Why Restaurants Need to Go Big for Holiday Wine Pairings

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Go Big Or ...

Even if it’s not Thanksgiving Day, diners who walk into your restaurant in November probably have hearty food on the mind—mashed potatoes drizzled with gravy, cranberries accented with orange peel, and roast turkey just out of the oven. Root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, and Brussels sprouts are also in perfect pitch from the late-autumn season and into December. And the focus naturally swings to sweet as well, whether that means a customer springing for dessert or opting for a side sauce with sweeter flavors to augment meat or fish. In other words, the richer the better! 

When orchestrating a full-service experience, wine and beverage pairings should not be forgotten—in fact, they should be accentuated. During the holiday season, there is a tendency to “go big,” to be open to surprises, and wine should also rise to this occasion. 

This celebratory time of year affords an opportunity to stray from the expected by offering lesser-known pairings that sparkle and demonstrate your wine knowledge. Instead of a dry-style rosé, how about French Beaujolais? In lieu of a Napa Cab how about a Spanish Grenache? And because food and indulgence are on everyone’s mind, this is also a time when patrons are more open to multi-course wine pairings, which can result in a higher check.

Thanksgiving through December, the focus remains on the hearty rich foods traditionally served at holiday gatherings. Items like cakes and cookies, or platters with varied foods all tied together by a single theme (think salmon three ways or a charcuterie platter matched with preserves and foie gras). Maybe you’re planning a menu of comfort foods centered around a pasta, or maybe your restaurant caters to private parties. Whatever the celebration, this is the season to unwrap the power of wine pairings:

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Sparkling Wines

For the winter holidays, nothing says “celebration” more than a flute of sparkling wine. This is a great way to kick off a group dinner. Consider offering special by-the-glass and by-the-bottle options, whether it’s an affordable Spanish Cava or a pricey French Champagne or Crémant (sparkling wines hailing from other regions in France). Diners often welcome the opportunity to mentally escape the season’s hurried and harried demands with a crisp, chilled glass of wine. 

Convention says to pair sparkling wines with highbrow foods like oysters, foie gras, or expensive cured meats, but never underestimate the appeal of snacks and sparkling sips. If your restaurant has a corner on a fried or salty food—such as house-made potato chips or fried chicken wings—take it up a notch by adding a seasonal flavor. For example, a cranberry dip or pumpkin seeds folded into an appetizer will remind that this is the holiday season—and Champagne or Cava can elevate the dish even more. 

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Rosé Wines

Few wine categories have as much diversity as rosés. But instead of pale-in-color, South of France–style rosés, which are typically trending during warmer months, suggest rosés made from grapes that feature more red fruit. For example, a Zinfandel rosé from Lodi or Sonoma County, California, features sweeter notes and a fuller body. 

One sure way to know that you are serving a more intense rosé is to examine the color: The darker the color, the fuller the body. A great example is Pedroncelli Winery’s Rosé (Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma, California), which has cherry notes and crisp orange zest. You can never go wrong in serving a rosé with turkey because neither competes against the other for flavor; both are shining stars.

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White Wines

While summertime white wines tilt into tropical-fruit flavors, those heavy-on-oak and chalky-accented white wines are better suited for winter. One great example is Chablis from the region of the same name in France, which is a cool-climate growing region within Burgundy.

The grapes grown for Chablis are 100 percent Chardonnay. This wine varietal—less fruity than its California counterparts—pairs well with stewed or braised light-meat specials, such as chicken in a cream sauce, or any sauce featuring mustard.

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Red Wines

Because dishes served in November and December tend to be heavy and extremely flavorful, don’t be afraid to pull out the big guns when suggesting a glass of wine with a basic comfort food like macaroni and cheese. California red-wine blends are never a bad idea with hearty dishes. Because of their complexity and versatility, the blends also pair beautifully with ethnic-inspired cuisine—such as a Mediterranean take on pastas or fish topped with rich sauces. From the Central Coast of California, consider Hahn Winery’s GSM (Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre). Always a sure bet. And, instead of the expected pairing of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon what about a jammy Shiraz from Australia? Or a Garnacha from Spain? Any of these red wines really makes the food sing, whether it’s roasted potatoes or a steak. 

For a lighter option, French Beaujolais is often a hit. Produced from Gamay grapes, it has a body that is lighter and fruit flavors that are much more subtle; it’s a wine that can stand alongside, but not overpower, the food.

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flickr: Chris Becker
Port Wines

Chocolate decadence tends to go hand-in-hand with cooler weather—whether it’s a layered cake or warmed molten cake—and alongside this dessert is when serving Port wine makes perfect sense. (Bonus: Port is also a nice coupling with cheese plates, particularly blue cheese.) 

Port stems back to Porto, Portugal, where many of the founding producers still reside. However, several California wine producers are dipping into dessert wines that are akin to Port and, in fact, are modeled after Port. Terra d’Oro Zinfandel Port Dessert Wine is made in Amador County and earned 93 points from Wine Enthusiast. In an era when wine drinkers and noshers alike are interested in experiencing local offerings, or are perhaps feeling a pull toward domestic over international selections, California Ports are a perfect fit. Ficklin Vineyards has been producing Tawny Port since the 1940s in Madera, California. Ten 22, a fine-dining restaurant in Sacramento, features this Port on its wine list, right next to Penfolds (Australia) and Dow’s (Portugal). And it’s not just California restaurants offering California Port-style wines: The Buttery Restaurant in Lewes, Delaware, serves Ficklin Vineyards’ Tawny Port, too. 

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