’Tis the season for festive celebrations, grand family feasts—and questions about holiday wine pairing. What’s a great wine for the holidays? Which wine for prime rib? How about dessert?
And this time of year, drinking seasonally means drinking bigger. Whether red or white, bigger wines carry more richness, body and flavor intensity to warm the soul on chilly days. Think wines with big ripe fruit, higher alcohol or sugar content, and bold, herbaceous, nutty or spicy flavors. And since it’s the holidays, it’s the ideal time to select more elevated versions—meaning it’s time to pull out those special bottles that have been tucked away waiting for the right occasion.
Chilled Seafood Platters: Dreaming of oysters on the half-shell with a citrusy vinaigrette or salty caviar? One may go for sparkling, and with acidity. The bubbles and acidity enliven the palate and set off the salty brininess of the caviar. Lighter-bodied versions won’t overpower the delicate freshness of the oysters. Bright, citrusy, high-acid white wines from a non-aromatic grape are another excellent choice.
Recommended: Lioco’s Estero Chardonnay, Russian River Valley $38 (still); or Cartograph’s Brut Zero, Russian River Valley $68 (sparkling).
Latkes or Other Fried Foods: One may go for sparkling with acidity. Fried, salty foods are a palate joy when paired with sparkling or high-acid whites. The bubbles and acid cleanse the palate of fat and play deliciously against the salt. Medium-bodied versions meet the weight of the potatoes. Adding applesauce? One may select a wine with a touch of sweetness.
Recommended: Seghesio’s Keyhole Ranch Vermentino, Russian River Valley ($30); Smith-Story’s Brut Sparkling, NV, Mendocino County ($47).
Cheese Board: It’s best to go for fruit-rich, high-acid, white wines. Many medium weight, high acid, fruity white wines accommodate a range of cheeses. Vibrant whites with a little extra body match the cheese’s texture and cut through its richness, while its fruit plays up the earthy, fruity, herbal notes of each cheese. Pinot blanc, grenache blanc, chenin blanc or chardonnay are good options.
Recommended: Dutton-Goldfield’s Shop Block Pinot Blanc, Green Valley ($33); Marimar Estate’s La Masía Chardonnay ($44).
Glazed Ham with Mustard: One may go bright, fruity. The salty-sweetness of the ham is just gorgeous with high-acid, fruity wines. The wine’s acid matches that of the mustard, while the fruit and acidity set off the meat’s sweet-salt profile. One may choose a wine with a lighter profile to highlight the meat’s delicate flavor. Bright, red-fruited pinot noirs, and aromatic, fruity riesling.
Recommended: Bannister’s Dry Riesling, Cole Ranch ($31); Montagne Russe BirchBark Pinot Noir ($44).
Turkey: Diners may add the fruit. For a naturally delicious pairing, one may select a wine with the same flavors as a relish, sauce or side. For the traditional turkey dinner, one may find a wine with cranberry, plum or even spiced apple flavors, perhaps one that has the same aromas as those wafting from the stuffing. Best to avoid tannic wines that double down on the dry turkey. Instead, it’s suggested to go fruit forward. Fruity-earthy pinot noir, gamay, Barbera are just a few options. Or one may pair with a rich, warm-spiced chardonnay.
Recommended: Longboard’s Vincenzo Old Vine Carignane, Mendocino ($42); Marine Layer’s Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills ($65).
Prime Rib: It’s best to go with tannins. A firmly tannic wine pairs wonderfully with a well-marbled, juicy slab of beef. The ribbons of fat soften the tannins, pulling the fruit flavors forward. A wine with herbal hints bridges nicely to the roast’s herb-rubbed crust. A medium-weight red with good acidity balances the richness of the meat and allows its rare-pink flavors to shine. Cabernet sauvignon, syrah, tempranillo, structured malbecs, Nebbiolo. With horseradish, one may opt for a fruitier version to balance the heat.
Recommended: Stuhlmuller Vineyards’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($45); Ramey’s Syrah, Rodgers Creek Vineyard, Petaluma Gap ($65); Benovia’s Cooley Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Northern Sonoma ($100).
Beef Tenderloin or Short Ribs: One may go silky and full-bodied, choosing the biggest red blends. Those fall-off-the-bone short ribs and tender beef tenderloin may not have enough fat for youthful, high-tannin reds. But they are a marvel with wines boasting an abundance of darker fruits and voluptuous, silky mouthfeel. This is when to pull out that Super Tuscan or Châteauneuf-du-Pape that’s been cellaring (and softening). GSM red blends and top-tier young malbecs are smashing.
Recommended: Acorn Hill’s Alegria Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($48) Fritz Winery’s Malbec, Dry Creek Valley $55; Unti Vineyards Cuvée Foudre, Dry Creek Valley ($70).
Basic rule is to select a wine sweeter than the food. Sweet desserts lower one’s perception of sugar in wine, making a dry wine taste bitter. But when a sweet wine’s sugar is reduced, one is left with decadent, ripe fruit and vibrant, balanced acidity. With apple, pear, lemon and custard desserts, one may look for late harvest or sweet white wines. Classic muscat-based wines are a nice choice for moderately sweet desserts and fresh fruit.
Recommended: Toad Hollow’s Risqué Sweet & Sparkling ($19); Bodkin’s Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc ($28, 375 ml). For desserts of chocolate or berries, one may sip late harvest, sweet or port-style red wines. Moshin Vineyards’s Loco Moshin Zinfandel ($28); Pedroncelli’s Four Grapes Vintage Port ($35) are options.
Mary Beth Vierra is a certified wine educator and Italian wine scholar. She is founder of Crush Course (crushcoursewine.com), helping trade professionals and enthusiasts navigate the world of wine, and lives in Healdsburg.