Winetraveler’s Holiday Food and Wine Pairing Guide
The holiday season is upon us, and for many, that means indulging in our favorite foods and drinks. November and December call to mind wintry landscapes, ugly sweaters, large turkey dinners and fun with friends and family. But what wines pair best with all of this excitement?
We went out and spoke with a number of certified sommeliers to get their opinions on the best holiday food and wine pairings. Throughout this guide, we’ll look at various styles of food, styles of wine (varietals and blends) as well as brand-specific recommendations you may be able to find at your local liquor or grocery store.
Feel free to ask us in the comments if you have any specific questions about pairings or where to find some of these wines.
Appetizer Wine Pairings
For easy-eating soft cheese pairings, DipWSET Sommelier Sarah Phillips (find her on Instagram @swirlthatglass) recommends a lightly oaked Chardonnay or a White Burgundy.
“For soft cheese like Brie or Camembert, a lightly oaked and creamy chardonnay would work well. For something more traditional, there is Burgundy. There are also some excellent chardonnays coming out of the New World, particularly from New Zealand. One of the producers to watch there is Kumeu River.”
Blue Cheese Balls
For a heavier, stinkier cheese pairing here’s an interesting suggestion from Zach Jones, General Manager & Wine Director at El Che Bar.
“Blue cheese, with it’s earthy flavors and abiding richness requires a wine that can match the funkiness and cleanse the palate with lazer-sharp acidity. The Els Vinyerons Xarel-lo is a naturally made white from Penedes (the home of Cava) that matches expressive orchard fruit and citrus flavors with an undercurrent of earthy Umame. Anyone who love ciders from Basque country or Normandy will see a kindred spirit in this lovely white wine.”
For this popular hot appetizer packed with umami flavors, we spoke with Karen Bonarrigo, Director of Administration at Messina Hof, President of The Hill Country Wineries, and Foundation Director for the Texas Wine Foundation. She suggests rustic red wines with earthy undertones that are naturally a fantastic pairing. Try wines like the Messina Hof Private Reserve Cabernet Franc or Malbec.
Cheese, Cured Meats and Olives
Classic and timeless selections for holiday get-together’s, cheese plates with cured meats, olives and beyond are perfect when having house guests over. Karen recommends thinking Italian, with a focus on wines with sharp acidity and youthful exuberance such as Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese.
Main Course Wine Pairings
Before we get into pairing wines with specific dishes, let’s talk a more general all encompassing pairing — Champagne. But not just any Champagne – Rosé Champagne! We spoke with Champagne Specialist at Moet Hennessey Alyse Mizia for her thoughts.
“I like to think that a powerful-style of Rosé Champagne is a perfect match for a holiday meal. It will hold up against most meats, and compliment them with their high-acid content as it cuts through some of the fattiness.
Since we use a blending process to make Rosé in Champagne (unlike most other rosé-producing regions of the world), the wine actually has tannin & structure, lending itself beautifully to food pairings. I love it with everything from a roasted turkey, a rack of lamb, duck or beef tenderloin (think anything you might add a fruit-based sauce or side-dish to).”
Here are a few Rosé Champagne pairings in particular that Alyse recommends for these styles of meals:
- Ruinart Rosé, NV – great balance and elegance with a high-percentage of Chardoanny, with the strength of almost 20% Pinot Noir
- Veuve Clicquot, Vintage 2008 Rosé – a toasty, structured style of rose that will hold up against some big dishes. Only made in special years and crafted specifically by the Chef de Cave, Dominique Demarville.
- Krug Rosé – (if you’re looking to splurge!)
Turkey is one of the most popular main course dishes served in the United States around the holidays. Given the assortment of spices, marinades and side dishes that can go along with it, you’ll have several great wine pairing options to consider. Founder at The Wine Militia and Advanced Certified Sommelier Lamar Engel gave us his thoughts:
“When speaking of Turkey I instantaneously think of Zinfandel from Dry Creek in Sonoma. More known for its complimenting flavors of cranberry and sweet pipe tobacco smoke, this duet is timeless.”
For a little different and more Old World take on a Turkey pairing alongside a stuffing dish, Bret Heiar — Wine Director of Nico Osteria and Publican Anker in Chicago — recommends Cabernet Franc by Bernard Baudry from Chinon, France.
“It has grit and character and a touch of funk, like Bootsy Collins riding on Merle Haggard’s Saddle. The tannins, however, are suave and elegant and do not overpower most holiday dishes. Soulful but effortless, wine nerds and Aunt Kathy will both be happy.”
Not a fan of red wine but still want something nice to drink alongside turkey? We’ve got you covered. Head Sommelier Adam Sweders of DineAmic Group recommends a California Chardonnay (typically oaked), such as “Unity” from Fisher Vineyards.
Further still, Sparkling Wine can work with turkey as well! Sommelier Coly Den Haan — one of Los Angeles’ first female sommeliers and co-owner of Silver Lake’s new female-driven wine shop, Vinovore — notes that Bubbly is great with a turkey dinner with all kinds of spices and side dishes.
“I love a great real Champagne such as Gremillet Selection Brut from Anne Gremillet. If you’re looking for something more affordable, another Dry Sparkling Wine like Cava or Prosecco would be fantastic as well.”
Left-Bank Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon dominant, often referred to as Claret in the UK) from a quality producer is a reliable choice for most beef pairings. These full-bodied, red fruit forward and earthy wines offer depth and complexity and the right amount of acidity and tannin to balance out most beef dishes on the palate — especially with steak.
