Sometimes a host or hostess will make your job easy. They might say, “Here’s what we’re having for dinner, so can you bring X, Y, and Z?” Chances are, though, you’re going to be on your own in the wine store, and, lucky for you, the Vine’s your trusty wingman.
Over the years, I’ve been asked to lug in a lot of wine. Unless something in particular gets specified, I’ve learned through experience that you can make holiday partygoers oenologically happy about 90% of the time with wine from one of four categories, and you shouldn’t have to spend more than $15 on a bottle. Think of them as our “Four B’s” of holiday wine buying:
First off, Bubbles. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Sparkling wine’s going to be a good choice for any number of reasons. A quick aside – you might notice that I didn’t say “Champagne.” While northerners may call all carbonated beverages “Pop,” not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Only wine from the specific region of France is Champagne. And, unless your friends are a lot swankier than mine, you’re not going to need to drop the kind of coin on actual grower Champagne for most occasions.
I have two go-to sparklers for parties. First is Prosecco, a sparkling wine made largely from the Glera grape made in the Prosecco region of Italy. Prosecco tends to taste of lemons and pears and has a fairly high level of carbonation. Prosecco has had a popularity boom over the last few years -- it globally outsold Champagne for the first time in 2013.
Next is Cava – Spain’s national sparkling wine. Made largely from the grapes Macabeau, Xarel-lo, and Parelleda, Cava’s flavors run towards the peach and pear with more and more of a toasty finish, similar to what you’ll find in Champagne.
Which to get? I prefer Prosecco with antipasti and light appetizers, while Cava is a traditional accompaniment for any sort of tapas or spread of various sorts of food. Also, most of the Prosecco and Cava you’ll find will be labeled either “Brut” or “Extra Dry.” Believe it or not, Extra Dry is sweeter than Brut. With food, I generally prefer Extra Dry. On its own, refresh with Brut.
Our second B, Blush, refers to the wine I’ve championed in this space for a decade – dry rosé. Now, I love the stuff no matter where it’s from. For my money, it’s the most flexible of the still wines, and the stigma of looking like you’re carrying white zinfandel into a party has largely gone by the wayside.
Rosé is made all over the world. French rosé, especially rosé from Provence, tends to be lighter-bodied, delicate, and acidic. Spanish and South American rosé tend to be somewhat bigger and fruitier. Italy generates what might be called “red wine drinker’s rosé.” Many of those rosato are full and rich, and could pass as light red wines. American rosé is steadily improving and is made in a variety of styles – depending on the wine region. Warmer climates, like central California, will produce fruitier wines, while cooler or higher altitude regions like Oregon offer wines which are more delicate. Choose according to your preferences.
Third, to make up for my Champagne slight, I’ll tip my hat to one of my favorite party reds, Beaujolais, the wine with something for everyone. Beaujolais, a French wine made from the Gamay grape, is a red that I find is best served slightly chilled. Beaujolais is another super-flexible food wine, pairing nicely with everything from salmon to steak. I think it’s the perfect wine for a Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s very enjoyable on its own.
The $15 price-range Beaujolais you’ll see most often is “Beaujolais-Villages” – meaning the grapes were grown anywhere within that particular region. You’ll likely get flavors of red berries, cherries, and cola therein. If you want to splurge, there are ten municipalities within Beaujolais which make more complex versions of the wine. These wines will cost $20-30 and will have the name of the town (like “Fleurie,” “Morgon,” or “Julienas”) on the label.
Also, don’t get suckered by Beaujolais Nouveau, the “early release” Beaujolais. In the States, the Beaujolais Nouveau release is little more than a marketing ploy. The wine’s of lower quality than other Beaujolais, and it’ll cost you more. Skip it.
Finally, when in doubt, go BIG. There will always be rosy-cheeked folks at a party who want super-fruity, high-alcohol red wine. Indulge them with a California Zinfandel. While there are many expensive California Zins that are rich, complex wines – we’re at a party (or maybe a barbecue) here, so we don’t want complicated and expensive. Zins are typically big and jammy. You won’t be hurting for flavor here. They’re the best wine pairing for ribs that you’ll come across.
I recently had Zinzilla, the “California Monster Zin” from McNab Ridge with a Groot-like creature on the label. While not for the faint of heart, it is well-balanced for a $12 wine that could easily have lurched into plonk territory. You can find this wine, and others with “Zimmilarly” fun names at wine stores everywhere.
Hope this helps you get your party on this holiday season. Cheers!