Sommeliers Pair the Holidays

From the Thanksgiving feast to party bubbly to quirky family traditions, these wine pros have you covered

Sommeliers Pair the Holidays
Sure, you'll want a hearty red to pair with the traditional roast, but what to pour for Noche Buena or Friendsgiving? (Trinette Reed/Stocksy)
From the Nov 30, 2019, issue

Wine is not supposed to be stressful. And yet, when the holidays come around, the decision of what to pour at the table and at parties often becomes just one more headache surrounding what should be a celebration. What could possibly pair with turkey, cranberry sauce and yams? What bubbly will make your guests impressed you didn't go cheap on libations (even if you did)?

This year, we asked 17 sommeliers what they pop and pair at Thanksgiving, with the Christmas roast and to accompany their own quirky family traditions. These wine pros oversee the cellars at Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning eateries, and in their line of work, the holidays are the busiest time of the year. No one has more experience picking wines for the rich and diverse flavors on seasonal tables or turning a joyous gathering into the event of the year. Here are their recommendations and tips for fret-free festivities. After all, the ideal wine is one “you enjoy and would like to share or introduce to your friends and family,” says Carrie Lyn Strong, wine director at New York's Casa Lever. “It's the sharing that counts.”


Read our full web-exclusive Sommelier Roundtable series for more suggestions of holiday pairings, including tips for family feasts and party sparklers!


What are your go-to wines—red and white—to pair with the traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner?

JAKE LEWIS, corporate beverage director, Momofuku Group | Seven Restaurant Award winners

We take Thanksgiving food fairly seriously in my family. A few years ago, we started frying the bird. For that crispy fried turkey skin and juicy interior, I like a good ol' Chardonnay. I prefer to have one with a bit less wood so as to not overwhelm the turkey, so something like Eyrie Original Vines Chardonnay from the Willamette Valley.

For red, it starts to be about working with the accompaniments like cranberry sauce. A red wine with primarily red fruit notes is ideal—something like a brighter style of Zinfandel. Bedrock Cellars Old Vine Zinfandel from Sonoma is delicious, and the extra kick of alcohol makes the holiday a bit more fun.

AMY MUNDWILER, wine director, Maple & Ash, Chicago | Best of Award of Excellence

There are two ways I always approach a Thanksgiving pairing: size of the crowd and intent of the dinner. If this is a large crowd of hedonists, eating, drinking and just having fun all day, I'd recommend copious amounts of cru Beaujolais and a white Burgundy from the Mâconnais. Both are perfect pairings and offer incredible value. We currently have magnums of Lapierre Morgon 2017 in the cellar that I'm holding back for our Thanksgiving service. We're going to use it for a by-the-glass pairing, and it's going to be sexy as hell to pour from a magnum.

If this is a smaller affair with more discerning palates, I'm heading to Burgundy for the red and Alsace for the white. I'm having a love affair with the wines from Christophe Perrot-Minot right now, and it's 100% what I will personally be drinking at Thanksgiving this year.

RYAN BAILEY, wine director, NoMad Los Angeles | Best of Award of Excellence

I know it's cliché to say Gamay is the perfect Thanksgiving red wine, but this time, instead of grabbing Beaujolais Nouveau, try Domaine Migot's Gamay from the northeastern French region of Lorraine. It's such a steal and so delicious with a slight chill on it. From the very high-toned aromas of purple flowers to the crazy minerality on the palate, this has been my personal go-to.

Thanksgiving white wines for me are all about texture and depth without being weighty or oxidative. That's why I really love Jolie-Laide's Fanucchi-Wood Road Trousseau Gris. It seems to catch the attention of everyone at the table with how unique it is.

JILL GUBESCH, wine director, Frontera Grill/Topolobampo, Chicago | Award of Excellence

For red, I recommend a Nero d'Avola from Sicily such as the Morgante Don Antonio or the more value-driven Colosi. I like T-Day reds to be medium-bodied, with a bit of spicy fruit, to work with the array of flavors in the sides while not overpowering the turkey.

For white, try any of the Domaine Huet Vouvray Sec [wines], such as Clos du Bourg or Le Mont. I like a bigger white, but not necessarily an oaky one, so it can hold up to the bolder sides while balancing the meaty turkey flavor.

