Every year, as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, I am the recipient of requests for wine recommendations for the holidays. It’s a job I take seriously since Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days of the year for several reasons, chief among them being the food. Whether I’m making Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish, Scooter’s Southwestern Dressing, brining and roasting a heritage turkey, ordering a smoked bird from Greenberg Turkey, or grilling lamb chops or a rib eye, what to drink with my feast is always on my mind. It’s not a small matter.
And then there’s Christmas (and New Year’s Eve and Day). Plenty of opportunities to try something new and to open and savor some of your tried-and-true favorites. It’s a wonderful time of the year …
My view on pairing wines with Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities is simple, and is aligned with what I often say: Drink what you find pleasurable. It really is that easy. You open a bottle of, say, Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir, from Inman Family Wines — which is one of my recommendations this year — and snack on some cheese straws while drinking it. Perfect. The salty/spicy flavor profile of the Southern staple (click here for a great recipe from Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock) marries well with the rosé’s remarkable acidity, and all is well for you and your guests.
Now, you could as aptly open a bottle of Piquette from Noblemen Wines (another of my holiday selections this year) with those cheese straws, and I daresay your pleasure would in no way be diminished. Lively, low in alcohol, a great way to begin a day of celebration.
What I’m saying is this: Yes, there are a number of “rules” that most people are told they should (or must) follow when pairing wines with food, and some of them do have merit. There are wines that clash on the palate with salmon. I would not pair salmon with a boldly tannic California Cabernet Sauvignon (and here I am thinking of the 2018 Scattered Peaks Sage Ridge Vineyard Cabernet, which is also on this year’s holiday wine list). Neither would I drink an Auslese with a grilled rib eye or pasta with Bolognese sauce.
I could lay out a few more of these strictures, but you get the picture, and here is the main thing: Once you actually “taste” why a wine should never be be paired with a particular dish or type of food you can proceed to write your own set of rules. When that’s done, a certain sense of freedom opens and you are on your way to wine-pairing liberation. You will most likely not want to eat salmon and drink a Cabernet Sauvignon at the same meal, but you will have the confidence to know which pairing rules apply to you.
Embrace your own palate
So, on to my 2021 Holiday Wine Selections. As with previous years, this is a highly subjective and personal roster of wines, bottles that appeal to my palate and sensibilities. I am an eclectic consumer of wines — yes, Riesling is my true love, my passion, but you will find me drinking Albariño as often as Chenin Blanc; one day I crave Syrah, the next Cabernet Franc or a Barolo or Müller-Thurgau — and hope my approach appeals to you. (Of course, I would love to include many more bottles on this list, but space does not permit me that luxury.)
At the least, I urge you to never, ever paint yourself into a corner when it comes to what you drink. I’ve met too many people who profess to like Chardonnay only, or who tell me they drink wines only if they garnered “at least” 96 points from this or that critic. Such individuals are generally lackluster conversationalists whose culinary predilections mirror their wine dogmas. These people are best avoided.
To our list.
Sparkling and Rosé
I wrote that a bottle of Piquette would be a great way to commence a holiday gathering, so that’s what we’ll do. I’ve chosen Noblemen Wines (see above), a producer based in Kerrville, Texas, to supply our effervescent, low-alcohol (7 percent), refreshing, and thirst-quenching Piquette, and it’s a worthy and fun entry on the Sparkling and Rosé category. It will cost you $20 a bottle from Noblemen. Mourvedre and Teroldego skins, plus some added carbonation, are the ingredients behind this unfiltered offering.
I recently had the pleasure of tasting with Remi Cohen at Domaine Carneros, and the 2016 Ultra Brut ($48) from that California house is our next wine. Cohen, the CEO of Domaine Carneros, guided a small group through some excellent bottles on a rainy October afternoon, and I was not alone in picking the Ultra Brut as my favorite on the day (the 2014 Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs was no slouch, of course). Crisp and fresh, this Chardonnay (53 percent)/Pinot Noir (43 percent) bottling should stand beside your seafood tower, because it was made for raw oysters and butter-poached lobster.
A Champagne is next, the Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve ($70), a non-vintage beauty of a wine whose finish will (should) stun you. I think it represents a great value in the rarefied world of Champagne. You can spend more, much more, on a bottle (say, $350 for a 2013 Louis Roederer Cristal), but this Heidsieck selection will more than satisfy your needs. It’s a blend of 60 crus, and it’s full of superb white fruits.
We go back to California now, and to the 2016 Frank Family Vineyards Brut Rosé ($55). You and your guests will love to look at this bottle, because the wine possesses a seducing, tantalizing coral hue. Brioche and raspberries dominate the aroma, and you’ll appreciate the crispness and minerality here. I opened a bottle recently and paired it with a room-temperature round of Brie, and you might enjoy doing the same.
To round out this section, the 2020 Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir ($38) from Inman Family Wines. Estate fruit from the Olivet Grange Vineyard, low alcohol (12 percent), and luscious flavors of strawberries and white flowers. This wine is one of my go-to Rosés, and I recommend it on a regular basis. Kathleen Inman is the winemaker, and her story is a good one … you can learn more about her here.
The thoughts of most people gravitate toward white wines when they think of pairings for turkey, and they are not wrong. As you’ll see in these selections, however, turkey is not the sole food on the menu during the holidays. Oysters, stuffing or dressing, lobster, mushrooms, and caviar (to name but a few items) are also in the mix, and white wines are great with all of these things. Again, taste and taste, and come up with your own rules.
