To me, the most interesting part of wine pairing questions during the holidays is the larger premise behind the question: that a distinct set of wines exist that are appropriate for the holidays. Even if we cannot place our finger on what exactly makes a wine a "Holiday Wine," we all seem to have some understanding that it deserves special attention (and capital letters). Frankly, I'm most interested in what all of you and consumers in general think of when they approach a holiday wine selection - and hope to see some ideas in the comments below. In the meantime, here are a few attributes that I tend to weigh and juggle for these special wines:
- Pairing Food: The most obvious factor that might go into designating a wine as a Holiday Wine is that it pairs well with traditional foods of the season. Thanksgiving brings to mind zinfandels for many who read American wine writers anytime after the 1980s, because it seemed appropriate at one time to serve an American wine with an American holiday and now is rooted like tradition (regardless of suitability to the meal). For those who have a standing rib roast for Christmas or New Year's, a classic claret-style red might beg for Holiday Wine consideration.
- Pairing Mood: No less important when it comes to wine pairing, is how the wine seems to pair with the mood of the season. Excepting its most ardent proponents, most wine drinkers would not readily think of a crisp, dry rosé during the depths of a cold and snowy January. On the flip side, dark and sticky port wines feel perfect by the fireplace and a sparkling wine is as de rigueur at a New Year's Eve party as the midnight kiss. Fortunately, sparkling wines are excellent partners for the hors d'oeuvres present at most such gatherings - but regardless of that the mood fits the wine so perfectly that food pairing might be cast aside (see: Zinfandel, Thanksgiving).
- Price: There is no way around the fact that all consumers, including everyone in the wine industry when they are out shopping, use the price of a bottle as an indicator of the quality within the bottle. These assumptions may be entirely off base, perhaps the wine just has better marketing or an artificially low supply, but nevertheless they are still made. And when it comes to the holidays, similar to how everything else is treated from food to spending, excess (high price) is often rewarded as being correct for a Holiday Wine. This isn't to say that the fun gatherings this time of year do not deserve expensive bottles of wine, but neither does it mean that just because a wine is expensive it should be considered a Holiday Wine.
- Tradition: Relatively straight forward, I suppose. If you always have a nice Chianti Classico on Christmas Eve with a big Italian-American feast, that style of wine is always going to be a Holiday Wine for you and yours. It may even come down to a specific producer or bottle if it has really entrenched itself. For better or worse, when it comes to this signifier of Holiday Wines I am still in my early 20s and struck hard by wanderlust, so I'm far more prone to experimentation even within the context of tradition.
- Sensory Analysis: This comes surprisingly far down my list, but I don't think that is inappropriate given how important the first three are in most of our decisions on wine during the holidays. To some extent, there are simply wines that can call to mind images of the holidays simply by their aromas and flavors. Whether these be aromas of cloves, cinnamon, red fruit, or anything else that we associate with the holidays, a wine can certainly vault itself into being a Holiday Wine if it suddenly serves as a Proustian portal to holidays (real, imagined, or idealized) gone by.
- Connection: This word may be as nebulous as terroir is, in that giving a precise definition is as frustratingly difficult. Instead, by way of example, here is what caused me to think of this entire topic. While I was in New Zealand I purchased about a case-worth of wine, bottle by bottle, from small producers I was impressed by and wouldn't find elsewhere. Now when I look at these bottles and contemplate opening them for a meal, I am drawn back to beautiful landscapes and my remarkable experiences traveling through that nation in the spring. This may not have a direct connection to anything relating to the holidays, but to the extent that it brings me back to these special memories it feels right for the joy and reflection of this season.
So there you have it, a partial listing of categories that help make a wine become a Holiday Wine. As I said at the beginning, I am more interested in what other people think of when they pick out wines for the holidays. Every such bottle tends to have as fascinating a story behind it as the person who selects it.
By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team
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