If you’re a wine lover, holidays are a time to shine. Wine makes a great gift, and fine wine is always a welcome accompaniment to a special holiday meal.
But which wine? A wine gift should be matched to your recipient’s tastes, and that can be difficult to know. And as far as matching wines with traditional holiday meals, good luck. From the Thanksgiving turkey feast to the Christmas Day standing rib roast to New Year’s Day’s Hoppin’ John made from black-eyed peas, the holiday dinner table tends to bring together wildly different flavors and textures, and no wine can match everything. Personally, I like pinot noir or red Burgundy with turkey and stuffing – but those darn super-acidic, sweet-tart cranberries, they’ll kill any wine dead right in the glass. An aged cabernet sauvignon or Bordeaux beautifully accompanies prime rib, but other staples of the Christmas table, such as crab and plum pudding, don’t go well with a smooth red wine. In our family, my sister begins our Christmas dinner with traditional Norwegian lefse (a kind of Scandinavian tortilla made from potatoes), which is usually eaten with sugar or jam or other sweet frosting, and as much as I love lefse, it’s a tough match for wine.
So the choice seems to be: bring several kinds of wine to holiday gatherings. That works, and I’ve done it, but it’s really not a very good solution. For one thing, too much open wine on the table can be a temptation to your good ol’ Uncle Bob who tends to drink one too many before driving home.
Here’s a better solution: bubbles. It’s called Champagne in France (if it comes from the Champagne region), cava in Catalonia (Spain), sekt in Germany and Austria and spumante in Italy. In the U.S., it’s properly called sparkling wine. A good Brut Nature, the driest of the bubblies*, has enough acidity to stand up to a variety of foods and enough complexity of flavor to match red meat, fish, sharp cheeses and even salads. Classic French Champagne, and much American sparkling wine, is made from the chardonnay and/or pinot noir grapes, but many other varieties of grape are used to make excellent sparkling wine. One of my favorite California sparkling wines is made from gewürztraminer.
And you needn’t cash in a savings bond to buy a fine sparkling wine. While the best French Champagne is indeed expensive, and the best U.S. sparkling wines start at $25 a bottle and go up quickly from there, good, value-priced alternatives are available and easily found. Freixenet, a Spanish cava, has redefined the entire value category for sparkling wines and can be found on almost any supermarket wine shelf. (Gloria Ferrer, a California sparkling wine, is owned by Freixenet, by the way.) But even better, I think, is the Italian spumante called prosecco, made mostly from the grape called glera. Very good examples of prosecco can be found in Upper Valley supermarkets in the $15-$20 range. I’d gladly match a $15 prosecco against most $30 or $40 American sparkling wines.
In the U.S., sparkling wines are usually considered “celebration” drinks —what you toast a new marriage or a new year with. Such limited occasions really cheat this kind of wine, I think. Bubblies are remarkably versatile, you needn’t spend a fortune on them, yet sparkling wines bring a festivity to any table that somber wines such as cabernet just can’t. No one who enjoys wine is unhappy to see a table with a bottle of sparkling wine sitting open and ready to pour.
Samuel Johnson was exactly right when he wrote: “The feeling of friendship is like that of being comfortably filled with roast beef; love, like being enlivened with Champagne.”
*A note about sparkling wine terminology: Oddly, sparkling wine labeled “Extra Dry” is sweeter than Brut Nature, Extra Brut and Brut. “Dry” sparkling wine is even sweeter than Extra Dry. For the dinner table, stick with the Bruts.