The holidays may bring joy, but they also produce anxiety for those doing the entertaining. We feel pressure to do it up in the right way. These festivities were once known as feast days—a time to forgo ordinary fare and put something extraordinary on offer, to indulge in a way we usually can’t afford. I do my best each year to administer some comfort to those wondering what wine is best for the holiday table. I don’t think I’m breaking any wine writer’s union rules when I tell you that there really isn’t one. Like all politics, wine choices for the holidays are local. I can’t guess what will be on your holiday table or what your guests like, but I can offer a few guidelines, ones I stick to at my own family dinners.
Don’t let the centerpiece of the meal dictate the wine. It’s less relevant than you think when it comes to pairing wine. Instead, turn your attention to the side dishes. If you’re serving roasted root vegetables, wines at the savory end of the scale work nicely. With sweeter sides like caramelized carrots or honey-glazed Brussels sprouts, something with a fruitier character can be a better choice. White or red can work (more on this below).
Put multiple bottles on the table. No matter how sure you are that you’ve chosen the ideal wine for each dish, offering just one wine per course is risky. Instead, put several out at once, with the idea that these will take you through the entire meal. Be sure there are both white and red options, remember that from the point of view of compatibility with a given dish, there’s less difference between heftier whites and lighter reds than you may think. I realize that’s the antithesis of wine-pairing practice as we’ve come to know it, but it’s a way to promote conversation, help everyone feel involved and democratize the table. True, you’ll likely have wine left over—and that’s fine.
Wine is important partly because it offers periodic pauses to clear the palate and provide refreshment. It’s there to whet the appetite, not dull it, so keep your choices on the lighter, brisker side of things and mind the level of alcohol in what you pour. A muscular 15% alcohol zinfandel or Chateauneuf-du-Pape may lend power and drama, but in my experience this really isn’t the place for it. It’s one of the reasons I like cru Beaujolais or lively Loire Valley cabernet franc for holiday table reds. In whites, I generally reach for something fresh and unoaked—think dry Riesling or simple Macon-Villages.
Start and finish with flair. Another way to think differently about holiday meals (and dinner parties in general) is to acknowledge the outsized importance of the first and last things we sip. At my home, we welcome guests with a glass of sparkling wine, even on the most informal occasions. It needn’t always be Champagne—many fine regional bubbles will do the job—but there’s nothing quite like popping the cork on a bottle of fizz to sound a note of celebration and good cheer. Bookend your feast with something lusciously sweet. Sauternes and Saussignac are good choices, as are ice wines and the late-harvest beauties from Germany with the ponderous handle trockenbeerenauslese. These rich, complex and intensely sweet wines can be costly, but you only need to give a tiny pour to each guest to leave them dazzled.