Around the holiday months we are inundated with a fine-tuned onslaught of wine-suggestions for seemingly difficult meals, difficult dishes, difficult pairings and difficult relatives. The vast majority of these directives include grandiose reasoning toward selecting acidic white wines, rosé, Gamay, light Pinot Noir or whatever variety is trendy that month because these wines allegedly *go* with holiday dinners. These articles range from well-meaning somm-inspired nearly-mathematical diatribes to full-on advertisorial spreads populated with whatever bottles are buying the most space.
The wines in these articles are NOT the wines I serve with holiday meals. Never have and never will. And despite the near-solidarity of the above-mentioned writers’ choices, I often hear people expressing discomfort with serving the recommended *versatile* or *light* wines at these grandiose events. What do I serve at Thanksgiving and Christmas? Big nasty disgusting ripe beautiful Cabernets, Merlots, Pinots and Syrahs! Of-times they are quite old! These are special times we spend with special people during a very special time of the year. We cook huge special dinners hold hands and pray and therefore they call for special wines. The holidays have ALWAYS been reserved for a host dragging out his treasured bottles for family. I am here to bring the classics back.
The criteria for this list is simple and shallow: Big, rich, curvy wines. Decadent and alluring, a nod towards expensive, and easily available nation-wide in premium supermarkets or decent wine shops. Nothing with huge tannin–something that needs aging to soften–no, we want them soft NOW. We want them rich, like dessert. We want them memorable. We want people’s faces to glow when they taste them. We don’t want acidity to go with the cranberry sauce, we want the luxury that goes with the holiday spirit. This is not a ‘Best Of’ list or even wines which have been on the blog recently. Oh no it’s way fluffier than that! These are wines I taste frequently and I KNOW from years of consuming are dead-on EXACTLY what I want to serve at a grand holiday dinner with a variety of guests. They please over and over. Oh, and the labels must be pretty. The last thing you want is an ugly bottle on your table in Christmas pictures.
Cabernet is KING: Special Holiday Dinners almost ALWAYS mean Cabernet at my house, so I’m going to start there with a bit of a range in budgets:
YAO MING Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Not super-difficult to find and if you can get it, do not miss Yao Ming for your holiday table. Beautiful oak and intense jammy fruit against a substantial backbone of structure, an addictive generosity of cinnamon and nutmeg works magic on your tongue completely free of snobbishness. Easy to drink straight from release, it is definitely pricey stuff but oh boy is is worth it. $85-$100
STAG’S LEAP WINE CELLARS Artemis Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon One of the flat-out yummiest wines I have tasted in some time, this thing just SCREAMS “Christmas Dinner”. Gobs and gobs of chocolate, blackberry and velvet leather, drippingly dense and elegant, this wine drinks like straight ROYALTY. Buy an extra bottle for yourself after everyone leaves. $60-$70
J. LOHR Hilltop Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon In every supermarket everywhere and so often overlooked, the J. Lohr Hilltop remains one of the best-kept secrets in quality Cabernet at an affordable price. Always consistent from year-to-year, smooth, polished and round, with good Paso Robles structure and ripeness. Never flabby, perfect oak and concentrated fruit, it drinks easily like wines DOUBLE its price. And wouldn’t that gold bottle look great in a holiday spread? $25-$35
ANCIENT PEAKS Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon Rich and dense, packing a sophistication you wouldn’t think possible from an entry-level Paso, here is something that will fit any budget. Crammed with dark cherry and black licorice, spicy and BOLD, if you want THE best bang-for-your-buck in Cabernet today, look no further than Ancient Peaks. $17-$25
RAYMOND Reserve Napa Valley Merlot How about some Merlot? I gotta throw in a Merlot! EVERYBODY loves Merlot. Never over-powering, always succulent and round, gobs of gorgeous oak and jammy fruit, an easy-drinking wine and one of the classic Napa Valley Merlots for decades: Raymond Reserve would glow on anyone’s table. $20-$30
California Cabernet not your thing and want to go around the World a bit? I suggest serving these:
ARCANUM il fauno di Arcanum IGT Toscano Italy From the (Kendall) Jackson Family of wines comes this mid-level Super-Tuscan from their Arcanum property. Commonly known as ‘il Fauno’ and a blend of Merlot, Cab-Franc and Cabernet that brings a big rich almost-California-feel but in an unmistakably European style. $25-$30
M. CHAPOUTIER La Bernardine Chateauneuf-du-Pape France A perennial pleaser from the wonderful M. Chapoutier house in the Rhone Valley. Substantially fruited, always packing a wallop of fresh loam and Euro cave-wall nuances, I order this beautiful wine almost every time I see it on a wine-list. $40-$50
PENFOLD’S Bin 389 South Australia EVERYTHING’S bigger and badder in Australia and as one of the softest, earliest-appreciable offerings in Penfold’s roster, even 389 doesn’t mess around. I like to take this to people’s houses when I have absolutely NO CLUE what kind of wine they like. NO ONE can say no to this monster. Shiraz-Cabernet and you can practically stand a fork up in it. Decadent and ridiculously rich–almost sweet with all the oak and thick fruit–NO ONE can say they don’t like 389. $35-$50
Some people flat-out INSIST on Pinot Noir for the holidays and given the versatility of this variety, it is hard to argue.
AU BON CLIMATE Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir One of the most-asked questions of me is for recommendations of “cheap Pinot”. Of course everyone has a different interpretation of *cheap* but usually they are wanting something in the 15-dollar range. Well, I have a hard time drinking 15-dollar Pinots and an even harder time recommending them. And this is the holidays. So we’re not drinking any 15-dollar Pinot. This little Au Bon Climat is about as cheap of Pinot as I can bring myself to drink and well-shopped I have seen it slightly below $20. The entry-level wine from a VERY esteemed producer of Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County. It packs decades of Pinot-experience and vineyard-sourcing into a bottle anyone can afford and everyone will love (probably even the Pinot-haters). $18-$25
GOLDENEYE Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Still want Pinot but have a few more bucks to spend and want something that will blow your guest’s socks off? Look no further than this lovely bottle from the Duckhorn people. Sumptuous and round, piles of far-North-Coast briar and peat, dressed in oak and all wrapped around a dense fruit core. This thing is straight CANDY. $45-$60
Be sure and pour Grandma a glass.