The right wine can really make a holiday meal come alive. Personal preference plays a big part in choosing what to drink for the holidays. My first rule of wine pairing is, "There are no rules." As you do the rest of the year, you should drink what you like and like what you drink. If you would feel more confident in your holiday entertaining with some guidelines to follow, allow me to steer you in some good directions.
For starters, a big feast like a Thanksgiving or Christmas spread features so many different types of food and diverse taste elements, it is nearly impossible to choose just one wine to go with everything on the table. You can match a Pinot Noir with the turkey, but what about the sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping? The Riesling that goes so nicely with your holiday ham may be a bit overwhelmed by a standing rib roast.
If you really want all the food paired perfectly, you can turn your holiday meal into a tasting session - an interesting idea, admittedly not for everyone. A dry white wine may serve reasonably well if there's no heavy beef on the table. A good sparkling wine is cited by a number of wine pairing experts as the best way to go if you only want one wine on the table. A dry sparkler can fit in well with nearly everything, even beef. And how festive, anyway! And even a nice dry rose should be tucked away somewhere, if only to serve as a great accompaniment to the inevitable turkey or ham sandwich the next day.
Here is a short list of wines I think would serve anyone well over the holidays. You can use the varietal as a starting point and pick your favorites from there, or you can choose from my selections. I am taking the liberty of keeping the price level of my suggestions mostly in the $20-and-under range. Feel free to splurge on a $100 Cabernet to go with that Christmas roast if your wallet can take it. If the holidays have your budget stretched thin, look here for some very nice wines that will add a little extra cheer to the season in affordable fashion. I'm suggesting primarily California wines here, but feel free to make an international affair of it. Champagne, after all, is the king of sparkling wines; nobody does Riesling like the Germans; and if you took the Zinfandel from the menu and replaced it with a nice Primitivo or Barbera, who really could argue the decision?
Included on this list are a variety of wines that fall into one or more of the following categories which I feel address the holiday spirit:
- Rich flavors
- Pairs well with roast, turkey or ham
- Dessert wines
Chardonnay - It's the holidays. Let's skip the pristine, austere beauty of the stainless steel Chardonnays. Lay in a supply of rich, buttery Chards with seasonal flavors bursting forth from them. Try -
Wente Vineyards Riva Ranch Chardonnay 2008 ($19) - Described as having "aromas and flavors of honey, graham cracker, cinnamon and light floral notes," it is blended with small amounts of Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer.
Cambria "Katherine's Vineyard" Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay 2006 ($19) - Cambria says the nose is "deeply aromatic with apples, peaches, lime blossoms and vanilla," while the palate is "intense and powerful, yet surprisingly elegant and nuanced."
Cakebread Chardonnay Reserve, Carneros, Napa Valley 2006 ($55) - This is a splurge. It's a rich and luscious Chardonnay that spent 15 months in French oak to bring holiday aromas like spiced apple. It's a big, creamy wine with peach, apple and melon on the palate, along with toasty oak notes.
Riesling - This is one of the more versatile white wines, owing in part to the fact that there are different styles of Riesling that taste very different from one another. You can run the gamut from sweet to quite dry with Riesling. All are food-friendly wines with a relatively low alcohol level. Rieslings pair well with cheese, ham, seafood, vegetables, spicy food and even fruit plates. Riesling purists prefer German. Washington state and New York's Finger Lakes region also make good ones. Try -
Trefethen Estate Napa Dry Riesling 2008 ($22) - This one is on the dry end of the spectrum. Trefethen says the 2008 vintage has more tropical notes than usual, with aromas of "delicate jasmine flower, coupled with pineapple, guava, tarragon, and lemongrass." The palate shows "cantaloupe, lemon, fennel, and especially white peaches playing off each other in delightful balance. A little bit of slate minerality rounds out the finish."
For a slightly sweeter take on the grape, Fess Parker's Santa Barbara County Riesling 2008 ($14) offers crsip acidity in an off-dry setting.
