Tips on selecting wines you'll enjoy for the holidays

If you are having glimmers of your holiday plans, so is Chicagoland's wine industry, gearing up for the most comprehensive selection and deepest discounts of the year. September is the time to survey shops and meet wine merchants, who will learn your preferences in palate and pocketbook. To aid in your wine shopping, here are some basic tips.

Follow the grape. Each grape maintains its essential characteristics while modified by soil, climate and human culture conditions. My analogy is color: blue is characteristically blue, whether aqua or navy; in the same way, Chardonnay is characteristically Chardonnay, wherever or however it is made. Skipping production details that geeks like me lap up, here are food pairing characteristics of significant varieties, followed by modifications you can expect in different regions. (Remember, wine is generally named for grapes in the U.S. and most of the New World. Traditionally, Old World wines are named for regions that grow grapes. See Law below.)

Chardonnay: Serve with foods prepared or served with butter or cow's milk cheese. Oak-matured Chardonnay is also suitable for smoked foods. (A new find in good-value French Chardonnay is Bourgogne Blanc “Clos la Chapelle,” Domaine Romy, under $20.)

Moscato: For sweet tooths and dessert.

Pinot Grigio: Serve with lighter foods, especially prepared foods or served with lemon.

Riesling: 1) Serve dry-ish riesling with poultry, seafood and lighter meats, especially prepared or served with fruit sauce. 2) Also serve dry-ish riesling with dry-ish dishes, like sushi. 3) Serve sweeter riesling with sweeter dishes, like Waldorf salad. 4) Also serve sweeter riesling with spicy foods, like spicy barbecue. Caveat: Only the sweetest riesling is sweet enough for dessert.

Sauvignon Blanc: Serve with foods prepared or served with olive oil, herbs or goat's milk cheese.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Serve with meats and the richest poultry. Avoid hot-spicy seasonings.

Pinot Noir: Serve with poultry, rich seafood and lighter meats, especially prepared or served with fruit sauce. (A new find in good-value Oregon Pinot Noir comes from Growers Guild, under $20.)

Sangiovese: Serve with rich poultry, rich pasta and meats.

Syrah and Zinfandel: Serve with the richest poultry and rich meats, possibly with hot-spicy seasonings.

Climate influences each grape's richness and acidity. For big flavors with a wallop of alcohol — reaching 15% and more! — but reduced acidity, turn toward warm, sunny climates that ripen grapes with rich sugar to convert to alcohol. Pair these wines with rich foods. Regions to consider are Southern France, southern Italy and much of California. Look to cool climates for more delicate wines with alcohol as low as 8% and rich acidity. Pair these wines with lighter foods or dishes benefiting from palate-cleansing acidities, such as fried foods. Regions include Northern France, Italy, Oregon and California's Green Valley.

Soil also influences richness. Lovers of concentrated flavors may turn to mountainous regions or regions with sandy soil, which absorb little water to dilute grape flavors. Folks who prefer more delicate flavors should avoid mountain viticulture and sandy soils. Areas to consider: Italy, France's Rhone Valley, Germany, Washington State and labels referencing “Mountain.” Regions to consider: Much of France, Oregon.

Culture includes law, viti-viniculture and just what's going on.


Our U.S. wine laws are basically “Don't kill anyone and pay your taxes,” with no guidance on flavor or quality. In much of the Old World, wine laws control every step of wine production, including grape selection and final taste. For instance, U.S. Chardonnay can be sweet, dry, oaky or not, bubbly or not; French Macon (named for its region) must adhere to laws including 100% Chardonnay, fermented dry with no bubbles and little-to-no oak influence. To be reasonably sure of a wine's general flavor, learn the wine laws of European regions.

Winegrowing and winemaking: Among a producer's myriad decisions, a biggie nowadays is oak. Old World laws often stipulate time in oak and oak-induced flavors, including woodiness and baking spices, which help guide shoppers. You're on your own in the U.S., Australia and other New World regions. For wines matured in oak, look for the words Riserva (in Italy) or Reserva (in Spain), which complement grilled and smoked dishes. In the U.S., these terms are strictly marketing.

Wine is a snapshot of what's going on. For instance, twist-off caps and boxed wines were once reserved for simple, everyday beverages. Now, as convenience remains king and eco-concerns, more fine wine is available in twist-off and boxed formats. Also, as climate change ravages California winegrowing, where will the next wine region emerge? Eastern Europe had my money before current events lowered those odds. How about Michigan vineyards, benefiting from increased warmth and already dubbed “the Napa of the Midwest?” Maybe some September in the future, we'll hear, “All aboard the Wine Train to the Leelanau Peninsula!”

• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's “Grand Award of Excellence.” Write to her at

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