As for pairing wine with the traditional holiday meal, it’s no big deal and certainly not rocket science. 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 exceptions are monumentally over-oaked Chardonnay or astringently tannic red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. 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 one’s personal preference. So if oaky Chardonnay or tannic Cabernet is your thing, 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.
Quick note: If you can’t find one of the wines listed below locally, use winesearcher.com. It should bring up multiple sources for most—if not all—the wines on the list. Now it’s time to read on and assemble your holiday vino-shopping list.
Sparkling Wine and Champagne
Now more than ever it’s comforting to know that good bubbly is affordable. And we all need to drink more of it regularly.
NV Sorelle Bronca "Particella 68," Prosecco Superiore Brut: This is not the cheap stuff case-stacked to the rafters at Trader Joe’s. It’s the real deal, as in Prosecco Superiore DOCG (vs. simple Prosecco DOC wines). Sorrella is a small family owned estate in the town of Valdobiaddene. The Particella 68 Brut is produced in small quantities from a single vineyard planted on an impossibly steep hillside. Prosecco like this is the essence of Vivaldi in a bottle.
NV Ca' del Bosco Cuvée Prestige Brut, Franciacorta: Gets my vote for best overall value in sparkling wine. The wine is vibrant, earthy, and delicious. The package is simply 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. It’s lacy, 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. Period. I’m flummoxed why it’s not better known and appreciated.
My list of holiday whites generally 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 while a buyer at Virtual Vineyards over 20 years ago at the dawn of online time and retail cyber space. It remains one of my very favorite Italian whites with its lovely white floral, pear/quince, and tart citrus notes framed by intense minerality.
Cantina Terlano Pinot Bianco Riserva, "Vorberg," Alto Adige: Pinot Bianco, aka Pinot Blanc, practically always underachieves in a major way. Not so here. Terlano gets my vote for best white wine producer in Italy and their Vorberg is easily one of the greatest 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 also my favorite Vouvray by far; opulent, layered, and mineral-driven. If you haven’t tried it, you must.
Yalumba Viognier "The Virgilius," Eden Valley: A lot of New World Viognier is reminiscent of the Fat Elvis phase—as in awkward and a bit trashy. Not so here. Winemaker Louisa Rose of Yalumba is a master of Viognier. She makes three different bottlings from the grape and the top cuvée is called The Virgilius. It’s shimmering, perfumed, and elegant.
Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer, Cuvée Théo: Domaine Weinbach is one of the top estates in Alsace. Their 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: Emmerich Knoll is one of the Austria’s top winemakers. Grüner Veltliner is the country’s premier white grape, and 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 from botrytis combined with the pepper, daikon, and 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 my favorite California Chardonnay. 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 fresh.
Half my cellar (which sadly is still a thousand miles away in Oakland, CA), is German Riesling. Most of that is Spätlese-level (late harvest) 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 of my favorite producers and vineyards with Spätlese specifically in mind.
Egon Müller Scharzhofberg: Weightless, 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 makes for sumptuous, 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: One of the Rheingau’s (and Germany’s) top estates—and 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, sumptuous, 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 sad about the passing of owner-winemaker and friend Fritz Hasselbach in the fall of 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 is 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 after 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 youthful 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 silky tannins 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 and spice character.
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 legendary. The “Il Cerreto” is crammed with luscious fruit, savory herbal notes, and tart acidity.
La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva: La Rioja Alta is one of my favorite old-school Rioja producers. Their Viña Ardanza Reserva spends three years in American oak casks, giving the wine an overt Bourbon-spiciness with a supple texture and distinct 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 the spice and savory elements of Shiraz and the structure of Cabernet. It’s also one of my favorite reds for the money.
Henschke "Keynetone Euphonium," Shiraz-Cabernet, Eden Valley: 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 I especially remember the Keynetone Euphonium, a Shiraz-Cabernet blend. It was lush, seamless, and imminently drinkable.
Storybook Mountain Reserve Zinfandel: Jerry Seps is a founder 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: More often than not, 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. Pumpkin pie, anyone?
Château Coutet à Barsac: Barsac is a 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 exotic spice flavors.
Coda: Support Your Local Independent Retailers
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, one final thing I want to suggest is that you support your local independent retailers whenever you can. Since the shelter in place began in March, I’ve made it a point to order from several independent shops owned by friends and colleagues. I’ve listed them below. I hope you will consider doing likewise with the retailers listed or ones in your local market. Cheers!
Boulder Wine Merchant, Boulder, CO: owner Brett Zimmerman, MS
Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, San Francisco, CA: owners Peter Granoff, MS, and Debbie Zacharias
San Francisco Wine Trading Company, San Francisco, CA: owners Gary and Julia Marcaletti
The Wine Goddess, Evanston, IL: owner Diana Hamann