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Whenever I see a magnum from one of my favorite producers, I almost always buy it without a second thought. That’s because I host a Christmas dinner party with my extended family every year, and we go through around a dozen standard-size bottles over the course of the night. Hosting a party like this is a serious challenge–not only do you need to make sure there’s enough wine to go around, but you also have to choose those wines carefully so that they appeal to everyone’s diverse tastes. It took my family and me a number of years to refine our Christmas wine list, but we have finally come up with the perfect combination of wines that make everyone in the family happy.
In the process, I’ve learned a lot about what makes a great Christmas wine. In this detailed guide, I’ll explain how to pick out the best wines for your own celebrations and offer you a few recommendations on fantastic bottles to try this holiday season.
What Makes a Great Christmas Wine?
When you think of Christmas wine, you probably picture flutes of Champagne, supremely sweet Sauternes, and syrupy port. You don’t have to serve just these styles at Christmas; in fact, some of the best Christmas wines are savory, acidic, and very dry. Not long ago, I brought a bottle of 2012 Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Cerretalto to my parent’s house for Christmas dinner, and it was a wonderful break from all of the Champagne at the table. The wine was quite acidic, which cut through the richness of the buttery mashed potatoes and gravy. The Sangiovese also had notes of plum and spice, both of which are classic Christmas flavors that complemented all of the dishes on the table very well.
A great Christmas wine can be anything from young Prosecco to aged Bordeaux. What these wines all have in common is that they pair well with traditional holiday dishes and feel celebratory or special. As you decide on wines for your Christmas celebration, take the following steps:
1. Pay attention to how heavy or light your Christmas dinner is. If you’re serving stuffing, turkey, and mashed potatoes, choose a full-bodied, juicy red wine to match. Or, if you’re serving salmon and roasted vegetables, opt for a lighter-bodied white wine, Pinot Noir, or rosé.
2. Choose wines from top regions and terroirs. For example, if you know your Christmas dinner will pair well with a white Bordeaux, shop for wines from first growth producers and top-quality appellations such as Margaux or Pessac-Léognan. The holidays are a time for the best-quality wines.
3. Find wines that have flavors of baking spices and dark berries. Look for tasting notes like plum, spice bread, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, licorice, toffee, and anise, as these are flavors used in many Christmas dishes. A wide range of wines can have these flavors, but some of the most common ones are Gewürztraminer, Meursault, Rioja, New-World Pinot Noir, Sauternes, and Australian Shiraz.
4. Buy a variety of styles. Palate fatigue is a very real problem during the holidays; too much Champagne, port, or Shiraz can make your Christmas dinner or dessert feel heavy or dull. Offer two very different wine options during each part of the celebration–from appetizers to dinner to dessert. So, for dinner, you might serve 2008 Louis Roederer Cristal and 2003 Château Léoville Las Cases.
5. Buy magnums whenever possible. It’s difficult to share just one standard-size bottle of wine, especially if you have a large family. Shop for the largest format bottle that you can find for your wine of choice so that everyone can have a glass. You can also buy multiple bottles of the same wine if you can’t locate any magnums.
6. Research the best vintage for that particular style or region. Once you have a producer, terroir, or variety in mind, look up the top-rated vintages that are drinking well right now.
In the end, Christmas wine is anything you want it to be; ultimately, the bottles you choose depend entirely on your own preferences and those of your family. But whether you pick out traditional wines like Champagne, port, Madeira, and Sauternes or more unusual styles like Rioja or Pedro Ximénez, think carefully about the wine’s flavor profile and quality to find the best holiday wines for your celebration.
The Best Red Christmas Wines
Champagne often gets the most attention at Christmas, but red varieties should be a staple at every dinner table over the holidays. That’s because red wines are great at standing up to dense, rich holiday flavors. Moreover, some of your guests might enjoy red wine more than Champagne, and you’ll have to cater to their preferences, too. My spouse isn’t a fan of most sparkling white wines, no matter how high in quality they are, so having a red option for him at the table is essential.
Which red wines should your family imbibe this December? Here are a few great options, based on the type of wine you want to serve with your appetizers or main course:
Earthy, Savory Reds
- 2012 Kapcsandy Family State Lane Vineyard Roberta’s Reserve Merlot
- 1961 Château Prieure du Monastir Del Camp
When it comes to choosing the perfect red wine for Christmas dinner, the flavor profile is the most important factor to consider. A wine that tastes herbaceous or strongly of Brettanomyces (barnyard flavor) won’t pair as well with holiday foods as a wine that tastes like baking spices or dark fruit. One good way to select a red wine for Christmas is to make a list of the spices or flavors you’re using in the main course and shop for wines that have at least one or two of those flavors as well.