CARRIE LYN STRONG, wine director, Casa Lever, New York | Best of Award of Excellence

I'm loving Rhône varieties right now for their versatility in pairing with a variety of savory and sweet dishes—the heart of a Thanksgiving feast. Matt Trevison blends Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah into Rising Tides for his winery, Linne Calodo, in the Willow Creek appellation of Paso Robles. This wine is soft and beautiful and will sing an orchestral tune with any thankful feast.

Also from Paso Robles, Tablas Creek blends five white Rhône varieties for its Patelin de Tablas Blanc bottling, presenting a full bouquet of floral, tropical aromatics and a silky, rich mouthfeel, along with crisp acidity to let your family recipes shine.

VIRGINIA PHILIP, wine director, HMF at the Breakers, Palm Beach, Fla. | Grand Award

For white, German dry Riesling from von Buhl or Robert Weil. Both are stunners, and no, they are not sweet. For red, cru Beaujolais from Domaine Lafarge-Vial Côte de Brouilly, Jules Desjourneys Moulin-à-Vent or Lapierre Morgon—or, without breaking the bank, Damien Coquelet Chiroubles, Henry Fessy or Mommesin. Skip the Nouveau and move up your taste buds to a delicious and fairly inexpensive alternative to red Burgundy. The Gamay has lighter tannins, generally more fruit and is easy to drink with or without food, but works well with the lighter fare of turkey.

ELIZABETH KELSO, beverage director, Craft Los Angeles | Best of Award of Excellence

I prefer drinking white wines with holiday meals, as they cleanse the palate as the typically long evenings carry on. My go-to white wine for Thanksgiving is Chardonnay from Burgundy. To avoid breaking the bank on providing for the whole party, I suggest looking for options from St.-Aubin, Rully or St.-Véran. For reds, I suggest something light, jovial, and low to moderate in alcohol and tannins: Trousseau and Poulsard from the Jura region of France, or a Schiava or Lagrein from northeastern Italy's Alto Adige region. These play well with classic holiday dishes like turkey and cranberry sauce, and roasted duck, and are a refreshing respite from richer foods.

RAFAEL SANCHEZ, director of wine and beverage, Addison, San Diego | Grand Award

I recommend Marcel Deiss Alsace Vin Blanc and La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza 2009. Both are serious wines but also have this incredible broad likability. The Deiss has some Riesling in it, which gives it great fruit without getting sweet. The Ardanza has beautiful sweet and savory aromatics and is just irresistible after the first sip. They also won't break the bank.

What would you pour with that other holiday table centerpiece, roast beef?

JOO LEE, wine director, Saison, San Francisco | Grand Award

I personally like younger, more fruitful reds with roast beef. [Jean-Paul] Jamet is one of the top producers from Côte-Rôtie, and as much body and depth as his wines have, they still drink wonderfully in their youth.

GRETCHEN THOMAS, vice president of food and beverage innovations, Barcelona Wine Bar | 15 Restaurant Award winners

Roast beef doesn't tend to be very fatty. It's relatively mild for beef dishes, as opposed to something like a full-fat rib eye you might always think has to go with something with full tannins. But for roast beef, where you're sort of an in-betweener? To play the Spain side of what I do, I'd recommend Mencía wines, which have a very good flavor link to the Rhône Valley. Anything from Bierzo or Ribeira Sacra—we're talking 13.5% alcohol, lots of blackberry and blueberry notes in the wine, a little bit of rosemary earthiness, but super-soft tannins, super-easy drinking.

WENDY HEILMANN, wine director, Pebble Beach Resorts, Pebble Beach, Calif. | Four Restaurant Award winners

The fattier the cut, the more tannins you'll want to cut through that. So look to a younger Barolo or Napa Cabernet for your ideal roast beef pairing. If it's a leaner cut, a softer red would be in order. The first wine that comes to mind is an older Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon. I was fortunate to get to try a bottle of 2009 recently, and from the moment I put my nose in the glass I knew it was going to be magical. The tannins were softened but present, the fruit was still primary but just starting to get a little dusty, and the acid level was just perfect.

CEDRIC NICAISE, wine director, Eleven Madison Park, New York | Grand Award

With roast beef, an older Rioja would be great. I love Imperial from Cune, the older the better. These wines seem to be ageless.

