Holiday Wine Pairing Guide

Wine at a holiday dinner party

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Though holiday celebrations can vary from year to year, there is still one unwavering and reliable guest that continues to grace its presence in our homes: wine. The sound of corks popping, champagne bubbles tickling our nose, glasses clinking: these are the welcomed sensory experiences that we enjoy to usher in new years and new beginnings.

Many of us have our tried and true favorites, but the holidays are a great opportunity to think about how traditional dishes can pair with wines beyond our immediate collection. Notes that deepen and intensify flavor, cool down spicy dishes, and make our desserts even more decadent. If you don't know where to start, there are great apps like Sippd which connects to (and other wine retailers soon) to provide you with personalized taste match scores to thousands of wines online. You can even sort your top taste matches by price, region, varietal, and food pairing, just in time for the holidays.

Here, sommeliers and winemakers share some of their favorite holiday food and wine pairings

White Wine Food Pairings

For an unoaked Chardonnay, New York-based sommelier Lydia Richards recommends delicate foods such as raw and lightly cooked shellfish, steamed or grilled fish, as well as pasta or risotto with spring vegetables. "I always say there's a chardonnay for everyone! Chardonnay is an incredibly versatile white grape variety that can play a diverse array of roles very well," she says. For those fruit-forward, lightly oaked expressions, she recommends buttery fishes like salmon and white pink meats, such as chicken and turkey, in creamy, richer sauces. "Finally, for the full-bodied oaky chard lovers, it can take an extra degree of richness. The best pairings include pork, steak béarnaise, and holiday ham, as well as butternut squash and pumpkin dishes," she says. Her holiday go-to's for chardonnay include Enate 234 and Trapiche Medalla.

Sauvignon blanc's citrus notes provide a great balance with herbaceous holiday dishes. Aromas of orange blossoms, lemon zest, guava, and ripe pineapple in Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc is followed by a palate full of juicy grapefruit and pure citrus flavor, making it a prime pairing candidate with a sage or herb-filled stuffing.

California based sommelier and winemaker Justin Trabue suggests pairing chestnuts and marsanne. "Marsanne is full-bodied and unapologetic. This delicate yet austere white gives notes of white flower, hazelnut, and pear lending itself kindly against the classic Christmas chestnut," she says. One of her favorite marssanes is Alta Colina 2018 Claudia Cuvee. "This wine reminds me of sitting in the basement of our house with the fireplace on during the holidays, watching Hamilton and reminiscing about the year. It's a beautifully balanced white, perfect for fall and winter," she says.

And because the holidays are the perfect excuse to open a bottle of champagne, the question then becomes what type of bubbles go well with your favorite dishes? The Louis Roederer Starck Brut Nature 2012 is the ultimate "treat yo' self" bubbly to pop for the holidays. With its delicate, compact, and gentle bubbles, the Brut Premier contains intense aromas of juicy, ripe fruit such as vineyard peach and candied lemon combined with toasty notes and hazelnut—ideal for pairing with fatty, creamy dishes to balance the acid spine, like crispy roasted duck fat potatoes and macaroni and cheese. "The 2012 vintage gave us the very best material: juicy, concentrated grapes with unusual levels of maturity resulting in rich, full-bodied wines worthy of the greatest vintages in champagne," says Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, Cellar Master at Louis Roederer.

Red Wine Food Pairings

A good red wine can unlock the flavor of holiday meats. Cabernet sauvignon is a soft tannic wine with a bit of body to complement red meat. "For our Aperture Cellars 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon, you need a hearty holiday dish that can stand up to the bold and fruit-forward flavor-driven red that is predominantly cabernet sauvignon with a small percentage of malbec, merlot, and petit verdot," says Aperture Cellars Founder and Winemaker Jesse Katz. "I'd suggest a rosemary and garlic oven-roasted rack of lamb to serve with this cabernet sauvignon, as the fatty and tender meat from the lamb will help cut through the ripe tannins and the bright acidity in the wine."

