6 Steps for Perfect Holiday Wine Pairings

It’s the season for a party, and you’ve been collecting recipes for months, planning every last detail of the grand event.

But as the date looms closer, you realize you’ll have to make the somewhat stressful decision of what your guests will drink. Don’t think of wine as an afterthought, but an exclamation point to your meal. And by all means, stress no more.

I don’t believe in a lot of rules when it comes to wine, but the following 6 guidelines will streamline buying and ensure delicious couplings. For ultra-easy, custom pairings, read below and discover some of my favorite holiday picks, suited to your taste and table.

1. Think intense.

The holiday meal is a smorgasbord of intense flavors: cinnamon, thyme, sage, nutmeg, brown sugar, cranberry, rosemary, horseradish, cream, pepper. Give the wine a fighting chance by making sure it’s built to stand up to all that other stuff.

The easiest reference for intensity is to check the wine’s alcohol level. For holiday meals filled with both sweet and savory flavors, I like to shoot for wines with a minimum of 14 percent alcohol by volume. Fifteen percent is even better. Higher alcohol wines have big, voluptuous texture and bold flavors; they won’t get lost among the Brussels sprouts and maple-glazed ham. Although some whites (French Condrieu and Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc come to mind) can pair well with holiday dinners, I typically stick with reds. Their flavors are more concentrated.

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2. Avoid Italian wines. (That was hard to say.)

I adore Italian wines, and they are typically extremely well-suited for food. Italians might have a food-centric view of life, but it doesn’t mean their wines are universally suited to go with everything. Italian wines are best with Italian foods—fresh, simple, acidic dishes with straightforward flavors. Save your Brunello, Barolo and Chianti for another time, when they can shine.

3. Lean more toward sweet than bitter.

If your wines are not at least as sweet as your foods, they stand the chance of being clobbered. A regal Bordeaux can taste downright wimpy paired with sweet potatoes. That doesn’t mean you have to skip to drinking dessert wine (although there is one on my list!). It simply means choosing wines that have more ripe fruit, as opposed to bitter tannin or subtle earth. Wines from California and Australia are safe bets.

4. Pair with your guests too.

Know who you are serving. Are you hosting the holiday for a bunch of wine connoisseurs? Better look for off-the-beaten-path wines. You’ll impress them, and the wines will serve as a conversation piece at the table. Is wine on the table just a formality? If your family would rather be drinking beer or Bourbon, don’t force wine on them. And if you do, don’t worry about spending a lot. My list of recommendations includes some stellar wines that cost less than $20. If your guest list involves a Napa or Aussie die-hard, keep this in mind, and use that as a factor in decision making. You will be a most gracious and thoughtful host.

5. Offer variety.

If you have a small enough group (12 or less) and a large enough table, consider providing three wine glasses each place setting, and pre-pouring three small servings (about 2 ounces) of three different wines. This provides a fantastic conversation starter, and is a fun experiment with food and wine pairing.

6. Start with sparkling.

No matter the occasion, handing your guests an elegant flute of wine filled with tiny bubbles sets a festive tone. People stand up straighter, smile more often, and are usually on better behavior (unless they have too many). Rose Champagnes and sparkling wines are rich and refreshing, pairing well with appetizers, and cleanse the palate in anticipation of the big feast.

Melanie’s Wine List

$: Value holiday wines (around $20 per bottle)
$$: Splurge holiday wines (around $50 per bottle)
$$$: The bomb. My fantasy bottle. The one I would choose if money were no object.

NOTE: all of these wines are currently available at Schaefer’s Wines, Foods & Spirits, 9965 Gross Point Road, Skokie, 847-677-9463.

Juicy + Earthy wines for turkey:
$: Domaine Alain Michaud Morgon, France ($21)
$$: Bergstrom ‘Cumberland Reserve’ pinot noir, Oregon ($43)
$$$: Domaine Dujac 1988 Charmes-Chambertain, France ($490)

Savory + Smoky wines for turkey:
$: Goats du Roam ‘Goat Rotie,’ South Africa ($21)
$$: Clos de Brusquieres Chateauneuf du Pape, France ($50)
$$$: Penfold’s ‘Grange’ 1988, Australia ($490)

Spicy + Bold wines for ham:
$: Tres Picos garnacha, Spain ($16)
$$: Boekenhoutskloof syrah, South Africa ($50)
$$$: Paul Jaboulet Aine Hermitage ‘La Chappelle’ 1990 ($1,800–1.5L)

Smooth + Fruity wines for ham:
$: Cline ‘Ancient Vines’ zinfandel, California ($15)
$$: Freeman Russian River pinot noir, California ($50)
$$$: Chateau d’Yquem 1976 Sauternes, France ($900)

Rustic + Brawny wines for beef:
$: Fritz Dry Creek zinfandel, California ($18)
$$: Tablas Creek ‘Esprit de Beaucastel,’ California, ($50)
$$$: Beaucastel ‘Jaques Perrin’ Chateauneuf du Pape, France 1989 ($1,800–1.5L)

Jammy + Intense wines for beef:
$: Ben Marco malbec, Argentina ($19)
$$: Elyse ‘Morisoli Vineyard’ cabernet, Napa, Calif. ($60)
$$$: Araujo Estate ‘Eisle Vineyard’ cabernet, Napa, Calif. 2007 ($300)