Sommelier Roundtable: Favorite Special-Occasion Wines (That Aren’t Champagne)

Eight wine experts from Restaurant Award winners suggest stills and sparklers (outside of the obvious) for celebrations

Sommelier Roundtable: Favorite Special-Occasion Wines (That Aren’t Champagne)
Celebrating with Champagne is usually a no-brainer, but check out these other wine picks from experts to mix things up at your next joyous gathering. (wundervisuals/Getty Images)
Sep 24, 2021

With families and friends gathering again and the holiday season emerging on the horizon, there are bound to be plenty of Champagne-fueled celebrations ahead. But changing up the wine pick at a party can be a fun conversation starter that’s just as enjoyable as the obvious choice.

To find other bottles worth toasting with, we turned to eight sommeliers from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning destinations. Their suggestions cover sparkling and still wines as well as a few in-betweens, including some unexpected but over-delivering options, from aged Barolo to a crowd-pleasing white from Champagne’s neighboring region. Try their occasion–worthy picks to wow guests at your next gathering, or even just to make a weeknight at home feel special (no excuse necessary).


Wine Spectator: What are your favorite wines for special occasions, other than Champagne?


Will Jones, wine director at Award of Excellence winner the Hope Farm in Fairhope, Ala.

Two of my favorite non-Champagne options for celebrations, at the moment, are Franciacorta and disgorged pétillant naturels. For the quality and price, Franciacorta is extremely under-utilized and -valued. I visited Seattle for July 4th and started the trip off with a bottle of Contadi Castaldi Franciacorta Rosé. Bang for buck, this was one of my best wine purchases of the trip.

I also highly suggest disgorged pét-nat. The high clarity I have found in a few examples creates such a textural but pure experience. Cruse Wine Co.'s Deming Vineyard Valdiguié [from Napa Valley] ranks pretty high on my list of favorites. With tones of strawberry, crushed apple and candied watermelon, this wine is just so cool!


Christian Shaum, beverage director at B. Hospitality Co. in Chicago, including Best of Award of Excellence winners the Bristol and Formento's

I think special occasions are a great time for aged Barolo because you can really get something that over-delivers from a quality-per-dollar perspective. I would urge something like an aged Aldo Conterno Barolo Cicala, from 1998, 2004 or 2011, if you can find it. This is a wine that isn’t as expensive as Italy’s top 1 percent of Barolos but is always competing with them.


Mark Cartland, wine director at Award of Excellence winner Island Vintage Wine Bar in Honolulu, Hawaii

If I can’t have Champagne, or another sparkling wine to celebrate, I look to Champagne’s neighbor for inspiration: Chablis! There is something magical about the Chardonnay grape when it is grown and vinified in Chablis. One of my favorite producers, Jean-Marc Brocard, offers a full lineup with everything from snappy Petit Chablis to regal grand cru bottlings. And even though grand cru Chablis isn’t cheap, it’s a bargain when compared to its brethren in the Côte d'Or.


Natalie Tapken, beverage director at Bluepoint Hospitality Group in Easton, Md., including Best of Award of Excellence winners Bas Rouge and the Wardroom and Award of Excellence winner the Stewart

It’s really small-production, but I am in love with France’s Domaine Sérol. They have this sparkling Gamay that’s delicious. It’s called "Turbullent," it’s a Loire Valley wine from Côte Roannaise. It’s just really delicious, super fruity, really fresh. It’s a great special-occasion wine. And obviously all somms say this, but Alsatian Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners are good for special occasions too.


Jaime Pinedo, wine director at Grand Award winner Spruce in San Francisco

Dauvissat, Roulot, Ramonet and Raveneau make their appearances at almost every special dinner or celebration with our friends. Most great wine lists will feature wines less celebrated from these revered white Burgundy producers for less than $200 per bottle. Keep an eye out for magnums of Petit Chablis and rare Chapelot bottlings from François Raveneau and everyday Bourgogne Blanc from Domaine Roulot.


Amanda Abbott, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner the Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive in Bow, Wash.

On special occasions, I gravitate toward the reds from my home state of Washington. I love just about anything from the Red Mountain AVA. Most recently I enjoyed a stunning bottle of Dead Horse Cabernet Sauvignon from Mark Ryan. It was rich and structured with a palate of dark fruit, leather and eucalyptus, followed by a nice long finish.


Jen Reyneri, co-owner and sommelier at Award of Excellence winner the Grove Pizza Cucina & Wine Bar in Hobe Sound, Fla.

Open that bottle you bought at the winery or the one that was a gift or a special vintage. If you don’t have a bottle with a story, use the time to make some memories by sharing your favorite bottles on your special occasions. [My husband and I] often opt for Burgundian Pinot Noirs and reminisce about our time spent living in Beaune.

Then, savor wine all the way through your meal until dessert with some TBA Rieslings, ice wines or Port with some cheese, or even the frizzante and deep, rich, velvety Sangue di Giuda [Blood of Judas, from Oltrepò Pavese in Italy] with chocolate cake. That wine alone has an unforgettable story.


Jody Davis, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Aretsky's Patroon in New York

My favorite non-Champagne sparkling wine is Kathryn Kennedy Cuvée Twenty-Seven Santa Cruz Mountains 2004 from California. As for non-sparkling, any favorite wine served out of magnum will turn your event into a festivity!


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