Seasonal wine picks for the holidays

Are those Christmas bells I hear? As a sommelier (a.k.a. a professional wine steward) I begin to hear these sounds ringing in my ears each year when Christmas season rolls around and multitudes of inquisitive consumers begin asking for tips on pairing local wines with the tasty cuisine they plan on serving at upcoming parties, dinners, and other festive events leading up to Christmas and New Years.

Rule one: Don?t be afraid to be adventurous with the holiday food and wines pairings. Since the inception of fine dining, the golden rule of working with wine has been to enhance, not overpower the food being served. This technique is based on the idea that the two delicious parts of a great dining experience can co-exist and complement one another.

Rule two: Set the mood early. At holiday gatherings, stimulate the taste buds of your guests by serving classy seasonal hors d?oeuvres such as oysters on the half-shell, stuffed mushrooms, sweet corn fritters, Dungeness crab cakes, deviled eggs, lavish vegetable trays, cheese platter and other tasty treats that pair nicely with the bright acidity of sparkling wines, crisp whites, dry ros?, young, fresh and fruity reds, or the once powerful wines that have been mellowed out after being aged in the cellar.

Rule three: Think big. Holiday cuisine is not supposed to be bland, but scrumptious and pleasurable to the palate. So instead of working hard to prepare the fixings for a 20-minute, non-stop feeding frenzy, slow the pace down by serving a multi-course meal which makes each guest feel like royalty. But rest assured, more courses doesn?t necessarily mean more work; but simply more attention to detail and wine pairings to further enhance the experience.

For instance, salads with tangy dressings work best with wines that feature a good acid base. To add even more pizzazz to this starting course, try using seasonal fruits like pomegranates, pears or apples, nuts, or a wide variety of cheeses (sliced or crumbled) with the mixed greens. Local wines that can compliment these flavors include: the delicious dry sparkling wines by Gloria Ferrer, J Wine Company or Iron Horse; the tasty dry gew?rztraminer from Gundlach-Bundschu; elegant pinot gris from Keller Estate, Balletto or Etude wineries; the delicious and complex pinot blanc from Valley of the Moon; or fashionable dry ros?style wines from Cline, Carol Shelton, and Muscardini Cellars.

Another tasty option is to serve an elegant soup made with butternut squash, pumpkin or other seasonal vegetables. A great pairing would be to serve a chardonnay with enough richness to compliment the oiliness and creamy texture of these stylish soups. Classy southern Sonoma County wineries that consistently make these styles of chardonnay that include Buena Vista Carneros, Dutton-Goldfield, Landmark, Marimar Estate, Patz & Hall, Schug Estate, and Stubbs Vineyard.

Rule four: With the main course, favor wines with a balanced amount of acidity, fruit and oak. As much as I love turkey, pork and beef, I?ll be the first to say that it can taste rather bland unless you put some effort into the preparation. To add extra flavor, try inserting garlic cloves into the Turkey or stuffing pork loins with wild mushrooms, fresh herbs and other zesty spices.

In addition to working nicely with vibrant chardonnay or a fine regional merlot, these delicious white meat dishes also pair nicely with graceful pinot noirs made with fruit grown in the Petaluma area by Bush-Field, Clary Ranch, Copeland Creek, Corda, Kastania Vineyards, Keller Estate, and Ridgeway Family Vineyards.

Rule five: The more dramatic the dish, the more dramatic the wine. At these seasonal parties, use a wine that can balance the salts, spices or rubs being used. With pork or ham, try the elegant cool-climate syrahs produced by Armagh, Clary Ranch, Cline or Sutton Cellars. With beef dishes, try the cabernet franc from Adobe Creek or the proprietary blend of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon made by Kastania Vineyards. And if you have your heart set on serving a wine from your cellar, an interesting choice would be to use an aged zinfandel, which tends to soften over time and take on flavors similar to those of fine claret.

Rule six: In addition to serving desserts classic desserts such as freshly baked apple and pumpkin pie paired with late harvest white wine; another delicious option would be to serve a cheese plate either as a separate course or as an alternative to dessert. Try the beautiful fortified wines made by Sonoma Valley Portworks with soft cheeses and vintage ports, big cabernet sauvignons or elegant syrahs with developed hard or salty cheeses.

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