This post is primarily for all the non-industry compadres out there. I’m grateful that you keep reading my misguided ramblings. In this entry you’ll find a veritable plethora of great bottles. Most are priced under $50, and all guaranteed to more than do justice to your holiday table. I promise.
Otherwise, my colleagues will probably look at the title of the post, respond with a not-so-subtle eye roll, and think something along the lines of “tell me something I don’t know.” I get it. However, read on as there might be a vinous gem you’ve somehow missed.
To start, pairing wine with the traditional holiday meal is not rocket surgery. The sweet-savory-earthy combination of flavors of the holiday meal make it ideal—even forgiving–for practically any style of wine with few exceptions. Those being monumentally over-oaked Chardonnays or astringently tannic reds like certain Cabernet Sauvignons. Remember that oak and tannin are the least flexible elements in wine when it comes to pairing with food. Having said that, I must also remind you that the X-factor in any wine experience is context in the form of one’s personal preference. So if oaky Chardonnay or tannic Cabernet is your favorite, by all means go for it.
What wines work best with the holiday meal? Practically any other style than those just mentioned. Look for unoaked, higher acid white wines, and medium-to-full bodied reds that aren’t too oaky or tannic. Piece of cake. No, make that pie. One last morsel of wisdom: residual sugar in white wine is extra primo good with the holiday meal because so many of the dishes also have a sweet element in them. Remember, sweet needs sweet when it comes to food and wine pairing. Now it’s time to read on and assemble your holiday vino-shopping list. As Edna Mode said in Pixar’s The Incredibles, “Go, confront the problem. Fight! Win!”
With the world careening into utter madness, it’s comforting to know that good bubbly is still more than affordable. We all need to drink more of it regularly.
NV Sorelle Bronca Particella 68 Brut: Note that this is not the same cheap dreck case-stacked to the rafters at Trader Joe’s. It’s the real deal, as in Prosecco Superiore DOCG (vs.simple Prosecco DOC wines). There’s a huge difference. Sorrella is a small family owned estate in the town of Valdobiaddene. The Particella 68 Brut is produced in small quantities from fruit grown on impossibly steep hillside vineyards. Prosecco like this is the essence of Vivaldi in a bottle.
NV Ca del Bosco Brut Riserva: gets my vote for one of the best values in sparkling wine from anywhere. The wine is vibrant, earthy, and delicious. The package is gorgeous and the price is right. What’s not to love?
NV Pierre Peters Cuvée de Reserve, Blanc de Blancs: one of the first grower-producer Champagnes I tasted over 20 years ago—and still one of my favorites. The Pierre Peters is a true blanc de blancs from 100% Chardonnay. Racy, steely, and laser-like on the palate. In short, quintessential aperitif Champagne.
NV Alfred Gratien Rosé Brut: Like Krug and Bollinger, Alfred Gratien uses wood for primary fermentation to lend a rounded texture to the finished wine. That aside, there is no better value for rosé Champagne than the non-vintage Gratien.
My list of holiday whites follows the theme of high acid, non-oaked wines from semi-aromatic grapes. There’s also a Chardonnay recommendation, plenty of Riesling, and an otherworldly Gewürztraminer.
Clelia Romano Fiano di Avellino, Colli di Lapio: I first bought Clelia Romano’s Fiano when I was a buyer for Virtual Vineyards over 25 years ago at the dawn of online time and retail cyber space. It remains one of my favorite Italian whites with its lovely white floral, pear/quince, and tart citrus notes framed by minerality.
Cantina Terlano Pinot Bianco Riserva, Vorberg: Pinot Bianco, aka Pinot Blanc, usuallyunderachieves in a major way. Not so here. Terlano gets my vote for one of the top white wine producers in Italy, and their Vorberg is easily one of the best wines made from the grape. The vineyard is located on a steep alpine slope with sandy, porphyry-gravel soils. The wine is dense (dry extract) and concentrated with lots of acid lift.
Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko, Santorini: Do you really need another reason to visit the magnificent island of Santorini? The Sigalas Assyrtiko is one of my favorite whites from anywhere. Rich and opulent but with racy acidity and insane volcanic minerality.
