Wine is essential for many during the holidays. From cooking to gifting to sipping, wine helps make the holidays fun and bring those we love closer together. But, grandpa likes sweet wine and mom likes white wine. And what about fruit wine? While you can’t always make everyone happy, read on to learn which wines to stock up on this holiday season.
How I came to love wine
I’ve had the opportunity to take several courses on wine and fermentation science during my undergraduate career. I’ve even been lucky enough to work on a vineyard in Southern France! I love wine, and have had my fair share, but I still have trouble remembering different varieties and knowing which wines pair best with which foods. I hope this guide will help you make those hard decisions.
Understanding Wine Types
The Science of Wine Pairing
Understanding the chemistry behind wine and the science of sensory perception can help you choose the perfect wine to complement whatever dish you’ve whipped up.
First, let’s get a feel for what makes wines so different. You may not realize it, but weather, soil, and environment, or terroir, are critical factors in growing grapes that means wine can’t be reproduced just anywhere. That’s why wines from optimal regions generally fetch a premium price.
Red wine grapes generally spend more time in the sun and are grown in warmer climates than white wines. This means the red grape develops more sugar and flavor compounds. More sugar can mean a higher alcohol content, because there is more fuel for the yeast. A higher alcohol content means a bold flavor and thicker texture, such as Argentinian Malbec. Therefore, you can easily use the alcohol content listed on the label to determine how heavy and complex a wine may be. Grapes that have aged longer typically run above 14% ABV. Higher alcohol = lower sweetness.
White wine grapes are usually harvested sooner and are often grown in colder climates. This leads to the fresher, younger taste of most white wines. White wines may be sweeter if they are not fermented to completion, leaving more residual sugar.
Science of Taste
Next, some sensory science. We now know that the taste map theory of the tongue is incorrect. We perceive basic tastes equally well all over our tongue. But, we do have different types of taste receptors and each of the five basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami) are perceived differently. You may know that flavor is the combination of taste, aroma, and mouthfeel (or texture). We eat with more than just our mouth, it’s our eyes, ears, nose, and touch perception, too. This is what makes food so enjoyable!
Many wines may seem very acidic on their own, but when paired with food produce a completely new sensation. That’s because ingredients in our food affect the way it tastes. Salt reduces the perceived perception of acid in the wine. Therefore, ideally, wine should be more tart than the food you are eating. On the other hand, wine should be as sweet as the food you’re eating to avoid shocking your taste buds.
It may seem counter intuitive, but matching sensory types will actually mellow the perception of each. Some things to remember:
- Salt reduces acidity
- Sugar increases acidity
- Sweet masks bitter
Fat in food is another key driver in perception. Fat lends lubricity, richness, and fullness to foods. This is why low-fat foods may leave you feeling unsatisfied. Wines that are higher in alcohol and bitterness (red wine via tannins) help to balance the fat in foods like red meat. Try a bold, red to complement. Pairing equally weighted types of food and beverage keeps the dominant player from stealing the show. High acid wines can also help add brightness and flavor complexity to your dish.
Effect of Temperature
Wines are served at different temperatures because of the different volatile flavor compounds present. An easy rule to remember is light wines are served best cold and heavy wines served warm.
Optimum serving temperature for red wine is 60-70 F. This prevents harsh alcohol and flavor evaporation at warmer temperatures. Red wine may appear bitter at colder temperatures,
White wine, rose, and sparkling wines are best served at 40-50 due to higher sweetness level. Dessert wines are best at colder temperatures due to their sweet, syrupy nature.
Basic Rules of Thumb
- Taste wines from mellow to strong, light to dark. If preparing a multi-course meal, consider moving from white to dark throughout the evening.
- If in doubt, pair like with like or wine with food from the same region. For example, pair pasta with an Italian red, such as Chianti from the Tuscany region.
- Consider the “weight” of foods when choosing a wine. Heavy foods like beef pair best with a deep red, while light and delicate seafood flavors pair well with citrusy white wines.
- Drink what you like, when you like!
Holiday treats + Wine = Yum!
Now that you’re an expert in enology you’re ready to be a master sommelier, right? Okay, well if you’re not quite ready for that just yet, I’ve prepared a few specific suggestions below.
Appetizers & Mingling
When preforming any type of taste test in the food industry, the golden rule is to start from light to heavy or mild to bold. This is so that your palate doesn’t become overwhelmed before you get to the delicate flavors. If you’re thinking of serving different types of wine throughout your holiday party, consider starting with something light, like a white or rose. I enjoy Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc as easy sipping wines. You may also consider starting with a rose.
Love Riesling? If you’re looking for something new, consider trying Gewurztraminer. It’s another German wine in a similar style, but generally less sweet. (In case you’re wondering, its pronounced guh-VERTZ-tra-meener).
