A big group of wine friends gathered the Saturday before Christmas with some great food items and six great wines. I have notes on five of the six and all five were big winners.

This will be some quick notes on wines you should buy if you see them in your nearest wine shop. I’ll list them in the order we drank them that night.

Craggy Range Kidnapper’s Vineyard 2011 Chardonnay – The Craggy Range Chard really surprised me. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a New Zealand Chardonnay before! Based on this one, I might try a few more.

Any time I’m talking Chardonnay I add the disclaimer that I’m generally not a fan. I liked this Chard second best only to better Chablis wines. It doesn’t have any taste of oak but sees a bit along with mostly stainless steel. I liked the wine’s mouth feel, richness, lime and spice. Not all of the wine dudes agreed, but I also got a rich apple flavor – like apple pie.

It has mild acidity and a pretty soft finish but was still enjoyable. The guys around the living room all liked the wines. I found some online reviews, out of curiosity, that scored the wine well but were rather harsh in description. I didn’t find anything harsh about the wine. If you like Chardonnay in a softer style, try this one!

Craggy Range Kidnapper’s Vineyard 2011 Chardonnay, $18-$22, Trade Sample, Highly Recommended.

Oliver 2010 Shiraz Reserve – Yes, that’s Oliver as in Oliver Winery near Bloomington Ind. Oliver, along with several other Indiana wineries, get lumped into the perception Indiana winemakers only make cheap and sweet wines. There was a time that was an accurate description but not any more.

This is probably the single best Indiana red wine I’ve ever tasted. I poured the wine blind for the dudes and they all loved it. I asked the most experienced wine drinker in the room if he would have objected if I had suggested a Northern Rhone Syrah before revealing the wine’s origin. He thought the French connection made sense after I told the group it was Syrah.

Of course they were surprised but also delighted. Indiana wines have come a long way. Bill Oliver is darn proud of his better bottlings and they sell! And, in the Indy International Wine Competition, tasted blindly as well, this wine was awarded an infrequent Double Gold Medal.

The wine has a great mouth feel with the kind of spice you’d expect from good Syrah. It is very balanced and beautifiul wine.

Oliver 2010 Shiraz Reserve, $26, Very Highly Recommended

Denner Vineyards 2007 The Ditch Digger – This Paso Robles wine is an absolute rock star on any wine rack! I might even be ready to argue that this Denner wine is one of the signature bottles from the Central California region.

This is a big rich red wine with fine balance that’s hard not to like for any red wine fan. The blend is 40 percent Grenache, 33 percent Syrah, 20 percent Mourvedre, and 7 percent Cinsault.

The wine has deep blackberry, cherry and chocolate flavors. It has generally been very highly praised with this vintage garnering 93 points from Wine Spectator and 91 points from Robert Parker.

It’s big fruit with nice balance and even a freshness that is really desirable in many of the big Paso Robles wines. It’s not cheap, but worth every nickel.

Denner Vineyards 2007 Ditch Digger, $50, Very Highly Recommended

Gary Farrell 2009 Carneros Pinot Noir – The Carneros is no Russian River Valley but is a wine you will occasionally find on internet flash sites and special sales. At 50 percent off the list price, this is a great buy.

The wine has a definitely tart cherry if you don’t pick out anything else on the palate. The acidity and finish is very average but this is nice drinkable Pinot. It’s hard for me to criticize a drinkable Pinot with good fruit at $20 Had I forked out full retail of $40, then this brief review would read differently. But it’s good Pinot Noir for $20 it just doesn’t live up to a $40 price point or the Gary Farrell Russian River Valley wines.

Gary Farrell 2009 Carneros Pinot Noir, SRP $40, less elsewhere, Recommended.

Domaine Du Gravillas 2007 Lo Vielh – I’ve been saving this bottle for a special occasion and could not think of any time better than three days before Christmas with my best wine buddies!

This is great wine.

It’s probably a grape many wine drinkers have never even heard of before – Carignan. It is grown in a few spots around the world but most commonly in Southern France.

John Bojanowski and his wife Nicole discovered a now 101-year-old vineyard of Carignan on their Domaine du Gravillas property and have used the grapes as part of the crop that goes into this wine.

Carignan is funky and rich. It’s tart yet very drinkable. Carignan is not for beginning wine drinkers – or wimps. John takes this big funky grape and delivers a wine with soft tannins and full-rich fruit. It is stunningly good.

I have to say I was surprised and I was not that the majority of my seven friends tasting the wines above picked the Carignan as their favorite of the night!

Domaine Du Gravillas 2007 Vielh, $35, Very Highly Recommended.

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

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