Holiday Wine Guide

Well, friends, it’s the most wonderful time of the year!  Time to gather with family and friends around the fire… sing carols… light candles… generally make merry.  And what’s merrier than wine?  You might be wondering what bottle to bring to your in-laws, or what to pour if you’re hosting, or what to chug when your Aunt Matilda corners you and demands to know when you’re going to learn how to hold onto a man.  Look no further, darling readers, because I can answer all of those questions and more.

First things first – sparklers! 

There’s nothing more festive than a glass of bubbles.  But please, oh please, don’t call these wines “champagne.”  Repeat after messy: “Champagne comes from the Champagne region of France.  Anything else is sparkling wine.”  Actually, sparklers can have different names depending on their country of origin.  For instance, a sparkling wine from France, but not from Champagne, is called cremant.  If it’s from Spain, it’s cava.  Italian vintners offer up Prosecco.  Listen up, now, there’s nothing, I repeat, nothing wrong with drinking a sparkling wine that’s not from Champagne. This weekend hubby and I had a wonderful rose Cremant d’Alsace (a.k.a. a rose sparkler from the Alsace region of France) by Wolfberger.  Check it out.  It was dry and berry-rific and luscious.  And you can’t go wrong with anything from my absolute favorite California sparkling wine producer – Domaine Carneros.  Anything from their widely-available brut to their lovely rose to their high end “Le Reve” wine is phenomenal.  There’s no better wine for a celebration, in my opinion, than a sparkling wine.

Winter whites…

White wines are always a good option at the holidays, because pretty much everyone will drink them.  There are a few people who will only drink red, but in my experience most people will happily drink white wine.  But they can be tricky at the same time, because they vary widely in terms of body, aroma and flavor.  For instance, while a crisp, refreshing sauvignon blanc is absolutely delicious, it’s probably better suited to quaffing pool-side while noshing on a farmers market salad sometime in July.  For fireside sipping, you want something with more heft.  Consider a California chardonnay (I love the offerings from Carneros, the Russian River Valley, or Santa Barbara).  One widely available chard that smells and tastes like a small-batch production instead of a mass market wine is the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay from La Crema.  My parents introduced me to this wine and I could have sat with the full glass in my hand all night, just breathing in the aroma.  (Don’t worry, I did eventually drink it.)  La Crema’s Sonoma Coast is available in pretty much every wine shop I’ve been to, and at around $20, is a good value for an excellent wine. 

Or you might consider a white Burgundy.  These wines are also, generally, made with chardonnay grapes, although a few Burgundy producers also offer up aligote.  (But it’s extremely difficult to find in the U.S., so don’t worry about accidentally buying it.  If you buy a bottle of white Burgundy from an American wine store and they’re not making it super obvious that it’s aligote, it’s definitely chard.)  Burgundy wines follow the French classification system, as they must.  French wines are generally classified into Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village, and table wine, depending on the location of the vineyard the particular grapes hail from.  Grand Cru is the best, is almost certain to be prohibitively expensive (especially after you toss in the cost of importing it) and is hard to find.  Don’t waste your time looking for a Grand Cru, unless you are proposing and have a wad of cash burning a hole in your pocket.  Premier Cru, the next-best designation, is still expensive, but you can find a reasonably-priced bottle now and then and it’s very, very good.  Village wines will – duh – include the name of the village on the bottle.  If you have a well-stocked wine shop with a French focus, you’ll likely find a bottle or two with a Village designation, and they’re generally very good.  And of course, you can’t go wrong with a wine from Burgundy sub-region Chablis.  Chablis produces all white, all chard, no oaked, and its wines have a delicious, refreshing flinty character.  Chablis wines are some of my absolute favorites.  Just please, please don’t buy anything labeled “California Chablis,” or my heart will shed tears of grape juice for you.

Red Red Wine… 

If you are serving a roast, or you just like reds better than whites, there are many, many options that would work wonderfully for the holidays.  First of all – wine purists, please feel free to close your eyes and start humming now – you can’t ignore Beaujolais Nouveau.  Great wine it is not.  So what is it?  Fun, fruity, festive and cheap.  Yes, there are plenty who scoff at Beaujolais Nouveau, saying “if I want candy, I’ll eat candy, goshdarnit!” – and maybe, maybe those types will consider the slightly earthier Beaujolais-Villages.  Which is good too.  But you shouldn’t dismiss Nouveau.  The current season begins with a release of bottles in early November, and those bottles are really only good until Valentine’s Day.  But if you’re entertaining a group that likes their wines flighty and fruity – and drinks some volume – consider Nouveau.

