Wines for the Holidays 

Loosen your belt— it's time for the holiday meal.

A bit lighter in flavor and somewhat of a sleeper is the Foris Fly-Over Red from the Rogue Valley in Oregon. The fly-over part, complete with a tiny plane pictured on the label, refers to everyone flying past the Rogue Valley while on the way to Oregon's more famous Willamette Valley, the pinot noir place. The 2000 vintage at $10 to $12 is an ideal lighter red to complement the main dish. It is a merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc blend, more what you expect from Bordeaux than Oregon.

Moving up the ladder in flavor and price is a brand new wine from Chateau St. Jean, their California Appellation Merlot, 2002 at $16. It's an expansion from their Sonoma- exclusive tradition and opens up a new value direction for the winery. Lighter than their Sonoma wine in flavor, it still has the signature St. Jean flavor. The winemaker beefed up the blend with the addition of petite sirah and malbec, two hearty souls of the grape world. It has a blackberry and cherry intensity that powers the flavor forward. Everyone around your table will be impressed with this wine.

For those guests who are serious, take-no-prisoners red wine drinkers, a newly released wine should satisfy their needs. Angus the Bull Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003, Australia, $20, is the ideal wine. If you thought that Australians made only shiraz, then think again. Cabernet is just their well-kept secret. As meaty as the Wellington itself, this is a wine to enjoy while you are loosening another notch on your belt.

If the holiday goose, pheasants, or other seasonal birds make an entrance, get out the chardonnay, but not the unoaked, semiflavor, $8 bottle you keep stocked in your fridge all year. Get out the real chardonnay, the stuff with power, the wine that will stand up to a serious bird. Since this is the holiday and we have gone to great trouble and expense for the meal, a little tasting is in order. It is fun to have two different chardonnays, both from the same winery but of different quality levels. It is good for you, the bird and your guests.

Beringer Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2002, $15, is a fine example of Napa Valley grapes in a bottle. Those central coast wines that we drink throughout the year are good, but it is Napa for the holidays. The more complex, toasy flavors add a dimension to the bird with each bite. This is chardonnay satisfaction.

Now comes the ringer. The Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2002, $36, is from the same winery and style but is an astonishing step up in flavor, complexity and amount of oak. The vineyard sites are better, the grapes more select, and the oak aging is longer and more intense. Ever wonder why chardonnay is king? This is why. The grape is crafted into complex flavors of pure luxury. It's OK now to loosen another notch, and to have another bite of that goose with your chardonnay.

If ham is part of the holiday fare, it is good to have several wines, and to offer a contrast to the rosé that used to be traditional. There are several fun pairings that work with the ham. Every year an exciting wine comes out of nowhere. Vinum Chenin Blanc, South Africa, 2003, $12, is such a wine. It has some sweetness to cut through that salty ham, but it also has a lively pear character that adds complexity. Most of the world (with the exception of the Loire Valley in France) has given up on the chenin blanc grape. This winery has taken up the challenge and has produced a masterful wine.

For the people who like a sweeter wine, there is the newly released Big Tattoo White, Germany, 2003, $10, a Riesling and pinot gris blend that is a fruity, sweet surprise. Just to be on the safe side, stock a few dessert wines away. The Quady Orange Muscat Essensia , California, half bottle $15, is sweet and luscious with the flavor of apricot and peach. Now you are down to the last notch on your belt. Good job. S

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