The holiday season without wine is like Santa without his reindeer—it just won’t fly. After a long day of cooking—and, oh, a few family dynamics—it’s easy to crave a glass of any wine.
The old hard and fast rule of white with white meat and fish and red wine with red meat is no longer the norm. Most sommeliers now base the wines on how they pair with the ingredients and some winemongers state “The general rule is to drink what you like no matter what you’re eating.” Yet, there are certain wines that pair best with holiday meals for a particular reason—the dry texture of the holiday turkey, the cornucopia of meats, fowl and side dishes along with their competing flavors are such that most people will enjoy a wine that’s not too dry to compliment the meal.
Holiday menus often mean you can try a different wine with each course, which sounds like a potential nightmare but is a lot easier than it sounds.
Today, we offer a list of the type of wines that will help you make the most of the holiday and satisfy nearly every guest:
For starters, welcoming guests or using as an aperitif, you may want to start with something sparkly to get into a festive mood.
Prosecco — for sparkling and refreshing start
Prosecco is Italy’s answer to Champagne. These wines are refreshing, well-made sparklers at a reasonable price. Made from the Glera grape—which is the actual name of the Prosecco grape—the best examples are 100% Prosecco from the district of Valdobbiadene near the town of Conegliano in the region of Veneto.
Prosecco can be Brut (dry) or Extra Dry (fruity). As this is a grape that is prized for its delicate flavors and aromatics, the wine itself is not made in the classic champagne method as this would mean aging the wine for several years before release robbing the wine of its light and fruity flavors. These wines are made using the Charmat method in which the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks, making the wine less expensive to produce while maintaining the wines bright freshness.
Riesling — dry or sweet, light to medium body
The Riesling grape originated in the Rhine region of Germany. It’s an aromatic grape displaying flowery, almost perfumed, aromas as well as high acidity. This high-acidity can make your mouth water as it prepares you for the upcoming holiday treats.
Often when people hear Riesling mentioned they say, “Oh no! It’s too sweet for me!” These poor unfortunates miss out on one of the best taste experiences one can have with a meal. Good Riesling wines can be dry, semi-sweet, sweet, and sparkling whites. Riesling wines are usually varietally pure and are seldom oaked. Considered one of the six “Noble wines”, Riesling is a variety which is highly “terroir-expressive”, meaning that the character of Riesling wines is greatly influenced by the wine’s place of origin.
Many German Rieslings tend to exhibit apple and tree fruit notes with noticeable levels of acidity that are sometimes balanced with residual sugar. In Alsace and parts of Austria the wines can develop more citrus and peach notes, and Australian Riesling is noted for a characteristic lime note. Riesling’s naturally high acidity and pronounced fruit flavors give wines made from the grape exceptional aging potential, with well-made examples from favorable vintages often developing smokey, honey notes, and aged German Rieslings, in particular, taking on a “petrol” character.
Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio – dry, light to medium body
Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the exact same grape variety. It is a white grape, with a grayish pink skin (hence the name gris, or grey, in French). Although the Pinot Gris grape originated in France (it’s from the Burgundian Pinot family), it’s gained global recognition as Pinot Grigio from Italy. While they are the same grape, the two names have represent two different styles of wine.
The Italian style Pinot Grigio wines are typically lighter-bodied, crisp, fresh, with vibrant stone fruit and floral aromas and a touch of spice. Pinot Gris wines (think Alsace, New Zealand or Oregon) are more full-bodied, richer, spicier, and more viscous in texture. They also tend to have greater cellaring and ageing potential. both styles are wonderful wines for starters and appetizers.
Chardonnay/Chablis—dry, medium to full body
Chardonnay is a green-skinned wine grape. The Chardonnay grape itself is very neutral—many of the flavors commonly associated with chardonnay are derived from such influences as terroir and oak. It is vinified in many different styles—the lean, crisp minerally wines of Chablis, France, wines with oak, buttery and tropical fruit flavors. It can be medium- to full-bodied and fruity, buttery, oaked or unoaked
In cool climates, Chardonnay tends to be light- to medium-bodied with noticeable acidity and flavors of green plum, apple and pear. In warmer locations, the flavors are more citrusy, with peach and melon, while in very warm (hot) locations you’ll find more fig and tropical fruit notes such as banana and mango. Chardonnay that has gone through malolactic fermentation will have softer acidity and fruit flavors with buttery mouthfeel and hazelnut notes.
Chablis is also a Chardonnay grape but it comes from the northernmost wine district of the France’s Burgundy region, Chablis. The wines of Chablis are dry and renowned for the purity of its aroma and taste. The wines have more acidity and flavors are less fruity, often with a “flinty” or “steely” note, sometimes described as “goût de pierre à fusil”. Most basic Chablis is unoaked, and vinified in stainless steel tanks. This pure white makes for an excellent starter.
