When you make wine your life’s work, certain things become inevitable. There are the late-night calls from friends at the liquor store, wondering which bottle to buy. There’s getting handed the wine list by family or friends at restaurants – even if you really just wanted to drink beer all night.
And then there’s getting asked, every single year right about now, which wines to get for the family holiday dinner. As a wine professional, I'm always happy to help – but the funny part about the holiday-dinner wine-pairing plea for help is that the answer never changes: Pour the same types of wine at every holiday dinner, year after year.
This is the way to go for the simple reason that tastes vary around the table, yet the food on the plate is always essentially the same. There’s:
Some sort of light starter soup, salad or both.
A neutral protein like turkey or ham that’s jazzed up with more boldly flavored side dishes.
An array of desserts with wildly contrasting flavors.
So sticking to the tried-and-true, consistent lineup of wines is smart regardless of whether you choose the wine to match the food on the plate or, more probably, make the more quirky members of the family bearable for a few hours.
Sparkling wine is a staple of the holidays, even if you’re just celebrating a day out of the office. But you needn’t overspend on Champagne – go with Cava, Prosecco or a sparkling Riesling, all of which provide the same advantages.
First, you can do small pours and serve a lot of people with one bottle, right before dinner. Second, sparkling wine’s carbon dioxide helps alcohol hit the bloodstream a little faster, especially on an empty stomach – so everyone will get in a good mood, quickly. (Critical, if your guests were delayed by traffic, weather or both.) Lastly, sparkling wine matches with almost any food, so the bottle can be finished at the table as the first course lands.
Most people think of Chardonnay as the drink of choice for cougars and book clubs. It’s a shame because, in the right hands, Chardonnay is perhaps the world’s greatest white wine.
Steer clear of overly oaky, buttery examples, which tend to be more expensive due to the wineries’ cost of aging the wine in barrels. Instead look for a more balanced, restrained, yet fully ripe and fruit-forward style of Chardonnay that pairs perfectly with lighter starter dishes – especially salads, seafood and soups. No matter what first course is on the menu, this is the wine that’ll match.
The Main Course
A Versatile Red and an Aromatic White
At almost every holiday dinner, the side dishes are the stars. The turkey, ham, goose, lamb, or whatever is usually the uninteresting, overcooked, flavor-free protein we all chew to the point of lockjaw, then lie about how delicious it is. Then we gorge ourselves on much more exciting sweet potatoes, stuffing, string beans, macaroni and cheese, and a half dozen other dishes with bigger, bolder flavors. So put a bottle each of food-friendly red and white on the table, and let everyone serve themselves based on the dishes they gravitate toward.
A red like the below blend of Zin, Cabernet, Merlot, and Petit Verdot can complement just about any dish without overpowering it. And the below Gewürztraminer has much more overt aromas and flavors than your typical white, which allows it to complement the sweeter-style dishes that land on the dinner table at this time of year like roasted yams and honey-glazed ham.
Port is perhaps the most under appreciated wine out there. Long ago dismissed as the drink of old men in wingback chairs discussing Margaret Thatcher, Port is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Made of red wine grapes fortified with brandy, then aged for several years in oak casks, Port is both high in alcohol and sweetness, making it a perfect way to end a meal and complement strong cheeses, chocolate desserts, jammy pies... you name it.
The best part, though, is the value. You needn’t worry if the bottle isn’t finished, since tawny Ports are aged in barrels for several years before they’re bottled (ruby Ports, by contrast, age in the bottle). This means the wine can be exposed to oxygen for about six weeks after the bottle is first opened. So drink the rest of it while you’re stuck doing dishes, and then continue it over the next several days as you attempt to forget the more embarrassing comments uttered by your in-laws over dinner.
Our pick: 2011 C. da Silva Presidential Port Duo