Holiday Wine Guide

Well, friends, it’s the most wonderful time of the year!  Time to gather with family and friends around the fire… sing carols… light candles… generally make merry.  And what’s merrier than wine?  You might be wondering what bottle to bring to your in-laws, or what to pour if you’re hosting, or what to chug when your Aunt Matilda corners you and demands to know when you’re going to learn how to hold onto a man.  Look no further, darling readers, because I can answer all of those questions and more.

First things first – sparklers! 

There’s nothing more festive than a glass of bubbles.  But please, oh please, don’t call these wines “champagne.”  Repeat after messy: “Champagne comes from the Champagne region of France.  Anything else is sparkling wine.”  Actually, sparklers can have different names depending on their country of origin.  For instance, a sparkling wine from France, but not from Champagne, is called cremant.  If it’s from Spain, it’s cava.  Italian vintners offer up Prosecco.  Listen up, now, there’s nothing, I repeat, nothing wrong with drinking a sparkling wine that’s not from Champagne. This weekend hubby and I had a wonderful rose Cremant d’Alsace (a.k.a. a rose sparkler from the Alsace region of France) by Wolfberger.  Check it out.  It was dry and berry-rific and luscious.  And you can’t go wrong with anything from my absolute favorite California sparkling wine producer – Domaine Carneros.  Anything from their widely-available brut to their lovely rose to their high end “Le Reve” wine is phenomenal.  There’s no better wine for a celebration, in my opinion, than a sparkling wine.

Winter whites…

White wines are always a good option at the holidays, because pretty much everyone will drink them.  There are a few people who will only drink red, but in my experience most people will happily drink white wine.  But they can be tricky at the same time, because they vary widely in terms of body, aroma and flavor.  For instance, while a crisp, refreshing sauvignon blanc is absolutely delicious, it’s probably better suited to quaffing pool-side while noshing on a farmers market salad sometime in July.  For fireside sipping, you want something with more heft.  Consider a California chardonnay (I love the offerings from Carneros, the Russian River Valley, or Santa Barbara).  One widely available chard that smells and tastes like a small-batch production instead of a mass market wine is the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay from La Crema.  My parents introduced me to this wine and I could have sat with the full glass in my hand all night, just breathing in the aroma.  (Don’t worry, I did eventually drink it.)  La Crema’s Sonoma Coast is available in pretty much every wine shop I’ve been to, and at around $20, is a good value for an excellent wine. 

Or you might consider a white Burgundy.  These wines are also, generally, made with chardonnay grapes, although a few Burgundy producers also offer up aligote.  (But it’s extremely difficult to find in the U.S., so don’t worry about accidentally buying it.  If you buy a bottle of white Burgundy from an American wine store and they’re not making it super obvious that it’s aligote, it’s definitely chard.)  Burgundy wines follow the French classification system, as they must.  French wines are generally classified into Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village, and table wine, depending on the location of the vineyard the particular grapes hail from.  Grand Cru is the best, is almost certain to be prohibitively expensive (especially after you toss in the cost of importing it) and is hard to find.  Don’t waste your time looking for a Grand Cru, unless you are proposing and have a wad of cash burning a hole in your pocket.  Premier Cru, the next-best designation, is still expensive, but you can find a reasonably-priced bottle now and then and it’s very, very good.  Village wines will – duh – include the name of the village on the bottle.  If you have a well-stocked wine shop with a French focus, you’ll likely find a bottle or two with a Village designation, and they’re generally very good.  And of course, you can’t go wrong with a wine from Burgundy sub-region Chablis.  Chablis produces all white, all chard, no oaked, and its wines have a delicious, refreshing flinty character.  Chablis wines are some of my absolute favorites.  Just please, please don’t buy anything labeled “California Chablis,” or my heart will shed tears of grape juice for you.

Red Red Wine… 

If you are serving a roast, or you just like reds better than whites, there are many, many options that would work wonderfully for the holidays.  First of all – wine purists, please feel free to close your eyes and start humming now – you can’t ignore Beaujolais Nouveau.  Great wine it is not.  So what is it?  Fun, fruity, festive and cheap.  Yes, there are plenty who scoff at Beaujolais Nouveau, saying “if I want candy, I’ll eat candy, goshdarnit!” – and maybe, maybe those types will consider the slightly earthier Beaujolais-Villages.  Which is good too.  But you shouldn’t dismiss Nouveau.  The current season begins with a release of bottles in early November, and those bottles are really only good until Valentine’s Day.  But if you’re entertaining a group that likes their wines flighty and fruity – and drinks some volume – consider Nouveau.

Okay, say you’re too snobby for Beaujolais Nouveau.  (You’re missing out, but whatevs.)  Try bringing a little South of France sunshine to your holiday with a Cotes du Rhone.  The Cotes du Rhone region is found in Provence – land of suntans, olives and lavender, and lovely grapevine-planted hillsides (like in the picture heading this post).  The wines are luscious and fruity, but earthy at the same time.  Cotes du Rhone wines come at all different price points – you can pay top dollar for a bottle from neighboring region Chateauneuf-du-Pape – but many Rhone reds are a very good value for the excellent quality of the wine you get.  Hubby and I drove through several towns in the Cotes du Rhone last year, and we’re particularly fond of Gigondas, where we had lunch (and I drank a carafe of local rose, nearly without help, and then slept all the way to Burgundy).  A good wine shop will probably stock a few bottles from Gigondas and nearby Vacqueyras, but if you look even closer for offerings from tiny Provencal villages like Sablet and Seguret, you’ll be amply rewarded.  A good Cotes du Rhone will set you back anywhere from $15-30, so they’re not cheapie wines, but provided you like your dinner guests, you’ll find these wines are worth more than their price point.

What are your favorite holiday wines?  And happy sipping, friends!

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