The Best White Christmas Wines
White wines are a great choice for Christmas celebrations because they don’t overpower the food and they go well with Champagne. One of my friends likes serving bottles of Champagne alongside at least one bright, acidic white wine because the acidity cleanses her palate without competing with the other wines on the table. If you plan on serving a great deal of Champagne, then picking out a few other white wines is a wise decision. Here are a few good options:
When you serve white wine at Christmas, select wines with a range of flavor profiles so that every guest at your table will find a wine that they enjoy and your palate won’t get tired as the night wears on.
The Best Sparkling Christmas Wines
No Christmas celebration is complete without a fine bottle of Champagne. However, Champagne isn’t the only option when you want a sparkling wine. If you already have plenty of Champagne to pull out of your cellar or you know your guests will be bringing classics like Moët & Chandon, Krug, or Taittinger, then pick one of the other fantastic sparkling wine varieties below:
- Sparkling Pignoletto
- Blanquette de Limoux/Crémant de Limoux
You may also choose a Champagne-style sparkling wine from California, such as Schramsberg. Or, if you need to stock up on actual Champagne, here are a few excellent options to try this season:
Pinot Noir-Heavy Blends
As with your white wine selections, pick a variety of different sparkling wines to avoid palate fatigue and to complement the food. Serve light, crisp wines like Prosecco early in the night with a cheese platter or appetizers. Later, over dinner, bring out richer wines like the Taittinger Comtes de Champagne or the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs. And finally, as a nightcap, serve a rosé or an aged bottle of bubbly.
The Best Sweet and Fortified Christmas Wines
Champagne generally pairs well with dessert; however, if you want a bolder wine to serve with your Christmas pudding or decadent chocolate truffles, then sweet whites and fortified reds are a great option. The best Christmas wines in this category have layers of flavor; they’re more than just sweet and high in alcohol. I once went to a Christmas party where the host served a bottle of inexpensive non-vintage port as a nightcap. While the port was extremely sweet and rich, I didn’t taste much else in the wine. Port and other sweet fortified wines are a great match for Christmas, but only if they have the complexity to keep your attention.
Here are a few sweet and fortified wines that will amaze your guests and end your Christmas celebration on a high note:
The key to putting together a great Christmas dessert wine pairing is to find a wine that is as sweet or sweeter than the dessert you’re serving it with. A semi-sweet wine often works best when served alone as a digestif after dinner, so you may wish to revisit some of the sweeter still or sparkling wines that you served earlier in the night after everyone has cleared their plates.
Picking the Right Christmas Wine for Your Celebration
Choosing at least one wine from each of the categories above is a great way to create a versatile Christmas wine list that appeals to a broad range of palates. You should never rely too heavily on one particular style, region, producer, or vintage. For example, my mother-in-law has very little experience with wine and doesn’t find the flavors of older wines as appealing as those of an energetic, fruit-forward young wine. However, other members of my family are wine connoisseurs who look forward to drinking aged Bordeaux every year. To cater to everyone’s preferences, I offer both styles at the dinner table.
If you’re splurging on age-worthy wine this holiday season, you’ll want to make sure that it isn’t too closed-off or past its peak.
The best way to find wines that will appeal to your own family is to look up detailed tasting notes on each wine. This can be a challenge if you’re shopping for wine in a brick-and-mortar shop. Moreover, shopping in person doesn’t let you see what critics think of the wine or let you confirm that it’s drinking well right now. If you’re like me, you’ve made the mistake before–probably more times than you’d like to admit–of opening a quality bottle before its peak. If you’re splurging on age-worthy wine this holiday season, you’ll want to make sure that it isn’t too closed-off or past its peak. Reading the latest professional review for the wine–as well as other collectors’ recent tasting notes–will tell you whether it’s worth bringing to dinner this holiday season.
Shopping for wine online makes all of this information easily available to you. Not only can you see the latest tasting notes from critics and casual drinkers, but you can also search for other wines with similar scores or from the same region within seconds. By taking the stress out of the shopping process, an online retailer lets you spend less time looking for the perfect Christmas wine and more time enjoying the bottle with loved ones.
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