Cool Canadian winds have whisked in the holiday season, and with this churn comes a shift in wines to the more savory and layered. Many choose to jump directly into the depths-of-winter wines, like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. Instead, try something more transitional this month—something that honors the elements, pairs with a variety of foods, and piques interest.
Sparkling wines are built for the holiday table, not just New Year’s Eve. The pop of the cork screams “celebration” as clearly as jingling sleigh bells, and the palate-scrubbing effect of the bubbles alongside the accompanying acidity makes these wines the ultimate pairings for heavy, rich foods.
For the holidays I reach for Crémant, French sparklers produced outside of the Champagne region but that use the same Champenoise method. Seek out Loire, Jura, or Bourgogne (Burgundy) Crémant for some of the best examples.
For a playful label that also delivers on the juice, look for 49M Crémant de Loire Brut (chenin blanc/chardonnay, $17–19). The name references the 49 million bubbles in a typical bottle of sparkling wine, and the wine itself delivers refreshing acidity alongside flavors of lemon zest and Granny Smith, stone-like minerality, and a whiff of bread dough. For some biodynamic bubbles, turn to Jean Bourdy’s Cremant du Jura (100% chardonnay, $19). This historic producer is a perfect introduction to the Jura region, and a complement to traditional holiday foods.
For American sparklers, Schramsberg Vineyards Mirabelle Brut Rosé ($26) is both widely available and a value selection. Turn heads with Soter Vineyards Mineral Springs Brut Rosé ($65), a showstopper of a wine that demonstrates the quality possible on our home soil.
Pinot noir – The seducer
Although I’m biased when it comes to pinot noir (I work for a pinot noir producer for my day job), I will forever sing the praises of this grape for its ability to make the drinker swoon while also pairing gracefully at the table. The aromatic complexity of this grape can feel like a rabbit-hole experience that never ends, and the palate follows with an elegance and delicacy that both delights and surprises considering the layers of aromas and flavors.
Pinot’s acidity and light-to-medium body makes it an extremely food-friendly wine, particularly excellent with mushrooms and salmon. The great challenge is finding a pinot noir that doesn’t break the bank, as this grape grows well in few places and requires great attention to detail to produce classic examples.
The 2016 Apolloni Pinot Noir Cuvée ($24) from the Willamette Valley is a fine introduction. Sweet strawberry, red cherry, and floral notes lead to a palate that demonstrates well-tuned tension between suave, cloud-like density and vibrant energy. The 2016 season is shaping up as a beautiful vintage for many Willamette wines, and this bottling is great evidence at an oh-so-fair tariff. Travel south to the Anderson Valley of California and enjoy the 2016 FEL Pinot Noir ($36), a solid higher-end example with clear notes of toast and spice thanks to the use of new French oak. It provides slightly more concentration due to the riper fruit profile and slightly higher alcohol levels.
Now that’s interesting!
Sharing interesting wines, both aromatically and varietally, provides a nice talking point at holiday gatherings. This mixed bag of recommendations pushes boundaries for most American drinkers more used to West Coast wines with density and deep color.
The Spanish grape mencia offers the red fruits and mixed berry profile of pinot noir while adding a layer of weight and tannin. 2015 Descendientes de José Palacios Bierzo Pétalos ($22) hails from Bierzo, Spain, located in the cooler northwest region of the country known as the epicenter for mencia. Blackberries and blueberries marry with rustic, dusted tannins, herbs, earth, and savoriness—this wine shows its Old World origins in the best way.
Also turn to gamay, the less noble grape of southern Burgundy that rightfully ranks high on the lists of wine drinkers in the know. The 2017 Jean-Marc Burgaud Les Vignes de Lantignié Beaujolais Villages ($18) starts with red cherry, cranberry, spice, and slate with the fruits leaning toward pie-filling intensity. Quite a textural marvel with all you want from great Beaujolais—an entrance with depth and buoyancy, light though pointed tannins to add structure, and refreshing acidity that doesn’t slice your tongue. This bottle holds up well next to top-tier Cru Beaujolais.
The New World can also get in on the esoteric fun, and Brianne Day’s 2017 Vin de Days Blanc ($18) from Oregon does the trick. Lychee, grapefruit, white flowers, and lemon oil cascade from the glass, while a touch of residual sugar makes this an off-dry white that could certainly pair with dessert or delight a wine-drinking friend used to a touch of sweetness.