However, for a change of pace, Lamar Engel recommends an incredible wine that many unknowingly pass over this time of year — Barolo from Italy (Piedmont). These wines are classically made from the Nebbiolo grape and can compliment the many ways in which beef dishes are prepared.
Rib Roast anyone? It’s getting us hungry just thinking about it. Again, Zach Jones comes in the clutch with an ideal red wine pairing that won’t disappoint.
“Prime rib, in all of it’s fatty glory, needs a wine just as fat. Enter the 2014 Luca Malbec from the Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina. A nearly perfect expression of Malbec from Laura Catena (daughter of the legendary Nicolas Catena). Extended oak aging gives Luca a sturdy backbone of tannin to match the richness of the beef, and a palate of lush dark fruits, cocoa, coffee and holiday baking spices make this a perfect red was down an indulgent entree.”
Additionally, Rib Roast can provide an opportunity to incorporate a Right-Bank Bordeaux blend, which is Merlot dominant. Canyon Kitchen sommelier Tim Smith notes that “a merlot driven blend such as Pomerol or St. Emillion will provide medium body and weight, but full of flavor. The darker fruit notes are layered with dried herbs, and softer tannins. Remember to open earlier in the day to allow it to breath.”
Looking for something a little more local? Head on over to Sonoma Valley. Specifically, the Knights Valley AVA. Complex, velvety black and blue fruit forward Cabernet’s are made here with a beautiful tannin structure. Adam Sweders recommends the Galerie Latro Cabernet from Knights Valley.
Holiday ham and other cuts of pork often call to mind Merlot or a silky Zinfandel from Lodi California which also work nicely alongside cranberry. However, as wine nerds, we prefer something a little more unique and legendary in this instance. For a Pork Shoulder pairing, Bret Heiar recommends the Trousseau/Poulsard/Pinot, Bourdy from Cotes du Jura in France.
“About as common as Steve Harvey wearing a boring suit, the Jura is unknown in the mainstream but loved by wine nerds and Bourdy is about as O.G as it gets. It’s elegant but has enough structure to handle Pork with just the right amount of a feral streak.”
For more carnivorous wine pairings, specifically when it comes to lamb, Stacey Khoury-Díaz, Owner of Dio Wine Bar in Washington DC recommends some big-bodied and a little less mainstream concepts.
“When it’s chilly outside and you want to cozy up inside, most folks are looking for the full, soul and body-warming red wine. The Babylonstoren 2016 Babel Red Blend from South Africa is largely Shiraz, but it has some other heavy hitters like Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. This deep and tannic red would pair beautifully with the traditional carnivorous holiday roast, from lamb chops to steak. Throw in some root vegetables, potato sides, or a stew, and you’re good to go. Not only is this wine friendly to many pallets, but it holds a Integrity and Sustainability Certification.”
For a truly perfect oyster pairing, consider looking towards the Loire Valley in France. Specifically, within the Muscadet region. Bret Heiar recommends the Melon de Bourgogne, Domaine L’Ecu from Muscadet.
“Keep it simple stupid, Occam was on to something. It’s a classic pairing, so why stray? It rules delicious with an iron fist. The key is good Muscadet, and it doesn’t have to be expensive to be good, like anything in the culinary world, know your farmer. High acid, refreshing salinity, surprisingly ageable and just plain cravable.”
Vegan & Vegetarian
Some of our favorite holiday food and wine pairings go along with grilled or raw veggies. Lamar Engel offers some interesting concepts to consider whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or you’re simply looking to pair a wine with a veggie side dish.
“When cooking and serving any vegetables — such as asparagus, broccoli or cauliflower — I always have on hand a few white wines such as Grüner Veltliner or Albariño. Sometimes vegetables offer a more earthy and bitter approach to the dish where these two styles of wine help harness these flavors and tame them, offering a counter balancing act that leaves the palate wanting more.”
Yule Log Wine Pairings
Yule Log is a popular dessert most commonly associated with Christmas time. A roulade typically made of sponge cake, it can come in the form of a rolled pasty and is occasionally made with meat. It’s especially popular in France and Belgium where it’s almost always served as a dessert around the holiday season. We spoke with Zach Jones again to get his thoughts on ideal Yule Log and wine pairings.
“Yule Log is a truly bizarre confection, with many iterations, so it needs a very versatile pairing. Casa Mariol – a black Vermouth from Barcelona – is a staff favorite. Sweet blackberry and blueberry flavors are followed by notes of cocoa, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and vanilla (basically all the flavors of a yule log). It’s also low proof, so you can sip away without fear of bad tidings the next morning.”
For puddings, especially with a toffee-focus, Sarah Phillips recommends a Sweet & Nutty-styled Tawny Port. These rich, seductive yet pleasantly soft fortified wines from Portugal are typically found aged for 10, 20, 30 and even up to 40 years. A popular dessert pairing often served chilled.
For a dark chocolate pairing, again Sarah recommends a Port wine, yet this time an LBV, or “Late Bottle Vintage.” Typically, fortified wines are fruitier on the palate with a silky tannin structure. Released 4 to 6 years after their vintage, they are usually ready to be consumed upon release.
Liquid Dessert and/or Fruit Tart Pairings
Coly Den Haan notes that sweet food needs sweet wine but the trick is balance. Dessert wines need to have a tremendous amount of acidity to keep it from being cloying.
Lastly, Sarah suggests trying a luscious Sauternes or Tokaj from a good year if you happen to have a fruit tart. Although, you really don’t need an excuse to drink one of these exceptional styles of wine. They act as an ideal liquid dessert to sip on in and of themselves.