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As the holiday season approaches, there is a palpable sense of panic that arises when grocery stores stock the shelves with Christmas and Hanukkah décor the day after Halloween. Stocking your wine cellar for entertaining at this time of year can be an intimidating task, but the best advice to follow is to make it fun, not finicky. Throw out the rulebook and gather a collection of wines you like to drink, placing emphasis on versatility and personal connection.

I think about wine pairing the same way I think about planning a trip. I want to discover something new, while choosing a destination of particular interest to me. I want to have a loose itinerary of the things that I would like to see on my travels, leaving room for detours along the way. Most importantly, I do not want to overthink anything, preferring to place emphasis on pleasure and fulfillment as opposed to the directions laid out by a guidebook.

If you have the time to make an extra stop while out shopping, buy your wine from a wine specialty shop, not the grocery store. Doing so will enhance your experience, and it will give you the opportunity to stumble upon more artisanal products that do not have ample production levels for grocery chain shelves. Small shop owners, who view their inventory as an extension of self and are intimately connected to every product that they sell, have turned me to some of my favorite wines. Having worked on the other side of the counter myself, I can tell you firsthand that the best part of their job is recommending unique wines to customers that come in seeking direction. An open mind, and a general sense of what you like and do not like aids the process tenfold.

Three types of wine should be the backbone of your holiday entertaining list: sparklers, pinot noir, and riesling. These categories create endless options for every palate. Pinot and riesling are touted as the best food wines because of their lower alcohol levels and higher levels of acidity. Sparkling wines are perfect aperitifs to greet guests, pairing beautifully with salty appetizers and finger foods.

Sparkling Wines
While sparkling wine has become somewhat synonymous with Champagne, it is important to note the distinction. Champagne can only technically be labeled as such if it is grown and bottled in the Champagne region of France. There are strict rules that Champagne houses must follow to qualify as authentic, most of which are quite costly, resulting in a more expensive wine. Champagne is renowned for its complexity and yeasty character, generally richer in its weightiness than Spanish Cava or Italian Prosecco. If you are seeking value, look to other areas outside of the Champagne appellation, such as Alsace or northeastern Italy. Cremant wines from Alsace or the Loire, and proseccos from the Veneto region are affordable alternatives to Champagne. Their crisp, fruit-forward quality is appealing to novice and developed palates alike.

Pinot Noir
Pinot noir is the most finicky of grape varietals, but when done right, it is the most rewarding. The grape’s thin skins place it on the lighter side of the red wine spectrum because the resulting wine is lower in tannin. Its light to medium body, earthy notes, and streamlined acidity make it incredibly versatile, and it can pair with a wide variety of dishes. Medium-bodied pinots with cranberry notes are wonderful at Thanksgiving for their synergy with turkey, while also working with the eclectic flavors that come together on the plate. Because pinot noir is expensive to produce, it is difficult to find quality, authentic bottles that are less than $10 to $15. This is where your local wine shop can help out; ask for less expensive bottles from Santa Barbara County, New Zealand (Marlborough), Burgundy, or southwestern France. Avoid bottles that do not exhibit a real sense of place, such as when it is labeled as “California Pinot Noir,” with no designated appellation. These wines lose character through the blending process as the fruit can be from anywhere in the entire state.

Last but not least is riesling, a varietal that has been put in a box alongside White Zinfandel as being cloying. Yes, there are cheap interpretations of the grape that can be described as such, but the other end of the spectrum is a sommelier’s dream. Rieslings range from bone dry to intensely sweet, and the most renowned bottles hail from Germany, Austria, and France’s Alsace region. Slightly off-dry rieslings hold bracing acidity at their best, as well as a fragrant bouquet, and a touch of residual sugar; elements that combine to make your mouth water and counter any spiciness in the food. I like to think of the riesling and Thanksgiving turkey pairing as the perfect kiss, bringing together all of their flavorful elements to create an “Aha!” moment.

These suggestions should serve only as a jumping-off point to pull together your own unique spread. And if a pairing does not work, take note and try, try again.

Image via A Well Traveled Woman

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