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Holiday Wines Perfect For Thanksgiving, Christmas and Any Other Special Meal With Family and Friends

Reds, Whites and Sparkling Picks That Belong On Your Table

BY // 11.15.23

The end of 2023 is nigh, and that means a number of great happenings will unfold before the calendar turns to a new cycle of days and nights. Celebrations, intimate dinners, raucous feasts, office parties and everything in between. All designed to offer thanks and recognize relationships, journeys, love and friendship. We gather with those we love (and others), sit around tables full of food and drink, and mark the end of a year spent well while looking forward to a new set of opportunities to grow and learn and love.

How will I do all of the above (and more) this year? I’ll assemble some wines that have given me pleasure in the past 11 months or so, assign them to specific parties and events, and enjoy the season of celebrations. Each of the holiday wines you’ll read about here deserves a place at your special parties and dinners.

I am restricting myself to seven selections, space and time being the constraints they are. Are these the best wines I tasted this year? Not necessarily. But what follows are seven bottles that I’d love to receive as gifts and would give with joy. Serve them with pleasure and in the spirit of the season.

Thanksgiving kicks off my holiday festivity appointments, and it is — has been for a long time — my favorite red-letter day of the winter season. Memories of my mother’s crescent rolls (which she will make this year while visiting my partner and me in California), pumpkin and pecan pies, my grandmother’s cornbread dressing and sweet potato casserole and Divinity – along with new additions to the menu that I’ve added over the the years (a Southwestern dressing I first encountered in Clemson, South Carolina, one bright and sunny Thanksgiving day, Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish, and other dishes) transport me back to tables in Savannah and Germany and Paris and New Hampshire or wherever I was when the fourth Thursday of November came. And the holiday wines. . .

Wine, of course, should be on the table and sideboard during the holidays. This year I’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving in a house near the Pacific about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. We will feast on a Greenberg smoked turkey, and we’ll serve those crescent rolls, butternut squash and mushroom Wellington, rice pulao and saag paneer, a few pies, and. . . to be determined.

The Argyle 2016 Knudsen Vineyard Brut

My 2023 holiday offerings begin with some sparkling wines, one domestic, one from France. I recently sampled the 2016 Knudsen Vineyard Brut from Argyle Winery, one of my favorite producers of sparkling this side of the Atlantic, and loved it. While it might be in short supply on the market, if you can find some please add it to your holiday plans.

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Short of that — and this is in no manner an inferior selection — Argyle’s 2017 Spirit Hill Vineyard Blanc de Blancs ($60) is a wonderful expression of what Argyle makes. It’s a fine thing to start Thanksgiving celebrations with oysters, either on the half shell or lightly smoked (or both), and this sparkling wine is perfect with that course – shallot and red wine vinegar mignonette, of course. This wine was aged on the lees for five years, and the fruit used to make it comes from Argyle’s oldest Chardonnay plantings, 750 feet above sea level in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. I love its minerality and crispness. In fact, let’s use a touch of it in the mignonette and begin well.

From France, we’ll be serving the Palmer & Co. Brut Reserve ($75). Several months ago, I was a guest at a dinner in Los Angeles that starred Palmer Champagnes, and the pours on that evening, including 1996 and 1999 vintages, were spectacular. If quality for intelligent price appeals to you, Palmer should be your house champagne. The Brut Reserve is elegance. Chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier, a thoughtful blend that takes the craft and art seriously. Premier and Grand Cru are represented here, and the house’s 75 year (young, yes, but certainly not inferior) history can be dramatically discerned in this selection.

Citrus, of course, but apricot as well. Aromas that will spark conversation and memories of meals past. Brioche in the mouth, in a sublime manner. Drinking this makes me happy, and when the bubbles rise in your glass you’ll smile.

The 2020 Calera chardonnay is a worthy holiday wine.
The 2020 Calera chardonnay is a worthy holiday wine.

Chardonnay is next, and a grenache blanc, the former born in California, the latter in Oregon. Calera Winery, a storied name from California’s Central Coast, produced the chardonnay. Josh Jensen, the founder of Calera (Spanish for “limestone quarry” or “limestone kiln”), was a pioneer. We have his time spent in Burgundy to thank for his great pinot noirs. He left his days spent in France in the early 1970s armed with learning gathered from winemakers in that region, in search of a spot of land for his plans. Land rich with limestone. He found it (and purchased it in 1974) about 100 miles south of San Francisco near Mt. Harlan in San Benito County.

Its elevation of 2,200 feet above sea level means it is one of the highest and coolest vineyard sites in the state. Jensen died in 2022, leaving a grand legacy. The 2020 Calera Chardonnay ($70) speaks of that limestone-rich land — exacting crispness and clarity, with bright apple and delicate spice notes. It spent 15 months in 100 percent French oak (30 percent new and 70 percent neutral), and will pair well with your turkey.

A rich area of land can produce some great holiday wines.
A rich area of land can produce some great holiday wines.

