Despite all the tinsel, presents and good cheer, the holiday season can be notoriously stressful, especially if you’re hosting a party and are charged with choosing the wine. The panic stops now. Wine Enthusiast asked Gregory Astudillo, sommelier at Ocean House in Rhode Island—a luxury resort renowned for its 1,200-label wine cellar and onsite Center for Wine and Culinary Arts—for tips on tricking out your holiday spread.
Tip 1: Consider A Plethora of Palates
“One of the biggest holiday challenges is finding a few wines that will please the varied palates of all your family members and guests,” says Astudillo. “It is likely that someone at the table exclusively drinks Moscato while others prefer only the biggest, boldest and most tannic red wines.”
Add an array of personal preferences to an incredibly varied Christmas or Chanukah spread comprised of multiple dishes ranging from savory to sweet, and you’ve got wine-pairing trouble.
“Thankfully, a few wine categories will pair with holiday meals on a broad spectrum,” says Astudillo. “For white wines, I like Gewürztraminer, Oregon Pinot Gris, Champagne, and Prosecco. For red wines, Zinfandel works great, as well as Gamay-based wines.”
In general, plan for a half-bottle of wine per person for your holiday meal, not counting dessert wines (see Tip 5).
Tip 2: Don’t Overrule Random Sides
Skip fighting Aunt Rosemary’s ambrosia fruit “salad” or mashed sweet potatoes dotted with marshmallows—random sides will show up on your holiday dinner table anyway.
“I don’t recommend trying to find a different wine to go with each side dish, especially because some are just, well, bizarre,” says Astudillo, who cites green bean casserole as one of the worst offenders.
Luckily, an off-dry white wine with plenty of acid, like Vouvray, can be your pairing champion.
“Vouvray happens to be one wine that can pair well with a wide array of sides,” says Astudillo. “I recommend Francois Pinon ‘Les Trois Argiles’ 2011 Vouvray. Its acid content can counteract salty sides, it has the right level of sweetness to match the sweeter items, plus an abundance of ripe orchard fruit flavors to contrast the savory dishes.”
Tip 3: Synch Sauces and Sips
Don’t underestimate the role of sauces on your holiday table. “They play an extremely important part in wine pairings,” says Astudillo. “If the gravy you’re serving involves roux or cream, then you will need a wine with a lot of weight and viscosity behind it.”
Astudillo points to big, rich Chardonnays from California, like Mount Eden’s 2012 Estate Chardonnay, to stand up to cream- or roux-based sauces. “It has the weight and richness you’ll need to counteract the gravy, leaving you with a pure expression of ripe fruit and subtle oak flavors,” Astudillo says.
Perhaps trickiest of all is the ubiquitous cranberry sauce. “Cranberry sauce is light, tart, sweet and fruity and will go with that light, fruity Pinot Noir you love, right? Unfortunately, the sweetness from the added sugar in the cranberry sauce will destroy the fruity flavors of your favorite light red wine,” warns Astudillo.
Sonoma Zinfandel saves the day if you’re serving straight-from-the-can cranberry sauce. “I recommend Ridge Vineyards’ 2013 East Bench Zinfandel,” says Astudillo. “The uneven ripening of Zinfandel grape clusters leaves the wine with a hint of residual sugar, just enough to match the sweetness of the cranberry. Zinfandel is also powerfully fruity and richly textured, enabling it to match the fruit of the cranberry as well as the savory richness of meats.”
Tip 4: Beware Bitterness
While root vegetables are versatile pairing partners, leafy greens can be problematic with some wines. “Dark green vegetables contain high levels of oxalic acid and oxalates, responsible for the bitter taste we perceive,” says Astudillo. “And many of these vegetables can be alkaline, the opposite of acidic on the pH scale.”
Astudillo notes that in matching wine with dark, leafy greens, like kale, collard greens and chard, enophiles will face the challenge of simultaneously balancing pH and hiding bitterness.
“Choose a wine with higher acid,” Astudillo says, “and find wines with a little residual sugar. Avoid heavy, low acid and oaked white wines.” If your holiday spread features several dark leafy green dishes, opt for Oregon Pinot Gris, Riesling, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Vouvray.
And for reds, choose a wine that is low in tannins, like Willamette Valley Vineyards’ ‘Whole Cluster’ 2013 Pinot Noir.
“Adding the bitterness of leafy greens will unbalance the wine and exaggerate your perception of the bitter tannins,” says Astudillo. “Skip that Napa Valley Cabernet and look for a lighter wine with higher acidity.”
Tip 5: Celebrate Sweets
Cookies, candies, pies…oh my! If you’re facing a wide variety of family made sweets, try embracing dessert wines.
“When pairing wines with sweet things, just remember this: whatever you choose to drink must be as sweet as or sweeter than the food,” says Astudillo. “Graham’s 10 Year Tawny Port is delicious with nut-based cookies and brings out their nutty flavor, while Lustau’s Solera Reserva Pedro Ximénez ‘San Emilio’ Sherry has the sweetness to stand up to any dessert or can be enjoyed as a dessert all on its own, or pour it over ice cream.”
If you’re on a wine budget, try an Astudillo family tradition: the Cham-Cham cocktail. “Pour a small amount of Chambord into a Champagne flute and fill the rest up with an inexpensive sparkling wine, like Asti Spumante or Prosecco,” says Astudillo. “This is a family tradition of ours, and as it happens the perfect wine pairing for the meal from beginning to end.”