Domaine Huet Vouvray, Le Mont Sec: Huet’s Le Mont Sec could be the perfect white wine for turkey and all the trimmings. It’s opulent, layered, and mineral-driven. If you haven’t tried it, you must.
Yalumba Viognier Virglius: A lot of New World Viognier is reminiscent of the Fat Elvis phase, as in awkward and a bit tacky. Not so here. Winemaker Louisa Rose of Yalumba is one of the very best with the grape there is. She makes three different bottlings and the top cuvée is called Virgilius. It’s shimmering, perfumed, and elegant.
Weinbach Gewürztraminer Cuvée Théo: Domaine Weinbach is one of the top estates in Alsace. The Cuvée Théo is sourced from the oldest vines in the Clos du Capuchins vineyard. A quick whiff of the glass reveals an astonishing array of floral, lychee, spicy exotic fruit, and truffle-earth. In short, it’s a wow.
Emmerich Knoll Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Loibenberg: Knoll is one of Austria’s top estates. Grüner Veltliner the country’s premier white grape with Smaragd its richest version—a classification only used in the Wachau, the country’s smallest quality wine region. Smaragd wines are completely decadent with honey, ginger, and saffron notes from botrytis combined with white pepper, daikon, and the botanical notes that make Grüner Veltliner so unique. Knoll’s Smaragd Loibenberg is not exactly easy to find–and it’s not inexpensive. But try it you must.
Mount Eden Estate Chardonnay: A Chardonnay recommendation before all the Rieslings. Mount Eden’s Estate has always been among my favorite California Chardonnays. Steep Santa Cruz Mountains hillside vineyards planted with Burgundian clones make for one of the most unique places for the grape in the New World. Winemaker Jeffrey Patterson always keeps balance in mind so the use of oak is never excessive. His wines are also among the few California Chardonnays capable of long-term aging. I’ve tasted 25-year-old bottles that were mature and yet still fresh.
Half my cellar (which is sadly still a thousand miles away in Oakland, CA, at the moment), is German Riesling. Most of that is Spätlese-level as in slightly sweet. Why? Because Spätlese Riesling is the most versatile and delicious food white wine there is. I can’t think of a better white for the holiday table. Following is a short list of some my favorite producers and vineyards with Spätlese specifically in mind.
Egon Müller Scharzhofberg: weightless with shimmering elegance and filigree. It’s expensive (and should be).
Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle: Many believe Helmut Dönnhoff and his son Cornelius to be Germany’s top winemakers. I find it hard to disagree. The Hermannshöhle makessumptuous, layered, fruity wines as well as brilliant dry Grosse Lage bottlings. Not easy to find, but can be temporarily life-changing.
Robert Weil Kiedricher Gräfenberg: from one of the Rheingau’s (and Germany’s) top estatesand one of its greatest vineyards. The wines are incredibly focused, concentrated, and weightless. Utterly delectable.
Rheinhold Haart Piesporter Goldtröpchen: Theo Haart’s Rieslings from the great Goldtröpchen vineyard are easily the best in Piesport. The wines are honeyed, delectable, and racy.
J.J. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr: The Prüm wines have a distinct terroir, great precision, and ethereal filigree. The Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard has been cultivated without interruption for the better part of the last 2,000 years.
Gunderloch Nackenheimer Rothenberg: I’m still saddened by the passing of owner-winemaker and friend Fritz Hasselbach in 2016. His Rieslings from the Rothenberg vineyard were always opulent and shamelessly hedonistic. Fritz may be gone, but the family’s outstanding wines from the Rothenberg are still with us.
Dry rosé is perfect with the holiday dinner, especially roast turkey which a colleague once described as “chicken with attitude.” Here are a trio of favorite pink wines:
Domaine de Fontsainte Corbières Rosé Gris de Gris: A delicious Southern French saignée rosé made from a blend of Grenache Gris, Grenache Noir, and Carignan. Saignée, BTW, refers to the traditional method of separating part of the juice from a red wine fermentation and making rosé from it. I’m convinced that we are all better for it.
Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir: Many pink wines are cast-offs or second thoughts intended to generate quick cash flow. Not the Sinskey Vin Gris. The fruit comes from prime Pinot Noir real estate. The grapes are whole cluster pressed and only the free run juice is used. The result is dry, delicate, and delightful.
Tasca d’Almerita Tenuta Regaleali Le Rose Rosato: Sicily is one of my favorite places in the wine world. Tenuta Regaleali is a gorgeous estate located in the mountains an hour from Palermo. The estate has been owned by the Tasca d’Almerita family since 1837, and is known for superb wines and an internationally recognized cooking school. This vibrant rosato is made from Nerello Mascalese grapes planted in 1974. It offers tart and vibrant red fruit with a touch of volcanic minerality.
In choosing reds, I’ve kept in mind the fact that some may opt for lamb, beef, or venison instead of the usual roast turkey. Thus, you’ll find both lighter and richer reds below.
Gary Farrell Pinot Noir, Hallberg Vineyard, Russian River Valley: Pinot Noir is a universal go-to red wine this time of year and for good reason. Its bright fruit and savory notes make it an ideal mate for Thanksgiving dinner and beyond. Winemaker Theresa Heredia of Gary Farrell is one of my favorites for Russian River Pinot. Her wines always show wonderful depth of supple fruit and silky tannins.
Roberto Voerzio Barbera d’Alba, Il Cerreto: Barbera is not exactly a wine that comes to mind with Thanksgiving dinner–but it should. Roberto Voerzio is one of the top producers in Barolo. His Barberas are also superb. The “Il Cerreto” is crammed with vibrant fruit and herbal notes with tart acidity.
La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva: La Rioja Alta is one of my favorite old-school producers. The Viña Ardanza Reserva spends three years in American oak casks giving the wine an overt Bourbon-spiciness along with a supple texture and subtle earthiness.
Yalumba The Signature, Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon: Shiraz-Cabernet blends from Australia are one of the world’s best-kept red wine secrets. Yalumba’s The Signature is a perfect marriage between of spice and savory elements in Shiraz with the structure of Cabernet.
Henschke Keynetone Euphonium, Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon: A visit some years ago to the Henschke winery in Eden Valley was one of the greatest single producer tastings I’ve ever experienced. The major take away was that no one does red wine texture and tannin management better than Steven Henschke. As expected, the Hill of Grace Shiraz was world-class. But equally memorable was the Keynetone Euphonium, a Shiraz-Cabernet blend. It was lush, seamless, and imminently drinkable.
Storybook Mountain Reserve Zinfandel: Jerry Seps is one of the founders of ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) and one of the patriarchs of the grape. His reserve bottling—a selection of the best barrels in a given vintage–is easily my favorite Zinfandel. It shows the lush, just this side of frat party, fruit we expect from Zin but in the most elegant and stylish expression possible.
There’s only one rule that needs to be followed when pairing dessert wines with holiday desserts: the wine must always be sweeter than the dessert. Here are three very different stickies, all perfect for holiday desserts.
Donnafugata Ben Ryé: made on the windswept volcanic island of Pantelleria from dried Muscat grapes locally called “Zbibbo.” Ben Ryé, which means “song of the wind” in Arabic, manages to be seductive without being cloying. It’s also one of the great values in dessert wines.
Niepoort Colheita Port: True aged tawny ports show declarations of 10, 20, 30, even 40 years on the label. A Colheita, or vintage Tawny, is a rarity and Niepoort specializes in them. The 1995 vintage I tasted recently is drinking beautifully with notes of toffee, roasted nuts, caramel, and molasses.
Château Coutet à Barsac: Barsac is a close neighbor to the higher rent Sauternes district, and also produces botrytis sweet wines. Coutet is one of my favorite chateaux there. The wine always delivers unctuous honey and spice flavors.
I hope you’ve found some holiday vino ideas from the list. Remember that any of the wines would make a thoughtful holiday gift. In fact, you should pick up several bottles for yourself. Otherwise, steady on through the choppy waters of the next few weeks. If things go south, remember what Hunter S. Thompson once said. “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”