For the grenache blanc I head to Oregon’s Rogue Valley AVA. Dobbes Family Estate‘s 2021 vintage, from Crater View Vineyard ($35) represents outstanding value for its price. I know some of you will have dishes on the spicier side between now and the end of the year, and this wine will be one you’ll want for those fiery shrimp or deviled oysters. (It would pair well with the rice pulao dish I’ll be enjoying on Thanksgiving.)

Rachel Fishman, an assistant winemaker at Dobbes, came up with the idea of giving some of the fruit the skin-fermentation treatment, Dobbes head winemaker Derek Einberger shares.

“Dobbes has a long history of making tightly wound and vibrant Grenache Blanc,” Einberger says. “I love these wines, but like my predecessors Andy McVay, and Joe Dobbes before him, we winemakers just can’t help but tinker. Rachael Fishman, our assistant winemaker, had the marvelous idea to try a little skin-fermented Grenache Blanc this year.

“At only 10 percent of the total blend, you don’t see a huge shift in style, just a little more mid-palate weight, and an energetic and persistent structure that lends a bit of intrigue to this developing wine. I’d expect us to push this even further in the future.”

A grenache blanc from Dobbes Family Estate is a worthy holiday wine.
A grenache blanc from Dobbes Family Estate is a worthy holiday wine.

This wine is aromatic and sings of citrus. I liked its mouthfeel, which was rich and profound. Its acidity makes you want to drink it with outstanding food, and I am certain you will. It was fermented in stainless steel and aged in neutral oak for five months.

Let’s proceed to red wines by stopping in Texas for a 100 percent mourvèdre from C.L Butaud Wines ($30). Randy (a native of Houston) and Brooke Hester founded C.L. Butaud in 2014 and named the brand after Randy’s great grandfather Clet Louis Butaud. When Randy Hester was 36 he began interning at Cakebread Cellars. Earlier in his career, he sold wine for a distributor and wanted more.

His winemaking education includes stints at Colgin and Realm, and he pours his personality into the Butaud wines. The 2021 Texas Mourvèdre is produced from equal parts Desert Willow Vineyard and Farmhouse Vineyards fruit. In the glass that deep mourvèdre color — these grapes are small and possess thick skins — is striking. Cherry notes, dark cherry, dominate here, but they were willing to play well with the slight cinnamon tones on the day I first sampled this wine.

I drank the rest of the bottle on the next day, paired with a rack of lamb, and that’s what I suggest you do (if lamb is on your menu this holiday season).

I have a bonus red for this year’s holiday list, a blend of grenache (60 percent) and syrah (40 percent) from Fulldraw Vineyard, which is located in Paso Robles’ Templeton Gap District. It’s the 2018 FD2 ($55), and it was fermented in stainless steel and aged for 20 months in French oak (40 percent new, 60 percent neutral). The brand is owned by Connor McMahon, who is also the winemaker there, and his partner Rebecca.

Rebecca and Connor McMahon
Rebecca and Connor McMahon

The Fulldraw Vineyard property covers about 100 acres and the vineyard is full of limestone-rich soils. The FD2’s grenache is a great example of this grape, and if you like to taste the fruit in your wine, this one will please you. Strawberry, of course, along with black pepper and tobacco. I drank this bottle with some lamb sausage, and it would also pair well with turkey and piquant dressing.

The 2018 FDF2 from Fulldraw Vineyard.
The 2018 FDF2 from Fulldraw Vineyard.

Let’s end our holiday wine list with a merlot (actually, two merlots) from Barnett Vineyards, a Spring Mountain District estate that had its first harvest in 1989. Fiona and Hal Barnett bought a 40 acre property atop the mountain in 1983, and cabernet franc and merlot love it there.

First, the 2018 Merlot (I have seen it for $66 at several merchants, but it might be difficult to find), which I sampled recently and loved. David Tate is the head winemaker at Barnett and he has a deft touch. Many might insist that the 2018 and 2o21 are too young to drink now, and while I am confident that the way they were made and the high quality of the the fruit used to make them have produced age-worthy wines, I was pleased with what I tasted.

Both vintages were aged for 22 months in French oak (65 percent new). The winery made 57 barrels of the 2018, and 42 barrels of the 2021 ($80). A fire in 2020 resulted in Barnett having no vintage that year, so the 2021 marks a happy occasion.

Big fruit, confident tannins, plum, blackberry, eucalyptus, all in approachable and appealing presences. The 2018 is a blend of 88 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet franc, and 3.5 percent cabernet sauvignon and petit Verdot each, while the 2021 is 100 percent merlot. (If one is wise, one would purchase a few bottles of each, enjoy some this season and cellar the rest for 10 years.). Pair with a rib roast, your favorite steak, or a rich beef stew.

That’s it, my 2023 Holiday Wine List. It’s neither exhaustive nor comprehensive — so many wines out there deserve attention and love — but it’s a tight roster of bottles that will please you and your guests. Have a great holiday season and feast well.

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