Okay, say you’re too snobby for Beaujolais Nouveau.  (You’re missing out, but whatevs.)  Try bringing a little South of France sunshine to your holiday with a Cotes du Rhone.  The Cotes du Rhone region is found in Provence – land of suntans, olives and lavender, and lovely grapevine-planted hillsides (like in the picture heading this post).  The wines are luscious and fruity, but earthy at the same time.  Cotes du Rhone wines come at all different price points – you can pay top dollar for a bottle from neighboring region Chateauneuf-du-Pape – but many Rhone reds are a very good value for the excellent quality of the wine you get.  Hubby and I drove through several towns in the Cotes du Rhone last year, and we’re particularly fond of Gigondas, where we had lunch (and I drank a carafe of local rose, nearly without help, and then slept all the way to Burgundy).  A good wine shop will probably stock a few bottles from Gigondas and nearby Vacqueyras, but if you look even closer for offerings from tiny Provencal villages like Sablet and Seguret, you’ll be amply rewarded.  A good Cotes du Rhone will set you back anywhere from $15-30, so they’re not cheapie wines, but provided you like your dinner guests, you’ll find these wines are worth more than their price point.

What are your favorite holiday wines?  And happy sipping, friends!

How To Choose A Thanksgiving Wine

If you’re hosting Thanksgiving this year… or throwing a holiday dinner party of any kind… or having the boss-man over before your end of the year performance evaluation… odds are you’re giving some serious thought to the wine.  Even if it’s not normally your beverage, you might be wanting to impress everyone with your fabulous taste in grape juice.  And you may be wondering, where to begin?  How do I go about picking that perfect wine to go with the turkey (or Tofurkey, as the case may be)?

Fear not, friends.  Drunken messybaker has tips for you.  Oh, happy day!

First off, you need to settle an important question.  What’s the main course?  If you’re hosting Thanksgiving, you’re probably roasting up a turkey.  The conventional wisdom says that you should serve a white wine – preferably Chardonnay – with turkey.  And while Chardonnay is fine, it’s certainly not mandatory.  What you want is to find a wine that will stand up to your main course without overpowering it.  Chardonnay is often the choice when it comes to white wines to serve with poultry, especially in the colder months, because it does have the body to pair with turkey, and its aromas – often toast, butter, or vanilla if it’s oaked, or lemon, apple and pear if it’s not – tend to complement the flavors most people associate with turkey and the Thanksgiving meal.  So if you want to pour Chardonnay, by all means, go for it.  Pick a nice Sonoma wine – I love the Chardonnay wines from the Russian River Valley and Los Carneros – or be a little exotic and pour a white Burgundy.

But I don’t like Chardonnay, you say?  It’s boring?  Okay, that’s fine.  (I happen to disagree, but there are plenty of people who are anti-Chard, probably because they’ve had too much mediocre stuff.  Sometime I’ll do a post about that.)  You don’t have to pour Chardonnay.  If you want to stick with white, you just need to make sure that you’re picking a wine with enough power and heft to match with turkey – so that rules out most Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.  But you might always consider a lesser-known white varietal… like Viognier.  Just as “big” as many Chards, but a bit sweeter and fruitier, Viognier is the unofficial official wine of Virginia.  Since I’ve moved here I’ve come to love it, and it’s definitely worth consideration for your Thanksgiving table.  Plus, you’ll get the bonus of looking erudite and sophisticated by choosing a wine that half your dinner guests haven’t heard of.  Swirl on, my pretentious friends, swirl on.

Ah, but wait.  What if you don’t like white wine at all?  (That’s not crazy, Mom.  Some people don’t.)  Are you stuck swirling your water glass all evening?  I say… NO!  Now this might be sacrilege to some, but I don’t see any reason why you can’t pair turkey with a red wine.  You just need to pick carefully.  In this case, you’ll be doing the opposite analysis.  Unlike white wines, which you’d be evaluating to make sure they have enough body to stand up to a rich roasted  turkey  Tofurkey, if you’re going for a red you want one on the lighter-bodied end of the spectrum.  A big Cab or meaty Merlot is going to be too much for your poor little bird (or Field Roast!) to handle.  Steer toward a light, fruity Pinot Noir – I love the choices from, again, the Russian River Valley, or from Oregon.  Or go for a fruity Rhone red.  The key is to find a red wine with relatively low tannins and a good fruity character.  (Some of the Rhones are like jam in a glass.  You can tell people that they’re the alcoholic version of cranberry sauce.)  Sure, the establishment will gasp and say that you NEVER, NEVER serve red wine with turkey, but who cares what they think?  If that’s what you like, go for it – the only rule of wine pairing that I consider unassailable is that you should drink what you like, and only what you like.  Plus, it’s fun to stick it to the establishment.  That’s what the Pilgrims did… and isn’t Thanksgiving all about the Pilgrims?