Pinot Noir - Despite its reputation for being a finicky wine to make, Pinot Noir is a fairly affable wine on the holiday spread. Pairing well with cheese and crackers - try Brie, Swiss or a nice Chevre - Pinot Noir also gets comfy with stuffed mushrooms, ham, turkey and duck. Often featuring a cinnamon or clove flavor profile, Pinot Noir can be a hit with foods of a similar makeup. Try -
Bogle Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2006 ($13) - Wine Spectator calls it "pure and complex, with ripe, vivid wild berry, raspberry and blackberry fruit...ending with a dillish oak edge." Sounds tailor made for the Thanksgiving table.
Edna Valley Vineyards Paragon Pinot Noir ($22) - Their description makes me salivate: "Hints of rose petal, caramel and forest floor weave through the jammy fruit core. The mid-palate is pleasant and smooth with fine tannins. Subtle cola and perfume nuances alight the finish for lingering enjoyment of this pretty red wine. Enjoy with gamey flavors such as duck, venison or wild mushroom pasta."
Syrah - The dark fruit and peppery spiciness are a match made for smoked meats. Big, fruity Syrahs will pair well with roast, ham or smoked turkey. Try -
Stolpman Vineyards Estate Santa Ynez Syrah 2006 ($27) - International Wine Cellar says: "...perfumed bouquet of dark berries, Christmas spices, violet and minerals...red and dark berry flavors stain the palate...long, juicy finish."
Mandolin Syrah Central Coast 2007 ($14) - Dark fruit and layers of spice and rich vanilla hit the holiday notes. They run in tandem with a dense molasses, leather and plum profile. Firm tannins make it ideal for for a roast or steaks.
Zinfandel - Black cherry and blackberry often dominate the flavor profile of Zin to the point of jamminess. It's can be a big wine that calls for big food. Find a Zin with lighter profiles and bright fruit flavors to be more flexible in pairing it with lighter fare. Try -
Cline Ancient Vines California Zinfandel 2007 ($18) - Cline says this one has "flavors of dark berries, coffee and chocolate with great vanilla oak character and a long lingering finish." Some say it has a sweet, port-like side. It also has the tannins to handle steaks, roast - or that barbecued turkey you've always wanted to serve.
Bogle "The Phantom" Red Blend 2006 ($15) - This is actually even parts Zin and Petite Sirah with a splash of Mourvedre. It's luscious, with anise and figs on the nose and clove and vanilla peeking around the fruit on the palate.
Cabernet Sauvignon - Cabs find themselves at home before, during and after dinner. Pair the big reds with blue cheese on the appetizer plate, heavy beef or smoked meats on the dinner table and even dark chocolate desserts. Try -
Rutherford Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($18) - They describe their Cab as having "lush fruit aromas of raspberry and Bing cherry, hints of cedar box, bright mint and spicy cinnamon." It's a full-bodied wine with silky tannins. Serve with blue cheese, marinated steaks or dark chocolate after dinner.
Francis Coppola Diamond Series Claret 2007 ($14) - Not a true Cab, it's a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Aromas of plum, anise, dark chocolate and sweet spices will make it a hit for the holidays. Rich flavors of blackberry, currant and strawberry are festive and exciting, just like the season.
Trefethen HaLo 2004 ($175) - With bay leaf on the nose and clove and nutmeg in the flavor profile, this wine had me thinking of Christmas at first sniff. I think this would pair fabulously with turkey - but at $175 a bottle, this may be better as one of the gifts under the tree.
Merlot - Complex and accessible at once, Merlot got such a bad rap pinned on it in the film Sideways that sales actually fell. Hopefully, saner heads will prevail during the holiday season. Different Merlots offer different pairing opportunities, so depending on whether the wine is full- or medium-bodied you can match with everything from roast to salmon. A fictional character's ranting is no way to make decision on what wine to drink. Try -
Silverado Napa Merlot 2004 ($25) - A medium-bodied wine that's abetted by 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, there's a nutty spiciness that duels with a sweet cherry flavor to produce a complex and enjoyable drink.
Robert Mondavi Napa Merlot 2006 ($17) - Wine Spectator says this Merlot "offers an appealing blend of structure and plushness, with currant and espresso aromas and black cherry and anise flavors."
