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Pairing Southern staples: All your holiday wine questions, answered

'Tis the season for celebrating with friends and family, indulging in decadent food, and breaking out those special bottles of wine that may stay on the rack throughout the year. During the month of December, joyous gatherings lend themselves to serving wines that are bona fide crowd pleasers. Because people are already in the mood to make merry, don’t sweat too much over what wine to serve to your guests; just make sure to serve what you enjoy drinking.

We’ll highlight some wines of good value, but also some splurges, because the holidays just seem to call for them. Our favorites, from light and bubbly to rich and red, below:

Bubbly: Which one to choose?
Does any sound say, “It’s time to start celebrating” more than the popping cork of a Champagne bottle? Yet with the many types of sparkling wine available — and the large sliding scale of price tags — purchasing the right bottle may seem a bit overwhelming. We're here to help.

If you’re hunting a bargain, or perhaps buying in bulk for a crowd, look to cava or prosecco over an inexpensive bottle of Champagne. Prosecco can be a great introductory wine for people who may have had negative experiences with “Champagne” made from cheap blended wine. Clean and crisp with a hint of sweetness, prosecco also blends well with a host of other beverages; it’s fantastic as part of a holiday punch, spritz cocktail or even a brunch mimosa.

In colder weather, a Spanish cava is also a fun alternative to its more well-known bubbly cousins. Refreshing and slightly yeasty with hints of lemon and almonds, cava pairs well with a variety of foods, making it a wonderful offering for a holiday cocktail party.

When it comes to champagne, don’t be afraid to open up your wallet a bit. Because of the time involved, sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France via methode champenoise may be more costly, but you truly get what you pay for. All Champagne comes with a label to denote its sweetness, from the bone dry brut nature to the much sweeter doux, so look there for a hint as to how the wine will taste. Some Champagne will come labeled with a vintage, which means that it’s aged on tirage for a minimum of 36 months. Those that are non-vintage, or NV, are aged a minimum of 15 months. The NV will taste more fruity, while the vintage will be more creamy — both are equally delicious.

Suggested wines
Benvolio Prosecco, Valdobbiadene, Italy NV
Castillo Perelada Brut Reserva Cava, Perelada, Spain, NV
Pierre Peters Cuvee de Reserve, Champagne, France, NV
2006 Billecart-Salmon Extra Brut Champagne, Champagne, France

Whites: Bold and rich
While people tend to drink more red wines during the holiday season, there are some delicious whites that will really elevate your holiday gatherings. Because they’re produced in cooler climates, rieslings, for example, are perfect for wintertime drinking. Depending on which style you select, you can serve them at any point in the meal. Dry riesling is lean and crisp, and would be a tasty wine to serve as a first course or during cocktail hour. You can try it against something rich, like a spinach-artichoke dip, or lean, such as shrimp cocktail. For more sweetness, look for rieslings labeled spätlese, auslese, or trockenbeerenlauslese. These can be wonderful dessert wines; however, for a pairing that will blow your guests’ minds, pair a sweeter riesling with rare roast beef.

If creamier, richer wines are more your speed, this is the perfect time to break out the California chardonnay. Wines that undergo malolactic fermentation have more body, longer hangtime, and are great to pair up with rich holiday fare. The end result of such a complementary pairing will be more fruity notes being brought out of the wine. Dishes like scalloped potatoes, chicken or fish in rich sauces, and creamy soups all love buttery chardonnays.

Suggested wines
2015 Ravines Dry Riesling, Finger Lakes, NY
2014 Kruger-Rumpf Münsterer Kapellenberg Riesling Trocken, Nahe, Germany
2014 Pine Ridge Vineyard Dijon Clones, Los Carneros, CA
2013 Grgich Hills Estate Paris Tasting Commemorative, Napa, CA

Reds: Go big or go home
Big, bold red wines deserve a festive setting, making the holiday season the perfect time to break out some of the wines you may have cellared for a few years. When picking the centerpiece of a celebratory meal, most people tend to lean toward meats like lamb or standing rib roast. The fat found in ribeye or lamb can be balanced out by wines with bold tannins, which tend to dry out the sides of your mouth. So such bold meats require wines that can stand up to the fat and the flavor; the most natural fit is the “wild red,” cabernet sauvignon. New world cabernets, particularly those from Napa and Sonoma, tend to overwhelm many foods, but this is the perfect showcase for these big reds.

For a more fruit-forward option, a strong, jammy zinfandel is another delicious pick. A benefit of zinfandel is that it can handle heavier spice, especially black pepper. Wine regions with dry, warm climates, such as Paso Robles, California, allow zinfandel grapes to mature longer on the vines. This longer maturation process leads to bolder, slightly spicier wines.

Suggested wines
2012 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, CA
2015 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, CA
2015 Adelaida Michael’s Zinfandel, Paso Robles, CA

Photo Credit (Champagne): Billy Huynh/Unsplash
Photo Credit (white wine): Element5 Digital/Unsplash
Photo Credit (red wine): Kelsey Knight/Unsplash


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Chef Jeffrey Gardner is a native of Natchez, Miss., and a graduate of Millsaps College and Johnson & Wales University. He lives in Atlanta and has served as sous chef for popular restaurants South City Kitchen Midtown and Alma Cocina. In 2013 he became executive chef for East Cobb restaurant Common Quarter and was named one of ten “Next Generation of Chefs to Watch” by the Atlanta Business Chronicle. He has appeared on TV shows including Food Network’s Chopped and Cooking Channel’s How to Live to 100, and also filmed a series of healthy cooking videos with retired pro wrestler and fitness guru Diamond Dallas Page. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling the world with his wife Wendy, watching game shows and “spending all his money on Bruce Springsteen concerts.”

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