RAFAEL SANCHEZ, Addison

An aged Bordeaux would be my preference. Something like a 2007 Mouton-Rothschild or a 1982 Château Poujeaux. The latter is actually quite affordable, even with its vintage.

CARRIE LYN STRONG, Casa Lever

Back-vintage Brunello di Montalcino, like Altesino, Lisini or Il Paradiso di Manfredi. Old World styles of Brunello pair perfectly with this traditional beast.

JAKE LEWIS, Momofuku

When we start getting into roast beef, I like to start bringing out the big guns. It's such a show to do roast beef, and the wine should be able to share the stage. Aged California Cabernet all the way. Corison Kronos Vineyard from about 10 years ago or so would be my move. It's not old enough that the tannins and fruit have faded too much to stand up to the beef, and the fruit is still popping while starting to show some secondary characteristics.

What bubbly should I stock up on for my New Year's party?

MARCELLO FIORENTINO, co-owner and wine director, Marcello's La Sirena, West Palm Beach, Fla. | Grand Award

One of our favorites is the Contratto Extra Brut Millesimato. I like it because it's not extremely Champagne-priced and it's not Prosecco. It's something that I think is as good as Champagne, from Italy. It's a great value, great producer; they've been around for [more than] 100 years. I think they've had the same guy riddling the bottles since he was 15, and he's, like, 60.

AMY MUNDWILER, Maple & Ash

If I'm headed to a party with a lot of people I don't know, I'm bringing magnums of a
non-Champagne crowd-pleaser. If I can find a 3-liter, that's even better. Nothing says a party like a 3-liter of bubbles. If I know the people at the party, it's Champagne. I love the wines from Pierre Paillard. Razor-sharp, with a lot of thoughtfulness in each bottle.

REBECCA KIRHOFFER, co-owner and wine director, Rebeccas, Greenwich, Conn. | Award of Excellence

When drinking Champagne and choosing Champagne to purchase, I always say, “Buy a big bottle.” The wine is aged in the bottle, and the bigger bottles taste better by a lot. And who ever didn't finish a great bottle of Champagne? I love pink Champagne and always return to Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, as it is so, so delicious, elegant and pretty. I also love vintage Dom Pérignon Brut Rosé. It is a bigger, blusher wine, and I could drink it all day and night long, never getting tired.

RAFAEL SANCHEZ, Addison

I really like the Paul Bara Brut as an all-purpose Champagne. It is downright delicious, a beautiful concentration of red fruits in the midpalate, with a bright, zesty finish. It is definitely a crowd-pleaser. [Alternatively], sparkling Vouvray or Lambrusco. I recommend Domaine Huet Vouvray Pétillant or Champalou Vouvray Brut, and Caprari Lambrusco or Medici Ermete Lambrusco.

WENDY HEILMANN, Pebble Beach Resorts

If I'm going to a party with a diverse crowd, I tend to bring value-oriented sparkling. Pere Mata Cupada Brut Rosé Nature Cava is a crowd-pleasing bottle of bubbly. If price were no object, I'd rotate through Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and Laurent Perrier Cuvée Rosé with breakfast, lunch and dinner.

What's a holiday pairing your restaurant specializes in? What's a tradition in your family?

JASON SMITH, wine director, Wild Ginger, Seattle | Grand Award

One dish I recommend is red-cooked pork belly. Braised in soy, rock sugar and Shaoxing rice wine, it's rich and comforting. I prepare mine with whole green onions and star anise. It has deep, caramelly flavors, and the salty-sweet braising sauce is great mopped up by other dishes. Off-dry German Riesling, especially spätlese and auslese, is what I drink with it. Sugar in wine pairs perfectly with sweet and salty elements, while Riesling's powerful acidity contrasts with fatty richness. That same sugar also promotes greater versatility with any other dishes on the table, concealing sweetness. To me, the effect is like walking with snowshoes—soft, buoyant and agreeable.

JILL GUBESCH, Frontera Grill/Topolobampo

We always do a version of the Noche Buena salad at Topolobampo. It's a salad representing the colors of Christmas; it usually includes beets or pomegranate seeds for red, jicama for white and greens for green, along with peanuts, orange segments, sugarcane or honey and sprinkles. Our version also has Ora King salmon.