The Main Course
Typical holiday meals may be centered around ham, turkey, or roast beef. Hearty vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, or green beans may complement the main dish, or may even be the star of the show.
Bold reds that complement holiday proteins include Syrah, Cabarnet Sauvignon, or Malbec. As a general rule, the more fatty the steak, the more bold the red wine. Leaner cuts of meat would pair better with light to medium red wines such as Chianti, Red Zinfandel, or Pinot Noir.
Another note. Don’t pair bitter foods such as vegetables with bitter (aka bold red) wines, or the perception will be intensified. You may try balancing a sweeter wine or a refreshing, acidic white wine to complement the bitter flavors if vegetables are your main dish.
Dessert (the best & most important meal, of course)
Sweet desserts call for sweet wines, such as port or sherry to match intensity. Icewine is another type of dessert wine. Popular in Canada, icewine is made by allowing the grapes to remain on the vine during the winter. In doing so, the sugar in the grapes becomes super concentrated, making for a very sweet wine.
But if you don’t enjoy the syrupy sweetness of these dessert wines, consider a fruit wine. Blueberry wine can easily walk the line between sweet and dry depending on the winemaker. Cranberry wine is another great choice for the holidays.
Another fun option you may not be familiar with yet, is chokeberry wine. This might be hard to find in the US, but I sampled a glass some during my travels in Tallinn, Estonia and fell in love. It is a very dry and unique experience. Many of the berries in Estonia are extremely sour, so most of the wines aren’t too sweet.
If you’re interested in learning more about Estonia, check out this post. Did you know? Tallinn was voted the most beautiful Christmas city in Europe this year! Check it out here! Consider visiting this lesser known city on your next vacation.
Gluehwein, Glogg, and Mulled Wine
If you like warm drinks spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and orange to warm you up on a cold day, considering preparing some mulled wine.
Gluehwein is a traditional German and Austrian spiced wine that you can make at home by simmering dry red wine with lemon, clove, cinnamon, and orange.
Glogg is a similar spiced wine from Swedish traditions. This version includes additional ingredients such as cardamom, nuts, and ginger.
You can even make spice packets with cheesecloth to use as gifts. The cheesecloth allows the spices to lend flavor without making a solid mess in your wine. Here’s a fun recipe.
Happy New Year!
Christmas is over and it’s time to start fresh. What’s next? Think cold and bubbly for celebrating New Year’s: Champagne! Prosecco! What’s the difference? Let’s take a look.
Champagne and Prosecco are simply two styles of sparkling wine. Champagne hails from France and is produced using the traditional method of riddling, or rotating the bottles by hand. Prosecco hails from Italy and is produced using a simpler “tank” method, thus the cheaper price.
Champagne is generally aged longer and has deeper fermented flavors than the younger Prosecco. In terms of carbonation, Champagne has smaller bubbles, which will feel smoother on your tongue. Depending on how well you like carbonation, this may be something to consider. In terms of taste, you can generally expect Prosecco to be higher in sweetness.
Here are some suggestions for wines you may not be familiar with if you’re used to the classics. Why not check out something different?
An important thing to keep in mind when considering new wines: in America most wines are labeled with the type of grape, but in Europe wines are generally labeled by region.
- Montepulciano d’Abruzzo: Italian red. Highly recommend! Blackberry jam, raspberry, anise, nutmeg, black pepper, vanilla, licorice, coffee make up this complex red.
- Tempranillo: Spanish red. This wine is intense and very smoky in my opinion. Notes include toasted oak, tobacco, allspice, and cherry.
- Traminette: This white is the native grape to Indiana. Purdue University researchers have helped develop this grape for the Indiana climate to help local winemakers. I would liken it to a dry Riesling. Notes include orange, apple, grapefruit, peach, honey, cinnamon, and tea.
Don’t let anyone (even me) tell you what wine to drink or not to drink! However, remember to keep an open mind, as well. When it comes to wine, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I tend to enjoy deep, complex, dry red wines. But that’s not the case for everyone, or even every occasion. Drink what you like and enjoy yourself.
My Personal Favorites
What are your favorite holiday wines? Let me know if you have any suggestions in the comments below!
Butzke, CE, Haehl, HM, and Heahl, AG. Wine aroma descriptor manual: A guide for tasting varietal and regional wines. Purdue Wine Grape Action Team. Purdue University Extension.
Old, M. 2014. Wine: A Tasting Course. DK Publishing. New York, New York.
Puckette, M. 2015. Champange vs Prosecco. Wine Folly. https://winefolly.com/review/champagne-vs-prosecco/
Puckette, M. 2013. What are you drinking? Holiday wine guide. Wine Folly. https://winefolly.com/tutorial/holiday-wine-guide/
Puckette, M. 2012. 6 Basics to food and wine pairing. Wine Folly. https://winefolly.com/tutorial/food-and-wine-pairing/