Let’s begin with a Russian River Valley Chardonnay that is a perennial solid choice. It’s from Jordan Vineyard & Winery, and the 2019 vintage sells for $36; older vintages are also available, and this wine ages gracefully. (I profiled Maggie Kruse, Jordan’s head winemaker, in Wine Talk back in 2019, and she’s now firmly in control of the estate’s program.) I sampled this vintage several weeks ago and would gladly pair it with a roasted turkey at my table.
Washington State is the source of our next wine, and I’m excited about this one. It’s the 2019 Öömrang Estate Siegerrebe ($75), a lovely, delicate expression of the German grape. (Siegerrebe can be translated to “Champion Vine” or “Victory Vine” and its name refers to its ability to produce high yields.) This wine is highly aromatic, with a supple mouthfeel … and it’s fun to drink. I enjoyed it with a mushroom risotto, and if you’ve never tasted a Siegerrebe, don’t skip this one. (I’ll have a profile of the producer in the coming weeks.)
Chenin Blanc is never a bad idea, and the 2020 Domaine Huët Vouvray Le Mont Moelleux Première Trie is an excellent idea. I’ve seen it offered for between $69 and $75 recently, and to be frank, anything from this producer is worth your time, attention, and money. Your turkey and stuffing will both pair well with this wine, and your guests will envy your taste.
An Albariño hailing from Lodi is next, from Mettler Family Vineyards. The 2020 vintage was recently released, and you’ll likely find it and the 2019 for the grand price of $20. Buy them both if you can, and you’ll have no regrets. The Mettler family has been farming grapes in the Lodi AVA since the late 1880s, and have been selling their fruit to other producers for a long time. And, they make their own wine, obviously. I like their Old Vine Zinfandel as well, but this Albariño speaks to me in an eloquent and fun manner.
The Riesling on my 2021 list is from New Zealand, the 2019 Eden Valley Dry Riesling ($18) from Pewsey Vale. Previous vintages of this wine have been mainstays in my inventory, and for the price it is something I recommend by the caseful. Some of the fruit in this wine comes from vines planted in 1961, and the people behind Pewsey Vale run an exacting program. I will be drinking this wine for years to come, happily. If you are serving a piquant green bean casserole this holiday season pair this wine with it.
On to the reds, and a few bottles that will appeal to those seeking wines to pair with turkey, steak, lamb, ham, and other festive foods. As with wine rules, no one should feel fenced in when it comes to holiday menus. If you want to cook a leg of lamb for Thanksgiving, do so. Some of these reds display lively acidity, others are suited for heavier dishes, but they are all quality bottles that you won’t regret opening.
First up, the 2019 Two Shepherds Pinot Meunier ($40). This wine, made by William Allen, the founder of Two Shepherds, is on my list this year because it’s a wine that will pair well with turkey, ham, and roasted vegetables. If you drink Pinot Noir, try this wine. We’re talking 13.5 percent alcohol and layers of complexity, an easy-to-drink, well-made bottle. Allen is an iconoclastic crafter of wines, and if you find yourself in Healdsburg, be sure to visit his warehouse winery in nearby Windsor. You’ll enjoy conversing with him, trust me.
Joel Aiken is the man behind our next wine. In 1985, he was named lead winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards, becoming the youngest person to hold that position at the historic estate. He was winemaker at Amici Cellars from 2009 to 2015, and founded Aiken Wine Consulting in 2009. He has also held positions with Provenance, Acacia, and Glen Ellen in California, and Navarro Correas in Argentina. His 2018 Scattered Peaks Sage Ridge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) is a serious wine that I’ll serve with a grilled rib eye this holiday season. It spends 22 months in French oak, possesses a richness that I love, and will, of course, age with aplomb.
We’ll stay in California for one more wine, and that is the 2014 Seavey Merlot ($85), a beautiful expression of this grape. If you are planning to prepare a pork roast this holiday season, drink this wine with it. The tannins will amaze, as will the lush mouthfeel. Seavey Merlots are among my favorite Napa wines, and I advise you to take possession of several bottles and age at least two of them for a decade or so. Jim Duane and Philippe Melka made this.
On to Italy. I chose this wine after sampling the 2018 vintage recently, and, at $15 a bottle, there’s no reason to not buy La Valentina Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC by the case. I also added it to my 2021 Holiday list for those who will be grilling or smoking meats between now and the end of the year, say, lamb chops, pork butt, or brisket. Uncork this wine and enjoy an uncomplicated yet satisfying pairing for your meat dishes.
Let’s close the red section with, yes, a Pinot Noir, one with elegance, great acidity, and wonderful depth. The 2018 ROAR Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot ($70) is a worthy companion for your turkey, and will also pair wonderfully with game birds (pheasant, duck) and wild boar. The Franscioni family knows from wine, and this bottle demonstrates that well. Give it 20 minutes to breathe after you pull the cork.
That’s a wrap. The wines on this list represent diverse styles of winemaking, and everyone should find at least one bottle on it to their liking. I’ve forgone the normal “stick to wines with just the right amount of acidity” holiday advice here, not because I disagree with that statement, but because I want to recommend wines that pair well with more than turkey. We are a diverse nation, and our holiday tables hold more than poultry, something about which we should be proud and grateful.
Ask for these wines at your favorite merchant, and order directly from the producers if possible.
And one final note: At the end of your Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, toast yourself, your great taste, and your guests with Amaro Averna.
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