Sauvignon Blanc-– dry, light-, medium- or full body
Sauvignon Blanc is an international white grape variety that originates in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley of France. With its distinctive, vivid aromas and zesty acidity, Sauvignon Blanc is easy to peg in a blind tasting of dry white wines. The wine’s green, herbaceous and fruity scents are sometimes accented with musky aromas, yet its flavors are consistently fresh and bright. The primary fruit flavors of Sauvignon Blanc are lime, green apple, passion fruit and white peach. Depending on how ripe the grapes are when the wine is made, the flavor will range from zesty lime to flowery peach. What makes Sauvignon Blanc unique from other white wines are its other herbaceous flavors like bell pepper, jalapeño, gooseberry and grass. These flavors come from aromatic compounds called pyrazines and are the secret to Sauvignon Blanc’s deliciousness. This wine is a favorite for aperitifs and for lighter meals and salads.
Main Course Wines
Okay, we covered some basic grape varietals for appetizers and starters, but what do you do for the main holiday meal?
To be honest, with large meals with many different sides and the many taste personalities of your holiday guests, light- to medium-bodied reds that are fruit-forward and smooth are the best choices.
With all the many red choices you may want to look to the following reds and save the “big reds” for another time (or for a great gift idea)
Pinot Noir — dry, light- to medium-body
The name Pinot Noir is derived from the French words for “pine” and “black” and is probably the number one red choice for most holiday dinners. Pinot Noir or French Burgundy (Bourgogne Rouge) pairs most readily to holiday dinners and side dishes. It also seems to be a favorite even among non-wine drinkers. Pinot Noir is often light- to medium bodied, offering a wide range of aromas, flavors, textures, and impressions resembling black cherry, raspberry, or plum. Don’t be dissuaded by the lighter color, as the flavors are often much bolder than the color leads you to believe—expect flavors of raspberries, strawberries, cherries and violets. Older Pinots usually offer a bouquet reminiscent of game, licorice, and earthy aromas. The silky texture of Pinot creates a sensual tasting experience.
Beaujolais— off-dry to dry, light- to medium-body
Made from Gamay grapes, these French red wines are light- to medium-bodied and typically fruity. Beaujolais is often treated like a white wine and served slightly chilled to a lower temperature. In Beaujolais, it is traditional to soak the bottles in buckets of ice water and bring them out to the center villages for picnics and ball games. Beaujolais Nouveau, being the lightest style, is served at about 52 °F. Beaujolais AOC and Beaujolais-Villages are generally served between 56–57 °F. Cru Beaujolais, can be treated like red Burgundy wine and served at 60–62 °F. Beaujolais wines rarely need to be decanted.
Beaujolais Nouveau is the most popular, fermented for just a few weeks before being released for sale on the third Thursday of November, in time for the American Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November as it can be paired with a variety of food according to the lightness and body of the wine. Beaujolais also pairs well with poultry, red meats and hearty dishes like stews.
Dolcetto—dry, light- to medium-body
Dolcetto is a dark-skinned wine grape from the Monferrato hills of northwestern Italy and is often viewed as Piedmont’s third red-wine grape, after Nebbiolo and Barbera. Dolcetto is a deep purple, traditionally light wine that is soft and easy to drink due to its lower acidity and soft tannins. The aromas are of black raspberries, violets, coffee and chocolate covered cherries. The flavors reflect the aromas and they can be jammy with dark cherries and black raspberries, sometimes with notes of oak. These wines make an execellent choice for a varied menu.
Barbera d’Alba—dry, light- to medium-body
Barbera has long filled-in the low slopes and valleys of Northern Italy. Barbera is considered the quintessential ‘wine of the people’—it’s meant to be enjoyed young. Barbera has dark staining pigments that dye the wine to near-black. Yet, the taste of Barbera has notes of strawberry and sour cherry—flavors synonymous with light-bodied wines. The lighter tannins and high acidity make it taste ‘juicy’ and creating the impression that the wine is both rich and light-bodied. It is a perfect choice to please almost any wine drinker at the table.
Malbec is a red wine that is a crowd-pleaser and easy to drink, with a ton of juicy fruit flavors. Known for its plump dark fruit flavors and smoky finish, Malbec wine offers a great alternative to higher priced Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Malbec is medium-bodied, easy it is to drink and loaded with jammy fruit. It goes with or without food. If you’re serving red wine to a diverse crowd, Malbec is always a safe, crowd-pleasing bet.
Again, there are no rules, just suggestions, people can drink whatever they like!