Good wine article


A Seasonal Balancing Act

What Makes a Wine Right
For Your Holiday Guests?
The Time to 'Flip-Flop'
December 3, 2004; Page W6

A neighbor stopped us in the hallway recently and posed one of the ultimate questions for this time of year: What wine should I serve to dinner guests over the holidays?

This question is much more complex than it seems. There are so many "on the one hands" here that President Bush would call us flip-floppers: On the one hand, holiday entertaining is about friends and family, not about wine; on the other hand, it's nice to offer a wine that shows some thoughtfulness. You want everyone to enjoy the wine, but you don't want the wine to be lowest-common-denominator and boring. This isn't a time to pinch pennies, but you might go through several bottles of wine and you don't want to break the bank. You don't want to seem like a wine geek by talking about the wine or making a big deal of it, but it would be nice if your guests noticed that you went to some trouble to get something interesting.

It's impossible for us to give any one-size-fits-all advice, because so much depends on what kind of wine is available in a certain area and how much you're willing to spend. But we can help put some fences around this problem.

First, let's eliminate sparkling wines and dessert wines. We think there's always room for a sparkler at dinner, but most people who ask this question are looking specifically for a dry red or a dry white for dinner, so let's focus on those.

Second, let's eliminate Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from the U.S. and Shiraz and Chardonnay from Australia. Too many of these wines (especially under $20) have become boring and predictable. In many cases, they also taste alcoholic and a bit sweet, which makes them difficult to pair effectively with food. While there are good ones, of course -- we've written about many good ones and certainly would urge you to continue to buy and experiment with all of these on your own time -- we think it's nice to offer your guests something that seems a little more special than their everyday wines.

Steering Clear of Clichés

Third, let's try to avoid animal labels. Around this time of year, too many people buy wines for their cute labels, which go over well with company until the wine actually is poured. In a tasting of these critter quaffers earlier this year, we found that too many of them tasted like wet dog, or worse. More important, animal labels have become a cliché. If you see an animal label you think is especially cute, buy one bottle, pass it around at dinner so everyone can go "Awwww" -- and then open a different wine.

What's left? Well, a whole world of wine. We have listed eight kinds of wine here -- four red and four white -- that would help make any dinner a success. We also have listed a few specific labels in some cases, but it's impossible to know which wines you will find anywhere, so it's more important to look for the type of wine. We have not included some wines that we think would be terrific but that might not be available in some areas. For instance, if you can find an Austrian wine called Gruner Veltliner -- that's kind of the national grape of Austria -- your friends will go wild: It's a flavorful, slightly peppery white wine that offers layers of character but is also very easy to drink. It goes with a wide variety of food, too. This is becoming more widely available all the time, so look around.


Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa or New Zealand. Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand may not be new to your guests, but it is so fresh, so vibrant, so alive that it's still just plain exciting. It will be harder to find Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa, but it's equally juicy, with the same exceptional, grassy, varietal tastes, and will be a great introduction to the wines of a region that most people still haven't sampled. Get the 2004 vintage if you can (their harvest takes place early in the year), but nothing older than 2003. Figure $10 to $15. Among New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, we particularly enjoy Villa Maria, Babich and Brancott. Cloudy Bay is terrific -- a very special wine for your guests -- but costs closer to $30. These go well with foods such as salads, lighter fish, and leek and onion tarts.

Pinot Gris from California or Oregon. Pinot Grigio from Italy has become way too obvious for a holiday dinner. But American winemakers are using the same grape -- sometimes calling it Pinot Grigio, sometimes Pinot Gris -- and making it into a wine with more character than many Italian Pinot Grigios. It's cleaner and lighter than many Chardonnays, which means it's good both as a sipping wine when people arrive and during dinner as well. Oregon's Pinot Gris tends to be heftier, and more expensive, than California's and probably better with somewhat more serious food. Figure $10 to $18, with the wines from Oregon usually on the higher side. Some reliable names: Adelsheim, Eyrie, Firesteed, Gallo of Sonoma, J Wine Co., King Estate, Rancho Zabaco, Sokol Blosser, WillaKenzie. What to eat with them? Roast pork, heavier fish, crab cakes, onion tarts, wiener schnitzel.