Burgundy: The Wine Country

Burgundian Vineyards

It’s no secret that I love wine.  I love everything about it – the aromas, the flavors, the adventure of learning about my palate and pairing food with wine… and I especially love visiting the great wine regions of the world.  There’s always something new to experience in the world of wine.  Hubby and I are turning into quite the wine tourists, with last year’s trip to California and this year’s travels in Provence and then Burgundy.

Messy and Hubs testing the merchandise outside Beaune, Burgundy

Burgundy is my favorite wine region in the world.  I’ve known this since I took Introduction to Wines at Cornell and every Burgundy wine was like a religious experience.  Most Burgundy wines are made with either Pinot Noir (red) or Chardonnay (white), although there is a tiny minority of both red and white wines made from other grapes.  Extra credit if you can name them…

Pinot Noir grapes on the vine

Burgundy is divided into several sub-regions, including Chablis (mmmmm!), the Cote de Nuits, the Cote de Beaune, and Macon.  Hubby and I stayed outside of Beaune and spent the bulk of our time in the nearby villages, tasting in Pommard and Puligny-Montrachet.  If you’re a winey, those names are probably familiar to you.  They were to me – and there was much squealing when we rolled into Pommard – but I learned something new about the wines of each village while I was tasting there.

Cave de Pommard – a tasting room we visited

Beautiful tasting space

Caveau de Puligny-Montrachet, a laid-back wine bar with a mischievous cat

Important note-taking going on here

The Burgundian villages and vineyards were gorgeous… and the best way to see them was by bike, of course!  We rented bikes in Beaune and cruised out for a half-day of sightseeing.  I was completely blown away by the incredibly picturesque little villages dotting the countryside.  We rolled by ancient churches and gorgeous castles and through acres of rolling vines.

Biking the Route de Grand Crus, Burgundy

This trip was a pilgrimmage of sorts for me.  I felt like I was at the heart of the wine world, in the place where the magic really happens.  And as much as I look forward to my wine club shipments from California, no wine will ever replace Burgundy for me.  Especially now that I’ve been there and seen the countryside with my own eyes.

I can’t wait to go back.  Until then… drink up!

The Cotes du Rhone Wine Road

View from the terrace of our B&B in Vaison-la-Romaine, Provence.

Provence has a few standout wine regions, including Chateaunneuf-du-Pape and the Cotes du Rhone.  During our stay in Provence, hubby and I knew we wanted to see the Cotes du Rhone and try some of the region’s wines.  We’re both fans of the reds, and I am a big proponent of rose wines (they’re misunderstood and they need a friend) – and the Rhone does roses particularly well.  As it happens, not only does the Cotes du Rhone produce magnificent wines (at a great value), but it’s also insanely charming.

Vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone.


We tasted some standout Rhone reds at Domaine de Mourchon, a winery that is blending the best new technology with the most delicious traditions.

Grapes ripening on a trellis at Domaine de Mourchon.

Hillside vineyards at Domaine de Mourchon.

A little tipsy from all that fruit of the vine…

More time-standing-still charm in Le Crestet.

Col de la Chaine, a scenic overlook with a view of the Dentelles.

Pristine, peaceful Suzette.

Relaxed Gigondas.

Traveling the Cotes du Rhone wine road was quite an experience!  I’ve always liked the Rhone wines – great drinking wines for a good value – but now that I’ve seen their home terroir, I think I’ll be seeking them out much more.

Scenes of the Wine Country

Here are a few final shots of hubby’s and my travels through Napa and Sonoma.  It was an amazing trip, and we hope to return sooner rather than later.

The tasting room at Grgich Hills, a biodynamic winery that is doing some magical things with their grapes:

These grapes outside the Grgich Hills winery look pretty healthy, don’t they?

Grgich Hills wines aging in French Oak barrels… soon to be consumed by hubby, no doubt!  This was his favorite of the wineries we visited all week.

Cakebread Cellars!

Grapes being crushed at Cakebread.  I’m not sure hubby and I were supposed to be hanging around this area, but nobody told us to leave, and it was extremely cool to watch.

