By Jim Peterson
Wine Enthusiast & Instagram Wine Influencer
The holiday season can be fun for wine selections. The variety of dishes, with the typical turkey headliner at Thanksgiving, lends itself to medium-bodied reds and slightly more acidic whites that can enliven the palate rather than weigh it down. The three classic wine varietals that are most associated with the traditional holiday meal, especially at Thanksgiving, are Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. These can also work well for Christmas, although a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon or red Bordeaux would be perfect if you’re serving a roasted tenderloin or prime rib.
For this article, though, I want to focus on the more flexible varietals. In the Air Force we always said flexibility is the key to airpower. It works for wine power too! Let’s talk about some of my favorites.
CHOOSING A PINOT NOIR
Back in the spring I was fortunate to visit some top wineries in Sonoma County. The Pinot Noir producers from the different wine regions in Sonoma County produce fantastic wines to brighten the holiday dinner table.
Merry Edwards Winery
Merry Edwards, the winemaker, is a legend in the wine world. She broke barriers as a female winemaker in a male-dominated industry, eventually starting her own winery with her first vintage in 1997. Her lineup of Pinot Noir wines, from various Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast vineyards, usually exhibit intense aromas with an elegant balance of dark red fruits and a mesmerizing depth and structure to captivate your palate.
The hospitality team at Merry Edwards was beyond amazing during my visit. I was fortunate to taste seven wines that day. They were all delicious. Still, I walked away with a greater appreciation for Merry’s accomplishments. With Merry retiring, the Louis Roederer family (from Champagne) now owns the winery, and her handpicked predecessor now makes the wines. The basis is there to continue Merry’s outstanding legacy. Look for these in local wine stores, but you can also order Pinot Noir from their website.
I briefly mentioned DuMOL in my prior article on Sonoma wines. DuMOL has great options when it comes to choosing Pinot Noir for Thanksgiving. As my visit and tasting proved out, this is good timing if you have never tried DuMOL wines. Winemaker Andy Smith declared the current release 2021 vintage to be the overall greatest in DuMOL’s history. That’s saying something. While there are retail DuMOL to be found, the best wines are reserved for members.
My insider tip (as a longtime member): It’s free to join the list and there are no required purchases. I warn you though. They are hard to resist!
Williams Selyem Winery
What started as a literal garage winery in the early 1980s has evolved into one of the most prolific single vineyard Pinot Noir producers in Sonoma. Williams Selyem has a unique style created by their minimal intervention winemaking techniques. These are just fun wines to taste. Their Pinot Noir wines are usually loaded with bright cherry and raspberry notes. Williams Selyem wines would be a lavish Thanksgiving pairing. Speaking of lavishness, my visit to Williams Selyem was nothing but. Their tasting room complex is modeled after a giant wine barrel. The décor is as unique as the wines when it comes to taste. Truly unforgettable.
CHOOSING A RIESLING
Why is Riesling great for the holidays? The easy answer is Riesling has a classic fruity and floral profile, along with a bright acidity, that helps keep the palate refreshed. It can also cut through any of the fat from the buttery madness we often encounter during holiday meals. While it’s no surprise I favor the German style, I’m not about to rehash my two articles on the Mosel and the Rheingau. Instead, let’s look at some American Riesling. For some of the best American Riesling we must look north to the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York.
The Finger Lakes region was formed by glaciers that carved up the land and melted, leaving an array of beautiful lakes. The other result was a mix of soil types, elevations, and steepness of slopes that helps create unique expressions of Riesling you are sure to enjoy. I prefer the “Dry Riesling” examples to pair with a holiday dinner. If you do have guests that prefer sweet wines, you cannot go wrong with one of the sweeter Rieslings. Then sneak a glass for yourself to enjoy with dessert.
There are numerous outstanding wineries in the Finger Lakes region, and that number continues to grow. The quality has never been better. Here are some of my favorites. Hermann J. Wiemer has been one of the best for many years. Boundary Breaks recently had a Riesling in the Wine Spectator Top 100. Forge Cellars specializes in bone-dry Riesling. The wines of Dr. Konstantin Frank are quite good and some of the easiest to find. There are so many more. Don’t hesitate to grab one off the shelf if you see it’s from the Finger Lakes.
CHOOSING A SAUVIGNON BLANC
Why pick up a Sauvignon Blanc? Sauvignon Blanc is light and crisp, with citrus flavors accompanied by underlying grassy or herbaceous notes. These elements certainly combine for a nice pairing with turkey and mashed potatoes. Plus, Sauvignon Blanc is typically an easy sipping wine too, and you can enjoy it before or after the meal. It’s a great cooking wine. That is, it’s great to sip while you cook!
For stateside Sauvignon Blanc I will start by referring you back to Merry Edwards. Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc is generally limited to their allocated member list, but there are some online shops that sell it. The Meyer lemon and subtle tropical notes make this a top high-end choice for your table. On the value spectrum I have a fond attachment to the Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc. It’s always a good sip. There are many other California Sauvignon Blanc wines to enjoy, so feel free to grab a favorite of your own.
My favorite Sauvignon Blanc wines are from Sancerre in the Loire Valley. The limestone soils in Sancerre create a balance of minerality with the sometimes overly tart green apple or pineapple flavors in Sauvignon Blanc.
You will definitely give thanks as you’re tasting these!
While we’re at it, we might as well add the Pouilly-Fumé white wines from the Loire Valley to the list too. These white wines are another version of Sauvignon Blanc that will effortlessly compliment your holiday dinner.
There are so many tantalizing choices when it comes to American Pinot Noir. Other Sonoma wineries with exceptional Pinot Noir include Flowers, Paul Hobbs, Hirsch, and Rootdown. Further up the coast in Oregon, the Willamette Valley and Dundee Hills regions offer abundant choices for brightly flavored Pinot Noir. My favorites there include Big Table Farm, Elk Cove, Beaux Frères, Domaine Drouhin, Bergström, The Eyrie Vineyards, and so many more.
While I would generally avoid Chardonnay for a holiday meal, if you are inclined to go that direction then I would stick to a Chablis. The cooler climate and Kimmeridgian limestone soils along with the limited use of oak result in the bright acidity and clean flavors you need for a traditional holiday meal. My favorite producers are William Fèvre, Jean-Marc Brocard, and Drouhin-Vaudon.
Never forget though, the most important aspect of wine selection is choosing something you are very likely to enjoy.
While I am constantly experimenting with new wines, I do understand those who prefer to remain in their own wine wheelhouse. If you are on the reluctant side, try mixing in at least one new style of wine. Then pour yourself a glass of each wine side by side to taste as you enjoy your meal. You may be surprised at the difference a good pairing makes.
Finally, in this holiday season I am thankful for you, my readers. I don’t often get direct feedback on my articles, so I would like to invite you to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear from you if you have tried my recommendations or enjoyed reading about my many wine adventures. Or feel free to let me know what else you would like me to write about. I wish you all the happiest of holiday seasons. Cheers!
Follow Jim on Instagram, @tx_wine_pilot, for more wine tips and reviews.
Jim Peterson is a retired U.S. Air Force officer who mainly flew the A-10 fighter jet. He has ties to the wine business going back over 20 years and is an avid wine collector. His extensive wine knowledge includes travel to many wine regions, tasting many of the world’s top wines, and ongoing personal wine exploration. He has cultivated a large following on his Instagram account, @tx_wine_pilot.