How to pick the perfect wines for the holiday season

Hack your way to wine happiness this year.

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Hack your way to wine happiness this year.
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Shutterstock/Jacob Lund

  • The holidays are stressful; wine shouldn’t be.
  • Avoid Beaujolais Nouveau at all costs.
  • Embrace French wines.
  • If all else fails, buy Champagne.

A long time ago, I was a professional wine journalist. Later, cars stole my heart, but because I spent about five years deep in the wine world and wrote two books about the wine-loving life, I consider myself reasonably qualified to hand out advice.

When the holiday season rolls around, I routinely see otherwise sensible people flummoxed by booze. So many choices! So many events and parties! So many wildly different foods – sweet potatoes, an enormous bird that’s only eaten in November and December – on the plate!

Relax. We can get through this. Here are some hacks.


Champagne!

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Around this time of year, I always get the question of what wines go with the Thanksgiving/Christmas feast staples: turkey, stuffing, potatoes, etc. Nothing is really ideal. Except … Champagne!

Champagne goes with everything. And it’s always good, as long as you stick to well-known houses, which strive for a consistently excellent product year after year (“vintage” Champagne is a different story).

My personal favorite label is Laurent-Perrier, but any of the big names is a good bet. You do, however, want to be careful about overdoing it with the bubbly.


Keep it simple.

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We’re back to the food-pairing conundrum here. You can make yourself nuts trying to wedge a good Pinot Noir in with the cranberry sauce and the giblet gravy.

Instead, choose plonk. An uncomplicated $10 wine that you drink all the time – reds are better – will make your life less complicated.


Spend a little bit more than usual.

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Now let me immediately contradict my previous tip and suggest that you stretch the budget a bit.

This isn’t really a holiday specific hack, more of a general rule. When I first took an interest in wine, there was some truly awful cheap stuff. But that’s all changed and it’s now hard to find a genuinely rotten wine from a major region (even some of the minor ones are bringing their quality way up).

But although the wine is all good, it’s not particularly interesting or engaging. For that, you need to jump up from the $10-$20 level and get acquainted with wines that are pushing $50.

If you think of the holidays as a special occasion, then you have the perfect excuse. The best values at this price point are French, but Spain is also worth investigating. Italy is a mixed bag. California, unfortunately, demands that you get close to $75 for the same effect.


Don’t mix your pleasures — and H2O is your friend.

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Other that a splash of good scotch after dinner, I suggest you stick to wine. The holidays are often a marathon of eating an drinking and it’s easy to find yourself with a two-month hangover.

Moderation is key!

For every glass of wine you consume, drink two glasses of water. You’ll visit the loo more often. But your body will thank you.

As for the recommendations about how much wine to drink – roughly three standard glasses of wine for men and two for women – I think it’s OK to deviate during the holidays, but never by more than a glass or two.

And clearly, if you do drink two or three glasses of wine, under no circumstances should you drive.


When in doubt, go French.

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Wine comes from all over the damn place. Wine stores can be mightily intimidating. The solution is to cut to the chase and go French. The wines of Gaul are made to be enjoyed with meals, and conveniently, French cuisine matches up with traditional holiday fare better than the wines of other lands.

The quality for the price is also typically quite high, although as a general rule with French wine that have been exported you want to stay above $10 and preferably around $15 and up.

Bordeaux and Burgundy are the famed regions, but the Rhône is an excellent alternative and southern France has seen a wine revolution in the past few decades. Wines from the Languedoc region, for example, are also often labeled varietally – Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah – rather than according to the old-school systems of the legendary locations.


Avoid adventure.

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It can be tempting to think outside the box when the holidays roll around, but just don’t. While that offbeat Austrian red might seem festive, your tried-and-true Cabernet won’t steer you wrong.

The holidays are already kind of stressful. The wines you drink should be relaxing and reassuring.


Give the gift of dessert wines.

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Screenshot via Graham’s

If you bring a bottle of Chardonnay to the party or dinner you’ve been invited to, there’s a fair chance it will get drunk, and not by the hosts.

If you want your gift to count, I suggest bringing a bottle of Port – and so-called “Late Bottled Vintage” (LBV) Port such as Graham’s Six Grapes is a good choice – or a Sauternes from Bordeaux. Sweet wines from the Finger Lakes region of New York state are also nice, as sweet Australian “stickies.”

In the grand scheme of things, these are “weird” wines that a tiny fraction of the wine-drinking world actually drinks. So they’re come off as special and get put away for special occasions. That’s why the make memorable gifts.


Red with fish is A-OK.

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The whole red-with-meat-white-with-fish thing is silly. True, you might not want to wash down broiled trout with Cabernet Sauvignon, but many richer types of fish can handle reds just fine.

For example, I was enjoyed sea bass with a rich Italian wine called Amarone. Not a recommended pairing, but it was spectacular.

Free yourself from convention – especially around the holidays, when traditional meals are a hodgepodge of dishes and flavors.


Friends don’t let friends drink Beaujolais Nouveau.

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Beaujolais Nouveau is an el-cheapo wine made quickly after harvest and rushed to bistros in France as a celebration in mid-November. Because the wine arrives around the same time as Thanksgiving in the US, it has become associated with the holiday.

Nouveau is a thin, quaffy wine, made from the Gamay grape, and I think it’s abysmal. It’s fun, to be sure, and its success in the US is a marketing case study. But it’s also massively overpriced for the quality, at $10-15. It should be on sale for $7. If that.

Skip it and buy a $15 California Merlot instead.


Decant!

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Here’s a great hack. Yes, decanting old wines is recommended, to avoid sediment in the glass and to get some air into the wine so that it “opens.”

But cheap, young wines also benefit from decanting. Oxygen might be the enemy of wine in some cases, but a touch of oxidation can add complexity to an otherwise simple wine.

Don’t worry about having a fancy decanter, either. You can use a mason jar, as long as it’s clean.

This hack works best with reds, but whites are candidates, too.