Grapes growing on a trellis.  I’m pretty sure this is what Heaven looks like.

Rubicon Estate.  This was another of hubby’s particular favorites.

A picturesque fountain on the hill behind Rubicon:

This is Cliff Lede Winery.  They pride themselves on their Cabernet Sauvignon, which was delicious… but they were also making the best (and least expensive!) Sauvignon Blanc that I tasted all week.  We brought three bottles of it home.

Clearly, I’m not the only one who likes Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc.  It was served at a White House luncheon in 2006.  Bill Clinton has served Cliff Lede wines as well, and wrote Cliff a nice letter about how much he enjoyed the wine.

(The winery was founded by a Canadian – O Canada! – so it’s the obvious choice to serve when the Canadian Prime Minister is visiting!)

Cliff Lede had a beautiful tasting room, too.  I pretty much wanted to move in there.  I mean… it’s a place where people love both Sauvignon Blanc and Canada!  My kind of people!

Finally – the long anticipated visit to Domaine Carneros!  This was what I was most looking forward to on the trip, and it didn’t disappoint.

The view from the deck of Domaine Carneros…

Unfortuntately, the lighting wasn’t great below ground (duh), but they had a wonderful collection of vintage champagne-making equipment, as well as views into the cellars where their own bottles of sparkling wine were being turned.  We tasted some amazing sparklers there, including La Reve (“The Dream”), a magnificent brut rose, and their standard brut (which is supposed to be widely available, so we didn’t buy it, but now I can’t find it in NoVA!  If anyone knows who may carry it…).  Domaine Carneros also does great Pinot Noir, which hubby especially loves.  We joined the wine club, so now every two months we get a bottle of red and a bottle of bubbles.  Works for me!

Oh, my goodness, I want it all!

Hubby and I had a fabulous time in California.  San Francisco was a beautiful city, and the wine country was everything I had imagined it to be – and more!  I’m sure we will be going back, but in the meantime, we have plenty of amazing wine that we brought home, so we can continue our California dreaming for quite some time.  Stay tuned for reviews of some of our souvenir wines in future “Wine Notes” posts!

Cyrus Restaurant and Sonoma Wineries

Cyrus Restaurant was our big splurge, because try as we might, hubby and I just couldn’t get a table at The French Laundry.  While pouring over the Burgundy Bible to plan our restuarants, we discovered that Cyrus had the same food rating – an astronomical 29 – as The French Laundry.  We decided that just because we had bad luck trying to get into The French Laundry didn’t mean that we didn’t deserve a dinner we would remember for the rest of our lives, and man alive, will we remember this.  From the moment you walk into Cyrus, you know that you are in a very special place.  The restaurant was incredibly elegant, with dim lighting (as a result, I must apologize for my photography) and a staff of waiters that made you feel as if you were the only table that mattered.  We ordered the tasting menu, sat back, and prepared to be amazed.  And amazed we were – the quality of the food was outstanding, the presentation was spectacular without being pretentious, and the dishes were creative and sumptuous.

First off, amuse bouche representing the five tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory.  My favorite was sour, which was a “grape” filled with tart juice, and the savory, a miniscule tomato tartlet.  Pictured below are sour and sweet, a tiny little gelee apple:


Seared Hamachi tuna with tomatoes and melon, sesame balsamic:


My porcini risotto:


Hubby’s foie gras torchon with cashews and plums:


Medai with corn and scallions in ginger-shiso dashi:


Duck breast with potatoes and peppers in sherry jus:


My chanterelle tagliarini with mustard greens and a steamed bantam yolk (hubby had seared Wagyu beef for this course, and I missed the photo):


Plate of farmstead cheeses, selected by our waiter:


Cherry and pistachio ice cream sandwich:


My polenta with figs and pears:


Hubby’s warm gianduja donuts:


Cyrus was just insanely good.  Each course was intelligently planned and presented, and paired with its perfect wine – some local, some Old World.  They gave us a copy of our menu to take home and dream about the meal we had, and I’ll be dreaming about it for quite some time.

Before our amazing meal, we drove through the Russian River Valley area of Sonoma County, which is one of my favorite wine regions in the world.  I have a very hard time turning down a Russian River Valley wine – the area is particularly good for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which like the cooler temperatures.  (The same is true of Carneros – more on that in a future post.)  Because I don’t have enough pics to dedicate an entire post to Sonoma wineries, here are the highlights:

Lynmar Estate Winery.  We were actually on our way to a different winery when the sign caught my eye and I shouted out “Pull over here!”  We never made it to the winery we had originally planned, but I’m not sorry, because Lynmar was a treasure.  It’s a tiny winery that does most of its sales through its website and right in the tasting room.  The wines were some of the best that we tasted all week.

