DRINK: Christmas Wine Selection – Unwrapping the Possibilities

Unlike Thanksgiving, where the menu, since it never really changes, is known well in advance and the process of selecting what to drink with it is something that can be done fairly easily; Christmas Dinner, and it’s accompanying wine selection, tends to be a bit of a struggle for most. This is due in no small part because there are many possible traditional dishes, particularly entrees, to choose from. Duck, Goose, Pheasant, Capon (that poor rooster…), Crown Roast of Beef, Venison, all come to mind. Turkey, at least in my household, thankfully does not.

So, what to do when presented with such a diverse set of eating possibilities?  Is there one wine to cover them all? Since the accompaniments for each meat choice tend be be as differing as the meats themselves, I would say no. This does not mean, however, that the evening’s beverage list can’t include a few staples, like bubbly, dessert wines, maybe a good Sherry (early or late in the meal, it doesn’t matter, since there are different sherry styles from dry Fino to sweet Pedro Ximinez).

For the meal, though, the wine will invariably be red. And unlike Thanksgiving, which tends to favor lighter, less tannic wines, Christmas dinner, which features more intensely flavored (mostly fattier) fare, usually pairs better with full bodied reds, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux-style blends, Rhone-style Reds, anything with good backbone, really. Concept laid out, let’s walk through the day:

DAYLIGHT:                                                                                                                 Presents opened, breakfast/brunch consumed, fire roaring, it’s time for some festive drinks and nibbles. Our family tends to drink bubbles at this time. There are lots to choose from. Traditionalists would probably go for Champagne, and I would tend to agree. Nothing creates a more festive mood than bottles of actual French Champagne, especially big bottles. So, do yourself and your family a favor and get whatever you buy in magnums (or larger). You won’t regret it. As for other types of Sparkling wine (this is one time where I would stick with something other than Prosecco, of which even the driest Brut tends to be too sweet). Go for California Sparkling, Franciacorta (Italy), Cava (Spain), or the like. Something that is methode champenoise and at least slightly oaked. It will better compliment those smoked salmon canapes your Aunt (not mine) spent all day making yesterday. Prices vary widely in these categories, so it’s good to speak with your retailer and set a range you want to stay within.

Alternative options:                                                                                                                         Fino Sherry: The lightest, least sweet of the Sherry category, Fino goes wonderfully with the cheeses, nuts, and dried fruits sitting on the coffee table. Brands to look for are Lustau ($16), Williams & Humbert Dry Sack ($15 – Dry Sack is a medium Sherry, not quite as dry as a Fino, but still a good choice here).

White wine: always a good choice for non-bubbly people (do they exist?). How about a Sancerre (France) or DOCG Soave (Italy). Classic whites with nice traces of minerality and good acidity (like tannins in reds, acidity is a good thing when drinking with food). Brands to look for: of the Sancerre: Sauvion “Les Fondettes” ($23); of the Soave: Cantina Del Castello ($16), or Sereole ($15) which is produced by Bertani.                                                                                                                                                                                                              

DINNER:                                                                                                                   First, we need to know what we’re eating. It’s actually less difficult than people think, as the birds involved are somewhat similar, as are the meats. So, let’s separate the entree hopefuls into two distinct categories that we’ll call “Feathers” and “Fur.”

Feathers:                                                                                                                 Duck, Goose, Pheasant, are all fairly rich, dark meats. Capon being the only one of the flock that actually has white meat to offer. That said, it’s the sauces that tend to accompany them, usually quite fragrant and fruit-driven  that drive the pairing. Rich, soft reds do well here, a little spiciness in the wine is a nice component to keep in mind, as well. Rhone varietals like Syrah, Grenache ( Garnacha in Spain), and even certain styles of Pinot Noir would do well. Here are a few to consider:

Rhone (France):                                                                                                                                  M. Chapoutier. Any of them. Michel Chapoutier is widely regarded as one of the Rhone’s, if not the world’s, greatest winemakers. His wines range from inexpensive to over-the-top. all are worthy.                                                                                                                                   Domaine du Pegau, Chateauneuf du Pape: Various versions made. All good.  Prices start around $60. The 2010 Cuvée Réservée (SRP $120) was #7 on the Wine Spectator Top 100 List this year (though not ready to drink yet). Laurence Féraud and her father Paul make consistently great CDP!