Domaine Mosse Moussamoussettes Vin Mousseux Brut Nature Pétillant Naturel from the Loire Valley pairs because a pét-nat cuts through the rich texture of the salmon, and yeasty flavors highlight the peanut miso and fermented honey flavors; and Zorah Wines Karasì Areni Noir from Armenia also works—the deep, rich fruit is great with the sweetness of the beets and the sugarcane jus.

ANDY MYERS, beverage director, José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup | 14 Restaurant Award winners

Roasted lamb is quite traditional for holidays in Spain. I particularly love older Riojas with lamb; '01 or '04 Castillo Ygay would be tasty if anyone wants to buy some for me. That sweet, tart and sour note and bright acidity of great Riojas always makes me smile with lamb.

Another favorite is the traditional Christmastime sweet called turrón. It's basically a crunchy nougat with almonds. It's such a delightful treat on its own, but I really love drinking Cava with it, especially any of the wines from Raventós i Blanc.

MARCELLO FIORENTINO, Marcello's La Sirena

I know it's all about the [Feast of the Seven] Fishes on Christmas Eve, but we like a cold seafood salad with shrimp, calamari, crabmeat and fish. Celery and onions shaved very fine, with some baby arugula, lemons, garlic and olive oil. We like an island white—when I say island, I mean something like Sardinia or [the islands off] Campania. But we really love the Jankara Vermentino di Gallura 2017. I like fresh whites from Italy, young, and for me it pairs perfectly with the seafood salad.

ROBBY YOUNES, chief operating officer and beverage director, Restaurant Latour at Crystal Springs Resort, Hamburg, N.J. | Grand Award

I like to go with tapas-style appetizers and end it with a locally grown free-range turkey stuffed with rice, ground lamb, spices, roasted chestnut, almond, walnut and pine nuts, served with a Riesling, mushrooms, white turnips and reduced sauce. A simple, fun, elegant way to carry the turkey tradition, but eliminate the heavy meals. I sometimes like to start the meal with a young Beaujolais or a chilled Tempranillo with my appetizer tapas or mezze—yes, chilled to 42˚ F.

AMY MUNDWILER, Maple & Ash

I work most holidays. Thanksgiving dinner is usually around 11 p.m. and involves takeout Chinese barbecue and a bottle of Riesling. For Christmas, it's fettuccine Alfredo and white Burgundy.

CARRIE LYN STRONG, Casa Lever

My family upholds our Greek traditions. Every year we make spanakopita from scratch, of course getting the feta cheese from the Greek market in Astoria, [N.Y.]. The perfect pairing for this creamy, savory vegetable dish has always been a spicy Syrah from Côte-Rôtie. Patrick Jasmin produces a spicy, lean Syrah that boldly wraps this dish in warmth.

GRETCHEN THOMAS, Barcelona Wine Bar

One of my biggest traditions is Friendsgiving. This started in about 2007. We would get together on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and make the most amazing food out of our crappy apartment kitchens. And there's no turkey—that's one part of the tradition.

I'm the one who's the wine contributor for that dinner, so if someone handed me a special bottle of Champagne or I just happen to have some old bottles I've held onto from my travels, Friendsgiving is when I open up those bottles. It could be anything—it could be a super-old bottle of Barolo; I opened up a bottle of 40-year-aged single-barrel Sherry from Bodegas Tradición that was super-rare and irreplaceable. That's my time to share those moments with people who are going to really appreciate it.

CEDRIC NICAISE, Eleven Madison Park

Turkey sandwich and an ice-cold beer after a long Thanksgiving Day service.

JOO LEE, Saison

Although my family and I have traditional American Thanksgiving dinners, we still have Korean elements throughout the holidays. We love to sit down together and make dumplings by hand and talk about anything and everything. I always have a bottle of sweet Dönnhoff Riesling for my mother and sister, while my father and I just kick back some cold beers. I spent a considerable amount of time in my years of fine dining seeking the best pairing possible with a wide array of dishes. But I'm still a firm believer that having a memorable experience with meaningful people will make you remember what you drank forever, even if it's just a cold beer with some dumplings.

Holidays / Celebrations Pairings

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