How to Choose Wine for a Holiday Party

Welcome to the smack dab middle of the holiday season.  You’re probably headed to a holiday party tonight, as you have been 7 days a week since Thanksgiving (I kid, but only exaggerate a bit).

What do you bring the host on such an occasion? 

A bottle of wine, right?  But don’t just bring a bottle of wine, bring an expertly selected bottle of wine, perfect for the occasion.

Consider this your cheat sheet for a few different wines to impress your hosts and to get you through the holiday season looking like a wine expert.

An Eight Sides Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc, looking handsome while posing with the turkey.

An Eight Sides Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc, looking handsome while posing with the turkey.

To start, let’s cover a bit on what makes a wine ‘feast-friendly’ and versatile at the holiday table:

Feast Friendly Wines

The holidays, potluck dinners, and summertime barbecue cookouts with friends have one important thing in common: they all call for ‘feast friendly wines’.

What makes a wine ‘feast friendly’?

There are entire books that explore the topic of pairing wines with food.  If you really want to nerd out, my favorite is ‘What to Drink with What You Eat’ by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page.  Lots of good knowledge there, but we’ll keep it simple for today.

The challenges of a feast are a bit different than a single entrée dinner.  There are lots of different proteins, spices, veggies, dressings, even desserts, all on the table at once. This means that we have to toss aside some classic pairing techniques such as ‘matching palate weights’ and ‘if it grows together, it goes together’.  This leaves us with a few good rules of thumb that we can still lean on:

1)     Feast wines have great acidity

Generally we’re going to look for a wine with firm or even elevated acidity.  If your food is more acidic than you’re wine, the wine will seem flabby and lame, and we do not want that.  Wines with firm acidity help to clear the palate with each sip, getting you ready for that next bite of deliciousness. 

2)     Feast wines are low to moderate in tannin

Big, tannic Cabs and Syrahs are amazing with a grilled steak, the tannins cutting through the marbled fat and the char on the outside of the steak.  However, these tannins will overwhelm lighter meats like honey baked ham, turkey, or goose, and all of the veggie side dishes won’t stand a chance.  Let’s find something with lower tannin for feast day.

3)     Feast wines are lower in alcohol

Alcohol does a lot of important things in a wine, but for our purposes in choosing a wine to feast with, alcohol adds weight and body to a wine.  Again, this is great if we’re matching a Napa Cab with a hearty chunk of steak or a Barolo with a creamy bowl of mushroom risotto, but we’ve got lots on the table with a variety of different textures.  For a feast, it’s important that the wine does not overwhelm anything on the table, which is why we’re fans of lower alcohol wines for this occasion.  (Exception to this ‘feast rule’: sweet wines can have slightly higher alcohol, since they’re matching the sweetness and weight of desserts)

Now that we've got our ground rules, let get on to those recommendations!

White wines

Sauvignon Blanc – A highly aromatic grape with firm acidity.  From the old world, I’d suggest a Sancerre or Pouilly Fume, from the Loire Valley in France.  You’ll see bright citrus on the nose, distinctive stony minerality, and racy acidity on the palate.  If you’re looking for a riper, fuller style of Sauvignon Blanc, I’d suggest checking out wines from the Washington State or the central coast of California.  These new world regions are a bit warmer than the cool Loire Valley, so they will show some light tropicality that you won’t see in the old world examples.

Gruner Veltliner – A native of Austria, there are even wonderful examples coming out of Michigan (!) these days.  Gruner will show you tart green apple on the nose, along with a savory, peppery character. This is a lively wine on the tongue, young bottlings even show a slight spritz. A lovely palate cleanser between bites of food.

Chablis – This is Chardonnay from the very northern stretch of Burgundy, actually closer to Champagne than the Cote d’Or.  You can see the similarities between Chablis and Champagne immediately.  Chardonnay from Chablis is tart, nervy wine, with lovely acidity and minerality.  Except for the very highest end bottlings, Chablis does not see new oak barrels, so that buttery toastiness in Napa Chardonnay and other white Burgundies will be absent (this is good, since oak can be pleasant but is very hard to pair with food).

Red Wines

Pinot Noir – The reigning champion of the holiday feast, the Pinot Noir grape can create classic, versatile feasting wines.  You’ll typically see bright aromas of red raspberries, cherries, cranberries, with notes of earthiness giving the wine a solid foundation.  For the holidays, I would suggest either an old world Pinot Noir from Burgundy (if you like a bit more minerality and austerity), or a new world Pinot from the Willamette Valley or New Zealand (if you’re looking for a riper, more fruit-forward style).  I’d avoid any Pinot that tips the scale above 14% alcohol for feasting, this may be an indication of a richer style less likely to play nice with your meal.

Zinfandel – Another versatile food wine, Zinfandel will usually show a riper, jammier fruit profile than Pinot.  Ripe blackberries, raspberry liqueur, black pepper, and some light impressions of earth and oak will be common features in these wines.  Zinfandel is low in tannin, smooth and friendly, making it a sure crowd pleaser at the table.  Zins can get very ripe, and can sometimes be vinified into 15.5%-16.0% ABV juggernauts, so be on the lookout for more restrained representations.  Look for a Zinfandel in a lighter style, something that tips the scales 13.5%-14.5% alcohol.  

Sweet Wines

Often overlooked, sweet wines have higher levels of residual sugar and pair well with everyone’s favorite course: dessert. Here’s two picks that are sure to be perfect companions to the dessert table.

Port – This fortified sweet wine hails from the Douro Valley in Portugal.  The wines are made with a smattering of up to 30 indigenous grapes, including Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa and Tinta Roriz. Fermentation begins just like traditional table wine production, but when about half of the grape sugars have been converted to alcohol, a neutral grape spirit is added to the fermenting juice, fortifying the wine to around 20% ABV and stopping the fermentation while sugar is still present.  This leaves us with a sweet wine that is well built for long aging.  For a dessert wine that won’t break the bank, I would recommend a 10-Year Aged Tawny Port, which will go well with your pecan pies and other rich desserts.

Moscato d’Asti – this lightly sweet sparkling wine from the Muscat à Petits Grains grape comes from Piedmont in Northern Italy.  Moscato’s light, effervescent character is a perfect pairing for desserts with more delicate flavor, like sorbet, ice cream, or sugar cookies that you steal from Santa on Christmas Eve. 

I hope this post was a helpful guide to a few wine styles that will work well for your next holiday feast.  If you've got any questions or would like any specific wine recommendation, please feel free to email me, or leave a comment at the bottom of this post.  

Happy Holidays to all!