Winemaker Theodora Lee also enjoys rack of lamb for the holidays, and pairs both prime rib and lamb with her vineyards Estate Grown 2017 Petite Sirah. "Lamb is hearty enough to support this full-bodied and muscular 2017 petite sirah which has aromas of raspberries, dark cherries, and dark chocolate. Flavors lead with red raspberries, minerals, and just-ripe blueberries. Notes of black pepper are evident along with juicy acidity and smooth tannins, which slice right through the luscious fat associated with a rack of lamb and creates a memorable, hearty winter meal," she says. 

Richards is a big fan of malbec for desserts including cherry pie or blackberry cobbler. "The fresh, fruit-forward nature of malbec, along with its low tannins, is an awesome pairing and will complement those flavors alongside the baking spices. You want the pie to match the intensity and flavor profile of your wine," she says. Chocolate lovers will also find a friend in malbec. "Aside from its black and red berry flavors, malbec has beautiful cacao and coffee notes that complement chocolate treats. You won't go wrong with this pairing," Richards says.

One of her favorites is an Argentinian varietal, Trapiche Medalla Malbec from Argentina, with its intense red fruit aromas and notes of spicy and smoky wood. For holiday chocolate finds to pair with your malbec, VESTA is a bean-to-craft chocolate company from chefs turned chocolate crafters and husband-wife duo Roger Rodriguez and Julia Choi Rodriguez. Their holiday gift packages include bonbon flavors like candy cane, gingerbread, winter herbs, and salted caramel.

Trabue recommends the red Italian Barbera wine with pasta dishes like lasagna. "This luscious, juicy red, with notes of white pepper, rosemary, and tart bing cherries, pairs beautifully with this tomato-based heartwarming meal," she says. Her favorite is Altipianio Vineyard's 2015 Barbera, San Diego County. A tried and true red, merlot's flavor profile depends much upon the climate in which it is grown. Ehlers Estate merlot has aromas of raspberries, red currant, and candied cherries, making it a good pairing for some of those especially rich and buttery sides, like the classic fan favorite: creamy mashed potatoes.

Other Wine Pairings

Rosé is not just for sipping in the summertime, and these pairing recommendations from Chef and Cheese Specialist Tracey Shepos Cenami prove just how versatile the trendy French wine can be during colder months. "My favorite cheeses with rose are goat cheese, like a chevre style. I love Laura Chenel Cabecou, which is a marinated goat cheese—it's not only delicious and a bit more luscious because of the oil marinade, but also super pretty on a cheeseboard. Most cured meats will be great with rose, but my personal favorite is dry Spanish chorizo, smokey with a tiny kick of heat that really highlights the bright fruit in Rose. Baked ham is a tradition for Christmas dinner and pairs well with rose, especially with a cranberry glaze or sauce." She recommends the 2019 La Crema Monterey to make your holiday charcuterie dreams come true. 

To veer away from the more traditional wines for the holidays, consider exploring the flavors of orange wine, which gets its color from white wine grapes whose skin has been left to ferment with the juice. Trabue was instrumental in making Lumen's 2019 Essence Orange Wine, fermented from pinot gris grapes, with notes of Meyer lemon and grapefruit. "These are two fun wines to try: something orange and a garnacha nouveau like Amplify 2020 Toma to wet Santa's whistle! The spice from these cookies will pair perfectly with layered clove, cinnamon, and berry from the garnacha or the Lumen Essence whose acidity will perfectly balance the sweetness in the cookie," says Trabue. She also recommends Vin de Paille, a straw wine, to bring the classic apple pie to the next level. "Beautifully balanced, the sweetness and acidity of Vin de Paille wine itself provides notes of butterscotch and baked apples, lending itself to the perfect apple pie pair with a dollop of whipped cream," she says, adding that Tablas Creek Vineyard 2018 Vin de Paille is one of her favorites.