When you think of festive wines, what comes first to mind to many people is champagne, a cornucopia of tiny bubbles sparkling in the light like happy thoughts and the laughing chatter of a friendly gathering. Usage differs from one tradition to another, and to Americans champagne is principally a wine in which to toast a bride and groom, a new year, graduation from college, and so on.
In most Western countries, however, it is a dinner wine to accompany a festive meal: with an antipasto, almost any entree, and dessert. That's a rewarding variation we would do well to add to our repertory, for it is much less difficult to match with food. There is one cautionary note, however: dry champagne with a sweet dessert will be light and acidic; if you're planning a creme brulee with champagne, for example, depart from the growing American taste for dry wine and serve a sweet - “sec” - champagne instead.
For other selections, think of the unfamiliar. You know what to expect of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, maybe even fume blanc, that a rich, buttery California chard with a Christmas goose or turkey will please almost everyone, or a fruit-forward Hogue cab from the Pacific Northwest with a standing rib.
Are you comfortably confident, however, in choosing a tempranillo or a cabernet franc, imported or domestic, instead of a merlot, to complete a veal roast? Do you pick an Alsatian pinot blanc or gewurztraminer to go with that turkey instead of a chardonnay? An Argentine malbec for the prime rib?
A baked ham is Christmas dinner in many American homes, and the same Alsatian that flatters a turkey dinner with all the trimmings will perform equally well with the ham or a pork roast. The same is true of a German riesling, but not the riesling you imagine it to be, sickly sweet and heavy; rather, a clean semi-dry or dry German riesling.
Take these names - tempranillo, cabernet franc, Alsatian (that's important in this case) pinot blanc or gewurztraminer, halb-trocken German riesling - along with you on a timely visit to your favorite wine shop, and ask the proprietor for specifics. You can find good bottles for everything I've suggested, except champagne, for $15 or less, though it's possible to spend more if you want to. Double that number for good but bottom-rung champagne, the one wine that is especially labor-intensive, and so costly.
Make this new year an occasion to make new wines among your familiar friends.
Here are some ideas to keep in mind when choosing the wines for next year's Hanukkah dinner. By now practically every wine shop carries a selection of good Kosher choices: Manischevitz no longer need be inevitable. Pick out the same varietal you select all year round, like chardonnay, merlot, or white zinfandel. You'll find imports from Carmel and California wines such as Gan Eden, Weinstock, and Baron Herzog among them. Prices in general are very reasonable.
Nor is there any reason for Gentiles to shy away from adding a kosher wine to the grocery cart (No, no, I'm not recommending Mogen David, either; you probably won't like it.). Kosher wines are not alien, any more than corned beef or pastrami; they're neither better nor worse than the run of labels in the same price span.
Robert Kirtland is The Blade's wine critic.