the wine, but not so much that it will freak out the sweet wine haters in your party."

Domaine de la Pepiere
Source: Domaine de la Pepiere

Domaine de la Pepiere Muscadet de Sevre et Maine, 2012 ($10): Muscadet wines are most often paired with oysters, but the varietal has a range well beyond that. Maniec says it works with any seafood dish, though she thinks it's perfect for the Seven Fishes dinner some people host on Christmas Eve.

With a taste blending green apples, limes, lemons and crushed oyster shells, this is a "holiday wine that is easy drinking but complex from one of the best producers in the Nantes region," she said.

Anselmo Mendes Loureiro Vinho Verde, 2012 ($14): Need a good way to kick off an evening, or perhaps a perfect complement for light foods? This Portuguese offering is said to go especially well with seafood and salads.

Maniec describes it as "a light, refreshing, slightly aromatic grape that is perfect for cocktail parties or hosting large groups."

Sparkling wines

Szigeti Sparkling Gru?ner Veltliner
Source: Szigeti

Szigeti Sparkling Grüner Veltliner Burgenland, Austria ($16): Austrian wines are starting to get more attention these days, and this light, dry sparkling wine from Szigeti is quickly earning praise.

Kaner hails the wine for a "razorsharp acidity and clarity of fruit that is unmistakably grüner," adding "your guests will be shocked, and it will be a conversation piece at the table."

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"Val de Mer Cremant de Bourgogne ($19): It's not the holidays without Champagne (or, at least, its sparkling cousins), but too many people overspend on bubbly unnecessarily.

"This is just one of my favorites: a racy dry chardonnay from Chablis virtuoso Patrick Piuze," said Vann. "Chablis is very similar to the climate and soil structure of Champagne, and the sparkling wines from the area are often dead ringers for Champagne at a fraction of the cost."

Rosé wines

Jolie Folle Rose
Source: Jolie Folle

Jolie Folle Cotes du Provence Rosé 1L, 2012 ($16): Traditionally viewed as a wine best enjoyed in the summer months, the right rosé can fit right in at a winter holiday gathering as well.

"Rosé is a year-round drink, even if you were told it's for summer only," said Kaner. "Break convention and make your lips happy."