Holiday Wine Advice from the Authors of 'The Food Lover's Guide to Wine'

Wine Pairings

We help you pick wine to drink with the food you eat.


Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg are the authors of several acclaimed food and beverage books: The Flavor Bible, What to Drink with What You Eat, and Culinary Artistry. Their most recent project, which was released this fall, is called The Food Lover's Guide to Wine.

We love books that tell it like it is, and this one does. So, we asked Karen and Andrew for some major help. Could they use their mountains of expertise to help answer some of our most serious holiday beverage questions? The answer was yes (of course).

We asked, they answered and we're considering the results a sort of food and wine lover's guide to the holidays: What to drink and when; what bottles to give and why. According to this perfect pair, it isn't too hard to get it right.

Can you give me some advice on picking wines for the my large, sit-down holiday gathering? Do you recommend a wine for each course or plunking down a variety of bottles and making it a free-for-all? The larger the gathering, the more likely it is to be a less-formal buffet or family-style service—in which case at least a couple of food-friendly wine options should be available for people to choose from. Let your budget drive your wine selections, but remember that a great pairing doesn't have to cost a great deal. For example, bouillabaisse is better with rosé than with the most expensive red Bordeaux.

Holiday meals are often composed of a variety of flavors: delicate, spicy, sweet, savory, simple, complex—can one or two wines make everyone at the table happy? 

 Riesling and pinot noir are the two of the most food-friendly grapes. Riesling can handle spicy, savory, simple and complex—yes, it is that versatile. Pinot Noir is lower in tannin than some other red wines, and its acidity makes it very food friendly. It can handle turkey, duck and goose, and even lamb, not to mention salmon and tuna. If we had to choose a single wine that could cover most bases at a holiday table, it would be a sparkling rosé—the bubbles say "celebration," and rose can morph from a white to a red as needed.

So, what's your advice for a more mix-and-mingle event? I'm having a holiday cocktail party and serving a variety of small bites ranging from spicy to meaty to sweet. Some of my friends really like wine, others could care less what's in the glass. Choose some versatile wines, but be sure not to forget bubbles, which refresh the palate. Look for Prosecco from Italy, Cava from Spain, and Cremant d'Alsace from France. All are delicious options at a fraction of the cost of Champagne. For fun, we would also add some Moscato d Asti from Italy. It is lightly effervescent, has great bright apple, peach and pear notes, will work with savory and sweet bites, and—perhaps best of all—it is only 5.5 percent alcohol so you can drink it all night long!


Try merlot with prime rib. [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Any recommendations for what to pair with holiday favorites like ham, prime rib, rack of lamb, or goose? What about meat-less meals—are the wine needs different?

 First of all, a sauce on any of these dishes can change the wine we would recommend, so we are presuming these dishes are going to be served simply roasted.

Ham: This is one of the most versatile meats in terms of wine pairing—ham pairs with white or red, or still or sparkling wines. Your options for bubbles include California sparklers as well as Champagne or Prosecco. White wine options include Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, or Riesling. A red pairing that won't let anyone down would be Pinot Noir or Beaujolais. If you can't decide between white or red, a still or sparkling rosé would be fantastic.

Prime Rib: When we visit Andrew's brother's family in Philadelphia at Christmas, their traditional dinner is prime rib with Yorkshire pudding, so we have had a little practice pairing to this cut. It is a great time to pull out an under-appreciated Merlot and rediscover why you fell in love with it in the first place. The velvety texture plays right into the richness of the meat, and the pairing becomes one big hug.

Rack of Lamb: This is an opportunity to bring, as the saying goes, "a big-ass red" to the table. Look to cabernet (especially if there is rosemary in the preparation, as it will accent any herbal notes in the wine), shiraz or syrah, and zinfandel.

Vegetarian Dishes: Earthy bean-based dishes tend to call for a low-tannin red wines (e.g. Pinot Noir or Beaujolais), while greens-based dishes tend to call for white wines (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc). A roasted squash risotto can handle a rosé Champagne or sparkling wine. For many vegetarian dishes, you need to pair to the sauce just as you would if pairing wine to meat. If you are serving vegetable lasagna with tomato sauce, open some Chianti or Barbera.

We'd also love your advice on giving wine gifts during the holidays. It's way more complicated than I thought to pick the right bottle. What's your advice? It depends who you're buying for! We like to bring something a bit out of the ordinary for a hostess gift. In all likelihood the hostess has already chosen the wine for the dinner, so think of something your hosts will enjoy on their own after your visit. Think outside the grape—like a bottle of Eden Ice Cider from Vermont. It is made from apples, not grapes, and has great acidity. It will work with pates, cheeses, as well as desserts such as pear or apple tarts.

For your in-laws: Unless you know they can handle it, you probably don't want to give them anything too exotic. All the Xs on a bottle of Txakoli from Spain or Xinomavro from Greece—even though they would most likely enjoy both—could be off-putting, and giving them a wine they can't pronounce might not be the best way into their hearts. A safer bet would be a classic wine from California; you probably couldn't go wrong with a nice, safe Cabernet or Chardonnay.

Your best friend who has had a tough year: Is there a wine that the two of you have enjoyed together? Give them one that recalls it, but suggests the next step up. If you shared some Beaujolais Nouveau last November, give them a bottle of cru Beaujolais that shows the grape's potential—and suggests that things do get better!

Otherwise, we've never met anyone who didn't smile at a chilled glass of Moscato d'Asti (Vietti is our favorite producer) or Bugey, both of which are semi-sparkling with a hint or more of sweetness. It's happy juice!