White Bordeaux. This is an unexpected wine that makes any gathering seem classier, and certainly more delicious. While Bordeaux is best known for its reds, a great deal of fine white is made there, too, and it sometimes can be quite reasonably priced because it's not very well-known. Look for Graves (a region) or Pessac-Leognan (a part of Graves) on the label. These wines have great tastes of minerals and ripe fruit and an elegant, food-friendly taste that's really quite special. You can sometimes find good ones for less than $15, but these probably will cost about $25. Among the names to look for are Chateaux Bouscaut, Carbonnieux, Coucheroy, La Louviere and Olivier. These pair nicely with veal or chicken dishes with cream sauces, lobster Newburg, scallops, any kind of fish, stuffed mushrooms and onion tarts.

Chablis. The steely, crisp tastes of Chablis, which is made in France from the Chardonnay grape, make it one of the greatest, most vibrant, most mouth-watering wines around, but it's surprisingly affordable because -- well, when was the last time you bought a Chablis? These are great with any kind of white-wine food, especially any kind of seafood. Figure $15 to $25. By the way, we have often found good and reasonably priced bottles of Chablis in supermarkets, where they seem to be ignored among the more-popular wines. Try these with shrimp scampi, oysters, fried, sauteed or grilled fish, grilled vegetables.


American Pinot Noir. These days, you can just about close your eyes and pick an American Pinot Noir and find a winner. There are outstanding wines both under and over $20. Oregon's Pinot Noirs are a special experience, real heavyweight wines. One of the many great things about Pinot Noir is that it goes with just about every kind of food. Among many names to look for under $20: Clos du Bois, David Bruce, Echelon, Erath, Firesteed, Kendall-Jackson, Napa Ridge. Over $20: Acacia, Au Bon Climat, Cambria, Cristom, Ken Wright, Morgan, Sterling, WillaKenzie. Any kind of poultry, especially roast chicken or duck; lamb, veal, a hearty vegetable casserole, stuffed squash or goat-cheese tarts will go well with these wines.

Argentine Malbec. Much as we love unusual wines, we suggest you avoid them, in general, for your dinner parties because some of your guests might find them weird. South Africa's Pinotage, for instance, is an amazing and distinctive wine that some people might not like because its tastes take some getting used to. But we think Argentina's Malbec walks the line between being distinctive without being too odd. Malbec tastes like ripe blackberries and plump black cherries, with some hints of lilac, herbs, a little bit of smokiness, some pepper and a great deal of rich soil underneath. It also has bright acidity that enlivens food. Malbec is a bargain, often about $8 to $12. It goes well with grilled or roasted meat, pastas with rich, tomato-based sauces, ratatouille.

Beaujolais, both Nouveau and "real." Beaujolais Nouveau, despite this year's disappointing quality, is still a good wine to serve this time of year as a celebration of the season (and an inexpensive one at that). It's the kind of wine that guests drink lustily, which certainly helps make for a fun evening (if you get Nouveau, make sure it's 2004). But don't forget "real" Beaujolais, too -- not just Beaujolais-Villages, but wines from the 10 top villages. We're going to list all 10 here because each of these is fun and you might see one of these names on the front of the label and might not see the word "Beaujolais" because it's in tiny type somewhere else: Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Cote-de-Brouilly, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Regnie and Saint-Amour. Many people have never really tasted a top Beaujolais, so these are a treat -- and they'll cost you maybe $10 to $12. Be sure to get the 2003 vintage of these. Roast chicken, duck, spicy pastas, hamburgers or smoked meats make for a good combination here.

Barbera d'Alba. Our tasting of Italy's Barbera wines was one of the most successful of the year. Barbera is a grape that can create wines that are deep yet light on their feet, with great acids for food. They're gulpable, with tastes of ripe raspberries, rich earth and roasted fruits with a dash of lemon. Those from around Alba are especially reliable, so if you get an Italian wine called Barbera d'Alba, you and your guests almost surely will be in for a lovely evening. The producers are so reliable that you should just pick up any one you see. This is another wine that we often see in supermarkets. Try one with almost anything Italian -- including pizza and tomato and feta bruschetta -- and also ragout, paella, stuffed bell peppers, salt cod or virtually any robust dish.

One last thing: The perfect wine for company might be right under your nose -- literally. A wine that you really enjoy yourself, even if it's an inexpensive Chardonnay or Merlot, is always a great wine to serve. Opening a wine that you're excited about involves your friends in your own enthusiasm and allows you to share something more important than wine: a little bit of yourself.