Dessert Wines - Depending on your tolerance for sweets, dessert wines can complement an after dinner treat or stand alone and be the treat. Late harvest varietals, muscat, Port and sherry all make for a delicious way to finish a feast. The French do a particularly fine job with wines from Sauternais and Banyuls. Try -
Bridlewood Syrah Port 2006 ($20) - If the words "Syrah Port" don't do it for you, listen to these descriptive words from the the winemaker: "heady aromatics of blackberry, cassis and licorice...dark jammy fruit framed with spicy oak and vanilla accents...notes of strong dark chocolate with hints of pecan, tangerine peel and earth...soft chewy tannins and a sweet vanilla oak backdrop...luscious licorice finish." Now, if my football teams don't win on Thanksgiving, I'll hardly care.
Mer Soleil Late 2004 ($34) - The Viognier grapes came down with a case of Botrytis, and that's good news all around. This dessert wine is the result, a rich shade of gold with honey, apricot nectar and orange zest in the flavor profile.
Sparkling Wines - Champagne can get expensive, and for some it's that or nothing. There are, however, plenty of good sparkling wines from places other than France. A nice Italian Prosecco, a Spanich Cava or a California sparkler can make a festive showing, too. Sparkling styles range from Extra Brut (the dryest), Brut, Extra Sec, Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux (the sweetest.) Try -
Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut ($19) - The American arm of Louis Roederer produces this great-tasting, affordable sparkler with notes of cinnamon, creme brulee and baked apple. They also make a pink bubbly with a touch of Pinot Noir for color.
Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine 2006 - This producer made America's first sparkling wine, back in 1965. It's thought by many to be America's best sparkler, coming as close to real Champagne as it gets in the States. An apple cobbler note on the palate should sit well with autumn celebrations.
Rhone-style white blends - These wines typically match up well with autumnal foods like squash, apples and chestnuts. Look for blends involving Grenache Blanc, Roussanne or Marsanne. Try -
Lone Madrone La Mezcla 2008 ($17) - An interesting Paso Robles blend of Grenache Blanc and Albarino! Not only will it fit, it's a conversation starter.
Big House White 2008 ($8) - This white blend features Malvasia Bianca, Muscat Canelli, Viognier and Roussanne. Aromas of lemon meringue and wintermint grace the nose, while the palate enjoys tropical fruit and toast. A wildly popular wine, it was listed atop Wine Enthusiast's "Top 100 Best Buys of 2009."
Rhone-style red blends - Look to Rhone-style reds for full-bodied, spicy wines that usually dip a bit more into the earthy, dark side of the flavor line. They make an excellent partner to roast beef. Try -
Tablas Creek "Cotes de Tablas" Red 2003 ($20) - Cherry liqueur, white pepper, leather and sage highlight this blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Counoise.
Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant 2005 ($32) - From the Bonny Doon website: "Aromas of spiced meat, kirsch, mushrooms, a soupçon of truffle and dark chocolate make for a richly perfumed red wine." This blend is mainly Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah, with some Carignane and Cinsault in the mix.
Suggested holiday meal:
- Before the meal - Sparkling wine will set a celebratory mood.
- With your cheese plate - Chardonnay or a bubbly with Brie; Riesling or dessert wine with blue cheese; Cab, Merlot or Zinfandel with cheddar; Riesling or a Rhone-style white with Swiss; Pinot Noir or Port with cream cheese.
- For roast turkey breast - Viognier or Chardonnay are good. Dark meat likes a Pinot Noir.
- With the baked ham - Pinot Noir or Riesling. A Beaujolais Nouveaux will work, and it is the season for it.
- Beef roast or steaks - Call for Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Goose or game - Pinot Noir. A rich Chardonnay, Zinfandel or Merlot could fit, too.
- Cornbread stuffing - Pinot Noir. If it's made with sausage, break out a Syrah or Rhone-style Red.
- Pumpkin & Pecan Pie - An aged cream sherry or tawny Port will bring out the brown spices in the pie; a white dessert wine like a late harvest Riesling, Viognier or Chardonnay will also provide a lip-smacking accompaniment to the holiday pie.