Spain:                                                                                                                                       Garnacha (Grenache) is one of Spain’s great varietals, and is planted widely. Priorat, in Catalunya South of Barcelona, may make some of the best.  The Priorat pioneers: Rene Barbier (Clos Mogador), Alvaro Palacios (Finca Dofi & l’Ermita), Jose Luis Perez (Clos Martinet), and Daphne Glorian (Clos Erasmus) all make great, (and generally quite expensive) wines. However there are some quite affordable ones as well. One of my favorite Priorat producers is:

Mas d’en Gil, family owned, small production, well priced. Their Como Vella is  about $29, their Clos Fonta  about $90.

In Northern Catalunya, and I’ve written about this brand before, is Eccoci Winery. Owned by designer Elsa Peretti. Wonderful wines from french varietals. For this meal, choose the Eccomi Tinto Super Premium (The Gold Label, $48).

Regarding Pinot Noir:                                                                                                                            If you want a Pinot Noir, think California, where the warmer climate allows for more extraction and bigger wines. A good bet is something from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara. Sanford, which graced every wine list I ever created when I did that sort of thing, has been around since the 1970’s and makes some of the best.  Prices start around $40.

Fur:                                                                                                                           Beef, Lamb, Venison. They all call for a wine that’s substantial, like Cabernet Sauvignon. A wine with big body and big tannins. We obviously need a Bordeaux.  That said, this list should be pretty easy, right?   Yes and no, Cabernet is made all over the world now, and made well. So lets pick some from outside Bordeaux:

California:                                                                                                                                           Napa, California’s home of Cabernet, is not my strongest region, knowledge-wise. Yet I do know a few gems that are worth the steep prices that the upper-tier Napa Cabs generally command:

Miner, The Oracle ($90). Dave Miner’s Bordeaux blend. He also makes a series of  great varietal Cabernets with prices starting around $30.                                                             Chimney Rock, Stags Leap District ($65). Great “Estate Cab” from Napa’s smallest and arguably most acclaimed sub-appelation. Elevage, their Bordeaux blend, is $90.

Chile:                                                                                                                                                    We all know Chile makes good inexpensive Cabs, but did you know it also makes world-class hi-end Cabernets as well? Here are a couple worth every penny:

Montes Alpha M, Santa Cruz, Apalta ($75). Aurelio Montes’ Bordeaux Blend. 80% Cabernet. A masterful Cabernet from one of Chile’s greatest producers (and, by far, Chilean wine’s greatest ambassador).                                                                                                   Concha y Toro, Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon, Puente Alto Vineyard, Maipo Valley ($125).  In the 1980’s, Concha y Toro set out on a long-term mission to make Chile’s best Cabernet. This is it. Separate vineyard, separate winery(!), a benchmark for all of Chile, if not the world.

None of the red wines just mentioned (excluding certain wines available from Chapoutier) come cheaply. So, if they’re above your spending cap, I suggest discussing options that fit your budget with your retailer.

If you have to feature a white for those allergic reaction types and resveratrol haters, make it Chardonnay, which will have the body, depth, and flavor profile it takes to stand up to the meats. Here ‘s a good bet:

Landmark Vineyards, Sonoma County, CA ($25-$50). Winemaker Greg Stach makes some of California’s best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. For Chardonnay, the Overlook is a steal at $25, He also makes a Coastal selection and a couple of Russian River Valley selections. Both a bit pricier, and also very good.

There you have it, Christmas wines for 2013, unwrapped.

By the way, if you’re looking for presents for someone who’s a wine afficionado, all of these also make good gifts. Happy Holidays!

~David Ransom


By Melanie Young

The Connected Table is a media production company, radio show, podcast and blog specializing in wine, food and travel. Listen to The Connected Table LIVE and The Connected Table SIPS on iHeart and other major podcast platforms. Melanie Young and David Ransom are wine and food specialists, speakers and writers. We are experts in helping brands promote their products, destinations and services through custom content.