During the holidays, you'll most likely find yourself with at least one or two party invitations (if you're lucky) and, at one point or another, needing to make a choice. What to bring? You decide on a bottle of wine -- it's the holidays after all, so you're feeling fancy -- but at some point, you find yourself staring blankly at an infinity row of wine bottles, pacing your local super market in search of a contribution for the big meal.
Learn About Wine founder and sommelier Ian Blackburn has been teaching and demystifying wine for casual drinkers since 1995. Now as the wine curator for downtown's Urban Radish market, he shares his tips and recommendations for choosing a great holiday bottle.
5. Don't let the label fool you
When scanning the shelves for wine, watch for a few key warning signs on the bottles. "Catch phrases or words like, 'Bay', 'Woods', 'Rock' or 'Cliffs' are contrived," Blackburn says. "Brands steal the imagery of a high-end idea to catch the attention of a specific buyer and invoke emotion. A lot of the time, there are heavily marketed wines toward women -- you'll see black shoes or a cute animal on the front label." Next time you're considering a bottle, ask yourself if it looks like the company spent more time on developing the label than the wine itself. A boring label may surprise you.
Try: Château Cambon Beaujolais, 2012 France $22.95
Why you should drink it: This wine is a light and delicate single estate wine, grown bio-dynamically, on old vines and has a classic Beaujolais profile -- it also has a very unassuming bottle design. It's fresh and fruit forward. "Just imagine cranberry sauce, turkey, gravy, spices and all the side accoutrement -- it's such a great wine for Thanksgiving," says Blackburn. "Here's a wine you can drink all day, there's only 12% alcohol and it's very light on the body."
4. If you have allergies drink a lighter red
For those who suffer those dreaded wine-headaches, choose a fruiter and lighter red wine like Beaujolais (see 5), Pinot Noir (3) or rosé. These wines are lower in tannins than a more complex Bordeaux or Syrah. "There are a number of chemical things that happen with red wines," says Blackburn. "But the biggest thing is that when color is extracted from the skins, allergens and natural histamines are as well. When you drink red wine, you're pouring these allergens into your body with alcohol, and that's what usually gives people headaches. A lot of people blame sulfites, but there's actually more sulfur in bacon or orange juice than there is in a bottle of wine."
Try: Castamatta Toscana, 2011 Italy $16
Why you should drink it: A great value for the price, this is a light-bodied red wine that's low in acidity, goes down smooth and has a notes of ripe strawberry. Since the typical holiday meal is a variety of bold, flavorful foods, Blackburn recommends the Castamatta, as it has a light and relaxed flavor that won't compete with your dishes.
3. When it comes to pairing, it's all about balance
"Food and wine pairing isn't necessarily about matching, it's about complimenting flavors," says Blackburn. Try to pair fruit-forward wines with earthy foods (mushrooms, roast meats), which are a perfect bridge for Pinot Noir. Don't think you have to pair fruity wines with fruity foods, or earthy with earthy. "You wouldn't wear a blue shirt, a blue blazer and blue slacks -- it's not about so much about matching, it's about complimenting."
Try: Á Côte Pinot Noir, 2011 California $23.95
Why you should drink it: On Thanksgiving, there are a lot of herbs and spices on the table so this is a good wine that pairs well with a lot of flavors. Pinot Noir ("the wine of the moment") can be served with many things. This is a great value-oriented, blended wine. It's a little more casual, made ready to drink. "I'm a huge fan of the 2011 vintage -- it was very cold year and made some elegant wines," says Blackburn. "This is California wine has only 13.8% alcohol -- most California wines are around 14.5%. It has a little more volume but has soft, cherry notes, hints of spice and is fruit oriented. This wine is really balanced and has pretty good content for being under $25."
2. Chill your reds
"Most people serve their white wines too cold and their reds too warm," says Blackburn. "I like to chill red wine about 30 min before serving -- it's really refreshing at that temperature. Typical cellar temperatures are usually around 55 to 60 degrees." Chilling can also mask the flavor of less than perfect wines too.
Try: Rioja Viña Santurnia Crianza, 2008 Spain $18
Why you should drink it: Rioja is a very traditional full-bodied red wine native to Spain. This wine is 100% Tempranillo and is fairly accessible. Blackburn describes this Rioja as having roasted herbs notes -- dill, sage, smoky pepper or wood. "The greatest values in wine today are coming out of Spain," says Blackburn "This vintage is 5 years old, under 20 bucks and is really tasty. Just imagine those flavors with your stuffing -- a nice gravy with sage."
1. Buy close to home
"Someone who comes in and says they're partial to California wine, I like to recommend the Papa's All-Blacks," Blackburn says. "This is a bold California wine, but not as strong as Cabernet, which can overwhelm a turkey dinner."
Try: Bedrock Wine Co. Papa's All-Blacks, 2011 Sonoma Valley $22.95
Why you should drink it: "This family has been making Zinfandel since the '70s," Blackburn says. Back in the turn of the century, wine was either made from white grape varieties or with all black varietals. This field blend was made with all black grape varieties, hence the name 'all blacks.' It's spicy, there's a nice cherry red fruit taste, and it's balanced, with a fresh fruit character. This wine would go great with turkey or even tuna or salmon. Another tip -- try splashing a little in a tomato-based sauce."
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"You don't have to spend a lot of money on a good bottle," says Blackburn. "You can usually get a pretty good wine between $16 and $20, and a significantly better bottle for just a few bucks more. The important thing to remember is to buy what you like. When in doubt," Blackburn points out, "all other wines could go away completely and you could always just drink Champagne. Bubbles are of course, great with turkey and festive for the holidays."
Blackburn offers his on-going Learn About Wine classes for every level -- from intro classes to advanced which can get you certified as a wine pro in 4 weeks. Also, Urban Radish offers $15 tastings on Tuesday evenings.
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