Tasting Notes with Chef Tim: Holiday Wine Help

Bottles of wine with wine glass

‘Tis the season of celebration.  The next six weeks mark the time of year that we gather with those we care about to share our gratitude and love.  It is done with presents, cards, and…holiday parties!!  Food and drink are a large part of these celebrations.  Each family or group has traditions around the foods that help mark this special time of year.  For some, it is the same meal—Thanksgiving, for example—that varies very little from year to year.  For others, it’s the ritual of making holiday pies, cookies, or candies that are ever-present when our loved ones visit.   Wine is present for many during these meal celebrations, and it can be the source of some holiday stress.  What kind of wine is best with the meal?  What wine will people like? Even non-wine drinkers break out a bottle or two for these group meals and parties.

For years at Coho, we have helped visitors and locals alike celebrate by hosting dinners at the restaurant during Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve.  For those celebrating at home rather than at the restaurant, here are some simple, accessible suggestions for what bottles to try.  Some are traditional and, well, some you might not have considered before.

Holiday Wine Picks: Bubbles

Bubbles, Bubbles, Bubbles

Nothing represents celebration in the adult beverage world like sparkling wine. For many, this traditionally is Champagne (France), Prosecco (Italy), Cava (Spain), or possibly a sparkling wine from California. Of course, these are great choices and the selections are endless (vintage, grower Champagne is a gift from the gods but can put a dent in the old wallet).  Sparkling wine is great because it pairs with every course, making it extremely versatile in food pairing.  It is the go-to for many a sommelier.  A few lesser-known, fun, and interesting selections…

  • Domestic bubbles not from California. Many regions in the USA are starting to make sparkling wines using many of the same practices used in the more established regions.  On our island, we have Archipelago, Madrone Cellars, and Orcas Project, to name a few.  Sometimes these domestic sparkling wines are labeled as pét-nat. It is the original way to make sparkling wine and predates champagne.  These are fun, tasty, and an emerging trend in wine.
  • Crémant wine and Lambrusco. Crémant wine is made using the same techniques as Champagne but outside of the Champagne region. The flavors rival Champagne but not at Champagne prices.  Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine primarily from Emilia-Romagna, is a fun alternative and goes extremely well with cheese, charcuterie, appetizers, and general sipping.  It’s low in alcohol and is a great way to provide bubbles for red wine drinkers.

Holiday Wine Picks: Whites

White Wine

There are some white wines that show up during these holiday times and retreat until next year.  Gewürztraminer is a great example.  The “turkey” white, also great with Asian and Indian food, is a traditional white.  Its spices and off-dry sweetness (although there are great dry examples from Alsace) pair with the spice profile found in holiday food, as well as the elevated sweetness many savory dishes take. Chardonnay from the good ol’ US of A, White Burgundy (Chardonnay from the Burgundy region of France), and Chablis (unoaked Chardonnay from France) also are great traditional choices with the elevated food we indulge in for a New Year’s dinner.  Lobster and White Burgundy…a match made in heaven. Some often-overlooked whites…

  • The wines of Alsace (whether it’s Germany or France), Austria, Slovenia, and northern Italy (Friuli for example). Think mountains, as these regions are all fairly near hilly, and sometimes mountainous regions.  The wines are primarily dry and aromatic—perfect for holiday foods.
  • Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc), Vouvray (Chenin Blanc), Pouilly-Fuisse (Chardonnay). All are often overlooked but are great wines to have around for the holidays and come at prices that are lower than their neighbors in France.  Shellfish and Sancerre is…well…to die for.
  • The white wines of Italy are perfect for seafood, which can be a part of many holiday meals. (Feast of the seven fishes, anyone?) Regions to look for are Trentino Alto-Adige, Veneto, and Umbria. These wines give you a good bang for the buck as well.

Holiday Wine Picks: Reds

Red Wine

Red wine is typically where there is a bit more focus for some.  Maybe it’s time to pull out that big, brawny cabernet or that red that’s been in the closet gathering dust for some time?  Well, if you don’t have this “closet” collection or your own cellar, here are a few wines to think of. The focus here is versatility…and flavor, of course!!

Picking a great red wine for the holiday

  • Pinot Noir and Burgundy. We are lucky! We are a ferry ride and a drive (four to six hours) from America’s Burgundy region (what I like to call Oregon’s Willamette Valley).  Some of the finest Pinot Noirs come from this region, and they are perfect for the holidays. They go well with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even New Year’s menus.  They are available at a variety of price points as well.
  • Gamay and Beaujolais (Gamay from the region within Burgundy). The often overlooked and misunderstood red grape Gamay is great for holiday meals.  Most of the wine using this grape comes from the Beaujolais region in France.  Do not confuse the over-marketed and exploited Beaujolais Nouveau with the cru Beaujolais wines.  We will not go full “wine geek” on you here but wines to look for: Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, and Fleurie are three of my favorites.  All are “kissing cousins” to light-bodied red Burgundies and go down very easy.  They pair well with lighter to medium-bodied foods (think poultry to pork).  They are the gateway wine for non-red wine drinkers as well. Domestic Gamay is not prolific yet in America, but there are some around if you dig deep enough.
  • Washington state red wines. When it comes to the traditional beef rib roasts and heartier fair, what is better than the many fine red wine producers found in our fair state?  Whether it is a Cabernet Blend, meaty Syrah, or even dare I say Merlot (yes, we will drink Merlot), there is a vast selection of these wines and they are readily available (Seven Springs Gamay Noir from Evening Lands Vineyards in Oregon, for example).

Holiday Wine Picks: Dessert


Don’t forget about dessert!! Sparkling is always a great choice throughout many holiday menus, but here are a few other options if you want to go the full mile and offer a dessert wine.

  • From France comes the austere Sauternes.  It is perfect with cream, custard, and…pumpkin pie!!
  • Late Harvest Riesling. Washington and Oregon produce a decent amount of Riesling, and there are many options for your dessert pairings.  Think honey, tree fruit, and such.  Also great with a dessert cheeseboard.
  • I won’t discuss the ever-present port here, but an alternative is Madeira. It will not break the bank and is flat out delicious.
  • On the hunt for something unique and a little more obscure to impress the in-laws? Vin Santo!! It literally translates to the “holy saint.” It comes primarily from Tuscany and has characteristics of fine sherry but with an acidic backbone that helps it from being too cloying or syrupy.  An Italian treasure, in my opinion.

Whether you are spending $10 or $100, there are great wines to be had this holiday season. This year, think about experimenting a little. You never know what gem you will discover.

Full selection of holiday wines

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