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Holiday Wining: Tips for choosing and buying

White wine two glasses horzThe “most wonderful time of the year” is at hand. Delight in it or dread it, the planning, partying and the pomp can take its toll. The last thing you need to confound you is choosing and buying wine. Our wine and spirits gal has got you covered with all the information and expert suggestions for making your spirits bright.

Family get togethers, informal drop-ins, and even the traditional turkey dinner are friendly with all sorts of wine–sparkling, still, red, white, dry, sweet. Choose what you like, stay within your budget and try to “balance” the wine with the food. (Okay, the occasional fussy dinner party can be a challenge when it comes to choosing wine. That’s where a good wine merchant comes in—more about that later).

Gear lightweight wines toward hors d’oeuvres and

You don't need the stress of worrying about holiday wine selections.

You don’t need the stress of worrying about holiday wine selections.

canapés. Kick it up a notch for appetizers, fish and white meats—chicken, turkey or the current festive favorite, rack of pork. If beef or lamb is on the table go full throttle and bring on the robust reds. For cakes, cookies, puddings and pies, the wine should be as intense and sweeter than the dessert.

If fine-tuning food and wine pairing is a concern, here are a few wine guidelines and tips that will keep and your blood pressure and pocket book in check.

Bubbly: The perfect meet and greet wine
Here are some expert suggestions for sparkling wines:

wine Oysters, BOKA

Bubbly goes well with appetizers and throughout the meal.

Prosecco is the darling of the bubbly world and perfect for celebrations for its affordability, pleasant fizz and easy going nature. (See Julie’s full article on Prosecco.)

Cava, Spain’s bubbly, is a great bang for the buck. Second fermented in the bottle (called methode Champenoise, like the real French stuff), it’s full on sparkle, tending toward the dry side.

Crémant hails from French districts outside Champagne. They can be astonishingly delicious and a good value. Some (almost!) rival the genuine article. Look for crémant from Burgundy, Alsace and most notably the Jura.

Those who like Champagne love it. (No need to say French Champagne because the real stuff has to come from the Champagne area of France). Whether rich and biscuity, zesty and citrusy, or creamy and fruity, champagne is rarely inexpensive. A bit of research does come in handy because it all comes down to preferred style and budget. For value/quality, I suggest “grower” champagnes. That means the grapes are grown and wine is made on a single estate. Look for brands such as Billiot, Vilmart, Gimmonet and Pierre Paillard.Champagne houses also have properties in California. Very good are Domaine Carneros, Roederer Estate and Domaine Chandon.

And–what could be a merrier kick-off to a party than a bubbly cocktail?

Here are few of my favorite fizzy cocktails:
Aperol Spritz: 3 parts Aperol (akin to Campari but lower in alcohol), 2 parts Prosecco and 1 part soda

Turkey clamors for palate cleansers like Riesling.

Turkey clamors for palate cleansers like Riesling.

Kir Royale: Kick up a basic kir (white wine and crème de cassis) with sparkle–5 parts bubbly wine to 1 part crème de cassis.

Champagne Cocktail: Indulgent. Frivolous. Sassy.
Get a copy of the 1934 flick, the “Thin Man” and Welcome in the New Year by joining Nora Charles and hubby Nick over a champagne cocktail or two. (Chase with an aspirin if you join Nora in several of these.)

This smart, sassy cocktail is traditionally served as a sugar cube, sprinkled with a dash or two of angostura bitters in a flute glass, over which is poured Champagne and Cognac. Should your budget be tapped, or if you are of the opinion that sloshing France’s finest over sugar is an utter waste, a value bubble and good brandy will substitute nicely—but don’t go too lowball. That’s simply not “on.”)

The next morning, whip up A Buck’s Fizz. A glass of chilled bubble, orange juice and a dash of grenadine make an amusing little eye-opener on a pajama-clad morning.

(For more fizzy fun and frolic check out on-line “10 Champagne Cocktails Recipes for New Year’s”—Esquire magazine)

White Wine

When it comes to turkey the palate clamors for something that refreshes after each bite of moist, meaty goodness and savory side dishes. That something is Alsace Riesling–German grape variety, French vinification– dryer and more viscous than its German cousin yet with just the right balance of fruit, heft and acidity to do the table proud. Rieslings from Washington State and Australia work well too. Creamy Chardonnay also fares well with the Butterball ™.

