The holidays are here, and no matter where you stand with family, religion or soul-crushing commercialism, any event that brings people together to enjoy a Dionysian spread of food and drinks is objectively good and commendable. Ironically it is the sheer variety of foods on holiday dinner tables that makes wine pairing both daunting and endlessly enticing. Not any one bottle is going to complement every flavor and texture on the table — but there are indeed some safe bets when it comes to choosing a bottle of wine for that next holiday party.
Popping open a bottle of bubbles is a celebratory and delicious way to start any evening — they shouldn’t just be limited to midnight on New Year’s Eve. Sparkling wines are famously friendly with hors d'oeuvres, and will complement fresh salads, seafood (smoked salmon dip, shrimp, oysters), and sheep’s milk cheeses like Brebisrousse d’Argental, Manchego, or the spendy-yet-delicious Roquefort. And forget about the misconception that you need to spend a lot of money to enjoy nice bubbles. Sure, a bottle like Lilbert-Fils Grand Cru Cramant Champagne 2013 would be a special and delicious choice, but you can also opt for Spanish Cava - made in the same method and similarly dry and delicious, at a fraction of the cost. Miquel Pons Brut Reserva Cava is an example that will become an instant favorite without breaking the bank. And there’s no rule saying they can’t last after the appetizers: use bubbles as an effervescent palate cleanser between rich and saucy sides and entrees of pork and fowl. For extra credit, find a sweeter Demi Sec Champagne to pair with dessert.
When choosing between red or white, pause to consider the option that gives you the best of both worlds: rosé! The color, phenolics, tannins and flavor compounds gained during maceration (when the juice and skins of grapes spend time together) result in a wine that is often fruitier and fuller-flavored than many whites, but still more delicate and playful than most reds. Of all the wines you could choose for dinner, rosé might just be the most versatile. A crisp and fruity rosé such as Domaine de Couron’s Rosé of Grenache will pair with most any appetizers (think seafood, cheese and crackers, or just about any salad you can dream up) while more medium-to-full-bodied rosé will last all the way through dinner alongside chicken, ham, herbed potatoes, squash, or salmon. And if you don’t want to choose between rosé and bubbles — don’t! Sparkling rosé marries the best of both worlds.
Some people are just red wine drinkers, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that. There are a variety of reds with enough versatility to match the myriad flavors of holiday meals; of those, the most sure-fire bet may be Pinot Noir: this Noble Grape is a pain to grow well, but when done right it’s easy to taste why winemakers put up with the trouble. Pinot Noir loves cool climates, and can be found in vineyards anywhere from Chile to Champagne. An ideal Pinot Noir will combine delicious red fruit flavors with other more earthy flavors like tobacco or wet leaves (that’s a good thing, by the way), and its medium acidity and tannins are what make it so adaptable as a food wine. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on something from Oregon (like Croft’s Estate Pinot Noir) or Germany (Julia Bertram Handwerk Spätburgunder) to find a wonderfully tasty and memorable bottle. And if you want something just left of mainstream, consider Beaujolais as a fun alternative: Domaine Diochon’s Moulin-à-Vent Cuvée is both juicy and rich, a bottle that tastes and looks more expensive than it is.
Sauvignon Blanc is a wildly popular white wine for a reason: its lush fruit and acidity make it remarkably food friendly. But if you want something a tad less obvious, consider Grüner Veltliner. These green, mid-ripening grapes create the flagship wine of Austria, where they account for about a third of all grape plantings in the country. Grüner (GROON-ah FELT-leen-uh if you want to sound Austrian) is typically dry or off-dry, and the characteristic vibrant acidity makes it an endlessly gracious food wine. There is certainly a spectrum to its body and ripeness, but you can usually expect notes of lime, grapefruit, and white pepper, often mingling with a “green” quality like dill or bell pepper. This tangy and refreshing white will cut right through the richest flavors on the dinner table, including brown gravy, herbed mashed potatoes, and hard-to-pair-with vegetables like broccoli and asparagus. Try the Leth Grüner Veltliner Steinagrund, or the even-more-affordable Laurenz V. Singing.
Bonus: Don’t forget dessert wine!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say something about dessert. Fortunately our second, scientifically proven dessert stomach exists to ensure that we always have room at the
end of the night for something sweet: if you want to put an exclamation point at the end of your meal, there are a few dessert wine styles you could (and should!) try. Late Harvest wines (Watermill Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, for example) are made by harvesting grapes late in the growing season to maximize sugar content and depth of flavor, while Ice Wines like Kiona Ice Wine are painstakingly produced by picking grapes when they’re frozen - in both cases, the results are concentrated and indulgent wines often made from Riesling, Gewürztraminer, or Chenin Blanc. Another excellent option is wine affected by Noble Rot. This may sound gross, but when the fungus Botrytis cinerea attacks and shrivels overripe grapes it increases their sugar and flavor in the process. If you’re still uncertain, try a French Sauternes or Hungarian Tokaji (e.g. Royal Tokaji The Oddity) for a sweet end to the night.
Jonathan Ross is wine expert at La Bodega, 530 E. Benson Blvd. #5.