Nov. 2 2016 12:10 AM

How to keep your wine rack stocked for unexpected guests

For carnivorous holiday guests, Ancient Peaks’ cabernet sauvignon pairs well with meaty dishes.
Justin King/City Pulse
There is a certain night from my early 20s that is burned into my memory. It involved my refrigerator, cans of Bud Light, expired milk, leftover pasta and sadness. It was an ill-conceived, spur-of-the-moment late night party, and we all would have been better off just going to bed.

These days, parties with friends and family tend to happen earlier in the day and with much better planning. But November and December is prime “friend XYZ is in town today, and they should come over” season. Thanksgiving, Christmas and extended work/school holidays mean you’re going to get some unexpected drop-ins. Y’all need to have a good wine stash.

Fortunately, there are hundreds of crowd-pleasing wines available for less than $20 in the Greater Lansing market.

For sugar fiend friends, stay local and check out Aurora Cellars’ Luminous semi-dry white. It’s a fruity blend of riesling, vidal and vignoles grapes. Vidal succeeds in cooler climates like Michigan, and this particular lot comes from Baroda, in the southwest corner of the state. Vignoles, originally created in France, carries similar characteristics and is mostly grown in the eastern U.S. Luminous has saccharine flavors of candied apples and peaches with a little orange zest. It’s pretty and floral, and yes, this is a sweet wine. Based in Leelanau County, Aurora Cellars makes fun wines for the money, and this bottle should make your wallet roughly $15 lighter.

Chardonnays can be a tricky purchase. It takes a nimble wine to please guests who love their buttery chardonnay while also catering to those who want to taste more fruit. At about $17, Fossil Point’s 2015 chardonnay threads that needle and could easily become your top holiday pour for large gatherings.

Instead of aging the wine with new barrels, Fossil Point uses old barrels, which impart less toasty buttery flavor but still lend some creamy notes. The vines are grown in California’s Edna Valley, an area that is slightly cooler than most big brand Napa/Sonoma chardonnay vineyards. Expect right-up-the-middle flavors of rich, red apples, honeydew melon slices, acacia and lemon zest. This is not a fat chardonnay, and it’s a value at that price.

If you and your family are digging on fruit reds that are low on tannin, check out Smashberry’s red blend. It’s not a complicated wine, but that’s the point. This blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petite sirah also hails from California’s Central Coast, about one hour north in Paso Robles. Plan to spend about $13 on a bottle, and you’ll be rewarded with compote-like flavors of blueberries, boysenberries and ripe plums. Don’t apologize for your love of “fruitbomb” red wines. Every wine fan deserves a party.

Also in Paso Robles, Ancient Peaks Winery might have made the West Coast’s best cabernet sauvignon value of the last year. Expect to spend roughly $20. For that Andrew Jackson, you get a supple, layered wine that packs dense cassis and violet-like aromas and flavors alongside mint, cocoa and bay leaf. Ancient Peaks has gifted us with a top-notch meat feast accompaniment. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to stock a wine like this on the regular.

For those late night desserts, check out Madeira. But not that kind of Madeira. Full stop.

Madeira, a region of Portugal, is a group of four islands in the Atlantic Ocean, just a few hundred miles off the coast of Morocco. The “M word” has been thrown against the wall over the years, plastered onto jugs of alcohol dressed as Madeira and used coarsely as a cooking ingredient in indiscriminate restaurant kitchens. And the United States’ labeling laws allow this to continue. But not all Madeira is created equal.

At $20, Cossart Gordon’s five-year-old bual Madeira is a value-driven benchmark for this varietal. Think of it like as part of the Tawny Port family. Enjoyable in its moderate sweetness, there are lush flavors here of almonds, figs, prunes, toffee and caramel. When the mercury drops below 40, this Madeira won’t disappoint. Serve this with a pecan pie, and you’re guaranteed to make mom happy.

This style of wine has a long history attached to the Americas, as it achieved a slightly cooked style in the bottle on its journey from the islands over to the early American colonies. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and many other giants of revolution-era American history were known to drink Madeira. And they loved freedom. So you know what to do, America.

Justin King is a certified sommelier and owner of Bridge Street Social, a wine and cocktails-focused restaurant in DeWitt, slinging burgers with cabernet seven days a week.