The winery:


The beautiful tasting room:


Another Sonoma winery I love is La Crema.  My parents introduced me to La Crema wines through the widely-available Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, which I love.  (In fact, introducing me to La Crema is on my short list of things for which I’m most grateful to my parents – right under Giving Me Life and Paying For Cornell.  Well, Taking Me On Awesome Vacations is probably ranked higher than La Crema too… but as you can see, I’m pretty grateful to my parents for La Crema.)  Hubby loves the wine too, so we paid a visit to the tasting room in Healdsburg, where we got to try some of the fantastic wines that result from winemaker Melissa Stackhouse’s playing around.  Do I even need to tell you that we joined the wine club?  Or could you have guessed?

The La Crema tasting room, elegant and understated:


So! Many! Choices!  What’s a messy Libra to do?


Between Cyrus and the Sonoma County wineries we visited (we also hit Taft Street, but I left the camera in the car – I’m awesome like that), hubby and I were pretty saturated with incredible food and wine, which was starting to become a theme of our California vacation…

Wine Notes: Robert Mondavi Winery

While in Napa, one absolutely must visit Robert Mondavi winery.  Sure, you may think – as I did – that you already know what Mondavi wines taste like and you’re in Napa to experience something new.  But you still have to go to Mondavi, first and foremost, to pay your respects.  Mondavi was a wine industry giant, respected all over the world – even in France! – and responsible in many ways for making California wines what they are today.  The winery itself is gorgeous and the tour is fascinating.  And there’s also the small matter of… well, let’s just say that the wines you taste after the tour are not your run-of-the-mill Woodbridge from the grocery store.  They serve you their absolute best stuff, and it’s world’s away from mass produced.  I left Mondavi’s winery with a new respect for the man as a wine pioneer – and I had already read Harvests of Joy, so I did know how important his contribution was – and a newfound taste for his wines.

The winery:


Part of To Kalon, the famous vineyard:


Gazing down rows of grapevines:


Magic is happening here:


Doug, our hilarious guide, explains the winemaking process:


Barrel aging:


After the incredibly interesting tour, we tasted three outstanding wines and had a parmesan cracker, for which the winery was kind enough to give everyone a copy of the recipe!  Since recipes are my favorite kinds of souvenir, stay tuned for those crackers to make an appearance before long.

Robert Mondavi winery was a revelation.  My parents had been there and highly recommended it, so I did have some elevated expectations.  And I would have gone anyway, simply because Mondavi himself was such an important personality that I didn’t feel a trip to Napa would be complete without visiting his winery.  But the wines we tasted there were so special that I left the winery with a new admiration, not just for the history of the place – which I already respected – but for what they’re doing in the here and now.  It really is intoxicating.

Wine Notes: Cakebread Chardonnay

California wines have come a long way.  There was the time when Napa and Sonoma were just sleepy farming communities.  Then there was the Judgment of Paris.  The butter bombs of the ’80s and ’90s.  The anti-oak backlash.  Sideways.  And today, I’d like to think that we’ve come to a place where we can respect all wines for the different qualities they bring to the party (pardon the pun) – no matter where they come from, or whether they are aged in American oak, French oak, or stainless steel.  Personally, I usually prefer the crisper flavors that stainless steel barrels impart, but every so often, a girl wants some oak.


The wine: Cakebread Cellars 2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay

The bouquet: Beautiful notes of apple, pear and honeydew, with a lemony undertone – very crisp.  The aromas were slightly richer than you would find in, say, a Sauvignon Blanc, which was really the only hint of oak.  That’s how I like my oak – as an enhancement, not as the main flavor – so I was very pleased.

The taste: Light and crisp, with a slightly creamy mouthfeel and a perfectly balanced, refreshingly tart finish.

Food pairing: We uncorked this wine to go with our special anniversary dinner of Garlic and Citrus Roasted Cornish Game Hens, and it was a perfect match.  It would work well with most poultry dishes, being light and refreshing but still maintaining enough body to pair with a hearty chicken or turkey dish.

Overall, this wine was a joy.  Cakebread is one of my favorite wineries, but I usually drink the Sauvignon Blanc.  It was exciting to branch out and drink one of their other wines.  Certainly a special occasion wine, it won’t disappoint.