And then there is our sparkly friend once again. Serving bubbly throughout the meal keeps the palate lively and meal festive

If your shucking a couple of dozen oysters this New Year, look to affordable lip puckering Muscadet, (not to be confused with Muscat which is often sweet), Chablis (the real McCoy—from France), steely dry Riesling (Not all Rieslings are sweet), brut champagne or other dry bubbly or—–dark beer! Ninety percent of the red wines out there will make your taste buds feel like they just gnawed on a mouthful of iron filings. Just skip it.

Red Wine

Bordeaux reds pair beautifully with beef or lamb.

Bordeaux reds pair beautifully with beef or lamb.

Dry, fruity reds—light- to medium-bodied match well with traditional turkey dinner (and roast pork too). Pinot Noir, whether from Burgundy (my go-to), New Zealand, California, Oregon, or the Okanagan Valley, covers all the flavor bases. But young French Cotes du Rhone, Spanish Garnacha or Italian Chianti more than does justice too.

For beef or lamb, look to Bordeaux. This is the perfect time for wine collectors to hit their cellars for back-vintages from fine chateaux (older wine’s resolved tannins make it a match for turkey too). For the rest of us, young Bordeaux or Cotes du Bordeaux, preferably from the 2009 or 2010 vintages will do very nicely. Napa Valley Cabernet is a good choice and Argentinian Malbec always work well with beef.

Pink wine (Rose)

Summer days of wine and rosé(s) may have passed, but there is no reason not to think pink over the holidays, especially if ham figures in. A Bandol Rose or Rose de Provence from France is a fine idea and I’ve tasted some damn good rosé (Rosado) from Spain. Consider too pink prosecco, made from Pinot Noir (with flavor hints of cranberry). Pinot Noir governs rosé Champagne–as “serious” as it’s white counterpart, and a lovely way to spread Christmas cheer.

Rosés can have a place at the holiday table too.

Rosés can have a place at the holiday table too.

Sweet endings (and a beginning)

Sweet wines range from light and lively, to golden and luscious, to dark and sticky. Here are a few to consider:

Low alcohol, and subtly sweet Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante partner well with custardy or creamy desserts or cut through a rich Christmas cakes or pudding.

Muscat liqueur, tawny port, and Madeira (do not turn up your nose!) hold their own against rich puddings particularly that wonder of all wonderful British “afters,” sticky toffee pudding.

For cheese, go right for Port and Stilton or Sauternes with Roquefort–classic made-in-heaven wine and cheese marriages. And could there be a classier start to a dinner party (following the oysters and champagne) than Sauternes and foie gras?

For a sweet wine sure to please, scout out a sweet Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley—demi-sec Vouvray or better yet, Coteaux de Layon.

red wine

Wines served at the end of the meal must be able to stand up to the sweetness of dessert.

How much is enough?
Some folks drink nothing; others a glass or two; still others a bottle or two. It averages out. Then there’s the guy who nurses a beer (or guzzles a six pack) throughout the evening. You don’t want to run out of libation at your holiday party, but how much is enough?

Figure a ½ bottle per person. Honestly, this rule of thumb works.

A glass of dessert wine need be no more than a 3 oz. pour

Then it’s time to put on the coffee pot

More Help
If you’re still feeling bothered and brain twisted about holiday wine choices,
trust in a quality wine merchant with knowledgeable staff and let them do the legwork. Have a budget in mind, tell them the type of occasion, and number of guests. If you wish to avoid rushed and (heaven forbid!) less than smiley service when ordering a quantity of wine, please give the store a few days’ lead. Staff is run off its feet this time of year. (They and the stock can get exhausted).

Most importantly, relax and have a wonderful and safe holiday season…I wish you lots of good cheer and all the best for 2015. – Julie Pegg, RFT Senior Wine & Spirits Editor




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Julie Pegg, Wine & Spirits Editor, Canada

Julie Pegg has been writing about food, wine, and spirits for 15 years. She was a product consultant for 14 of her 24 years working for the British Columbia Liquor Board in Vancouver. She still keeps her hand in (and elbow firmly bent) at Dundarave Wine Cellars in West Vancouver, British Columbia. Julie is also a keen amateur cook who loves culinary travel. Farmers’ markets and wine shops are always her first stop. Julie is RFT’s Senior Wine & Spirits Editor, Canada.