The holiday season typically means a lot of get-togethers (both in-person and virtually) that include wine—from reds to whites, and more. But determining which wines to serve that can satisfy a diverse group of guests—from casual wine drinkers to certified sommeliers—can be daunting. You can’t always please everyone, but there are more crowdpleasers out there if you know where to look.
“If you’re hosting a holiday party, I think it’s great to have options for your guests, but also keep it simple,” says Caroline McCarthy, a French fine wine specialist for wine distributor Frederick Wildman & Sons. “Offering one sparkling, one white, and one red is perfect and should be able to please every palate, but not be too overwhelming to manage or have guest inadvertently mixing wines in their glasses.”
And the wine list might not be the only thing you want to keep simple this year.
“To stay safe this year, I’m still keeping my gatherings small to just close family and friends,” McCarthy says. “The added bonus is that when I keep my holiday meals and gatherings smaller, it is easier to splurge on a few nice bottles of wine.”
“During the holiday season, we usually arrange very intimate family gatherings,” says Alessia Antinori, the 26th generation winemaker for Marchesi Antinori in Tuscany. “As we are all vaccinated, we expect our holidays to be super safe this year. I think vaccinations are a very important requirement for all holiday in-person gatherings.”
Narrowing down your wine list
“Bubbles always making a gathering seem a little more festive,” McCarthy says. “I love Crémant, which is a sparkling wine made in the same method as Champagne, but from a region in France outside of Champagne. A Crémant drinks similarly to Champagne, with a delicate mousse and softer fruit aromas, at an accessible price.”
John Kapon, chairman of Acker Wines, the longest-running wine merchant in the U.S., also recommends offering a sparkling wine—as well as a more full-bodied white and a versatile red wine—for pouring throughout the evening.
“Depending on how many guests you’re having, and what type of party you’re throwing, you can go all out with a Champagne for the sparkling or consider more affordable options such as a Cremant from France, Franciacorta from Italy, or Cava from Spain,” Kapon says. “For a fuller-bodied, but still vibrant white wine, some good options include White Burgundy from the Mâconnais; some of our favorites are Lafon’s Mâcon Villages or Leflaive’s Mâcon Chenes, Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley in France, and Albariño from the Rías Baixas region of Spain.”
For a white, Riesling is an often-overlooked grape. “Some people fear that Rieslings are sweet, but when it’s dry it can be incredibly expressive and pair tremendously with food,” McCarthy notes. “You can pair a Riesling with just about anything- with hors d’oeuvres, a cheese, plate, or full dinner.” Rieslings from Alsace and Austria are always fermented dry, and if a German Riesling has the word “Trocken” on the front label, that means it’s also dry.
For a red, Pinot Noir is a great, versatile grape and almost always a crowd-pleaser for a holiday party. “Most people know Burgundian Pinot Noirs, but not as many people are familiar with Pinot Noir from Alsace,” McCarthy says. “With climate change, Pinot Noir is becoming a grape that is now much easier to ripen in the region.”
What to do if someone has a sulfite allergy
Red wines can be off-putting to some guests, often due to allergies—particularly a sulfite allergy. If someone wants to drink wine, often the best place to start would be to avoid red and stick with a white wine. Chardonnay, McCarthy notes, Chardonnay is a grape that has a little more body and can satisfy a variety of palates. “If you are avoiding serving red wines in general, choose at least one white with a little bit more body and texture that could please red wine drinkers.”
But there are some ways around this, including newer wine openers and decanters on the market touting to remove histamines and sulfites.
Joe Radosevich, a certified sommelier and chief technology officer of wine purifier maker Üllo, advises if someone has a diagnosed sulfite allergy, either serve a wine that has never had sulfites added or use a wine tool that not only aerates and purifies wine, but also restores wine to a level of sulfites below the FDA’s requirements. Grocery stores, he continues, will often have a “No Sulfites Added” section to make selection should you want to steer clear all together.
“The larger the party, the more impossible it becomes to please everyone. There is, however, one choice that is nearly never wrong for a holiday party, and that’s champagne/sparkling wine. Champagne is synonymous with celebrations and instantly sets the mood to fun for any evening. On top of that, sparkling wines are delicious by themselves or paired with foods,” Radosevich says. “If all else fails, it never hurts to have a nice whiskey or beer for when people need to make the switch or should someone not be a wine drinker regardless of sulfite tolerance.”
Additionally, some winemakers are taking concerted efforts in how they produce their wines, especially through organic methods. In France, for example, there’s a classification, HVE (High Environmental Value), which is meant to hold vineyards to higher standards in reducing and eliminating pesticides, encouraging biodiversity, and managing water. Most times, it’s not on the label, but McCarthy suggests it’s worth chatting with someone at your local wine store.
“Buying quality wine is the best way to insure no one gets a headache for any other reason that having a little bit too much,” McCarthy says. “In general, French wines have very high standards and most winemakers are really trying to use as little intervention and sulfites as possible. Many of reported using just fractions as they did several years ago, now just adding a tiny bit of sulfites at the very end to protect the wine from spoilage. Some bulk winemakers will still add sulfites at every step of the winemaking process.”
What should you bring if you are the guest
Many experts agree that if you are buying a bottle to bring to a party, $20 to $30 should be your target spending range.
“At that price range you can get great quality wines that have been carefully made. If it’s a special occasion or your hosts love wine, feel free to spend a little bit more of a nice bottle of wine,” McCarthy says. “If you are traveling, it’s often easier to bring a red wine than a white or sparkling wine, so you don’t have to worry about temperature control when giving your wine to your host.”
If your hosts like to be more daring with their wine choices, McCarthy suggests it could be fun to bring a grape they haven’t tried before or from a new region. For example, Gewurztraminer is an aromatic grape, often with notes of lychee, rose water, and a hint of spice. “These wines can be wonderful with a variety of cuisines and dishes. One area it really shines is in dishes with spice,” she adds.
For a red, consider Lirac, a region in the southern Rhône Valley most well-known for Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. This region, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, uses primarily Grenache with a little bit of Syrah and Mourvèdre blended in. The wine is full-bodied with cherry and blackberry notes, and a subtle smokiness from the Syrah. It pairs very well across a variety of dishes, so it could be a great wine to bring as guest.
But as are many different types of holiday parties, Kapon reminds that guests should keep in mind that the bottle they bring may not be opened and instead could be considered a gift. “You really can’t go wrong with sparkling wine or champagne, especially if you aren’t sure what types of wines your hosts prefer to drink,” he says. “Another great option is to think outside the box and bring an interesting bottle of bourbon, scotch, or even tequila!”
Famille Vincent Crémant de Bourgogne
Domaine Carneros Cuvée de la Pompadour Brut Rosé
Roederer Estate Brut Non-Vintage
Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve
Famille Hugel Classic Pinot Gris
Famille Hugel Classic Gewurztraminer
Famille Vincent Pouilly-Fuissé Cuvée Marie Antoinette
Famille Hugel Classic Pinot Noir
Frank Family Vineyards Zinfandel 2018
Château Mont-Redon Lirac Rouge
Villa Antinori Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva
Weingut Dautel Wurttemberg Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir)
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