The best wines for holiday parties are like good hosts, accommodating enough to handle a variety of scenarios, but with enough personality to keep everyone entertained.
What bottle will best suit your occasion? As with most things about wine there's no single answer, but here are a few suggestions on how to get the party pairing right.
— DON'T pull out that obscure bottle that's been gathering dust in your cellar, says Mary Gorman-McAdams, a New York-based Master of Wine and consultant to the daily deal wine site VITIS.com. Unless, of course, the party is for a (small) bunch of fellow wine geeks who are likely to show up clutching dusty bottles of their own. For more mixed gatherings, pulling out a challenging wine is liable to slow things down. "Holiday gatherings are about fun, people chatting together and not about a wine that demands all of your attention," says Gorman-McAdams.
— DO be prepared to try something a little bit different. Love chardonnay? Maybe try a chardonnay-viognier (another white grape) blend. Big fan of big reds? A Cotes du Rhone from France or malbec from Argentina are good choices. The good news on malbec is that you can get a nice bottle for $12 to $15. "I have to say I haven't really met a malbec I don't like," says Gorman-McAdams. Another possibility, especially this time of year, is Beaujolais, the youthful reds from France that are known for their fruity punch and are often to be found for $10 to $20.
— DON'T overspend. "It doesn't have to be expensive to be a great bottle of wine," says David O'Day, wine director for the Dallas-based Del Frisco's Restaurant Group. "I'm not buying $50 to $75 wine when people come over." Gorman-McAdams agrees, recommending two wines offered at a discount by VITIS, the 2008 Domaine des Nugues Fleurie, Beaujolais Cru, available for $16, and the 2007 Grant Burge Barossa Vines Chardonnay, from Australia's Barossa Valley, for $10. Most wine shops and grocers will offer similar bargains.
— DO look for crowd-pleasing wines, like sparkling wines, rose and riesling. "We're a diverse crowd, we have a lot of different palates," says O'Day. "In the holidays, I always have my go-to wines. I'll have some lighter, crisp whites, some sauvignon blanc and some riesling, and I always have some sparkling. The ladies in my family love rose, so I always have a nice rose on hand." For the reds, he also likes malbec, as well as Chauteauneuf du Pape from France and pinot noir.
— DON'T be afraid to ask for help. Finding a $50 bottle of wine that tastes good isn't so hard. Finding a great $10 to $15 bottle may require the aid of a helpful staffer at your local wine shop. "Just let these people know what you want: 'I'm looking for a sparkling wine in the $15 to $20 range and I'd like three different options,'" says O'Day. "They know what they have in stock; they know what you're looking for. Don't get caught up in being upsold. If you want something in the $15 to $20 range, you can stick to that range." Even though he's an expert responsible for creating the wine lists for all 31 restaurants in the Del Frisco chain, including nine Del Friscos Double Eagle Steak Houses and 20 Sullivan's Steakhouses, O'Day isn't above taking his own advice. He often goes to wine shops incognito and says something along the lines of, "I'm looking in Chile and Argentina, what do you feel are your three best values in red and maybe a couple in white."
— DO give some thought to presentation. Whites should be cool, but not icy. If you're serving whites, an ice bucket is a nice extra, but not essential. "I like to have an ice bucket, especially the sparkling and the whites, but with my crew the wine doesn't really last long. We're popping and pouring," says O'Day. Reds shouldn't be cold, and if you have a decanter, that's a step worth taking even for wines that are $8 to $10. "Every wine will benefit from the aeration process," says O'Day. "It's a nice touch. It looks great. It's festive and fun around the holidays."
— DON'T obsess about searching out the perfect pairing. "If you end up over-focusing on the wine, you'll end up being disappointed," says Gorman-McAdams. "It's really about the people and having fun and talking. It's a much easier task than people think."