To know which wine goes best for which holiday occasion, you must know your grapes!
In some cases I've recommended specific wines; other times I refer to quality producers who may have a range of labels, all of them commendable. The selections here are relatively well-known and distributed nationally, so there is a good chance you can find them in your local wine shops or at least be able to place a special order. Note: all retail prices are approximate. There is information on current laws about mail-order wine shipments (they vary from state to state) at wineinstitute.org.
Trying to find the right wine for every holiday occasion may fill you with discomfit and oy. But really, there's no need to fret. Even a novice can master the art of wine selection. Let's concentrate on three kinds of holiday celebrations: the Cocktail Party, the Groaning Dinner, and Champagne Time. If you know which grapes fit these categories, you'll have a wide array of options when you walk into a store.
Keep It Light at the Cocktail Party
Here you have a lot of people wandering around the house while drinking, holding wobbly plates of food and peeking into your closets. This situation calls for reds and whites that are light, easy to drink and low-alcohol. (You don't want your guests falling into the closet.) As a benchmark, count on three glasses per guest, considering some drink more and others less. (A bottle holds five medium pours.) As a rule of thumb for whites, always buy the most recent vintage, which means 2003 to 2006; older whites can lose their sunny disposition.
Whites: Three zesty, light whites suited for sipping are sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc and albariño. Sauvignon blanc grapes, which are grown around the world, yield a grassy, citric and refreshing wine. You might even pick up some grapefruit flavors. You can't go wrong with selections from New Zealand, most of which are under $15: Brancott, Marlborough, Matua and Villa Maria. From Washington State look for a slightly fruitier sauvignon blanc from Hogue Cellars and Columbia Crest, both in the $10 to $12 range. Some very good and outlandishly cheap labels — as low as $7 a bottle — can be found from Chile, among them Viña Casablanca and Castillo del Rio.
Pinot blanc, best known as the grape of Alsace, in northern France, is a classy guest at any party. Its wines are lively and light, with a distinct flinty, mineral sensation. For French pinot blancs in the $15 to $20 range, look for the names Marcel Deiss, Trimbach, Lucien Albrecht and Albert Mann. For less austere examples of sauvignon that are more on the grassy side, go to California (Steele, Wild Horse and Château St. Jean, all under $20) or Oregon (Eyrie Vineyards).
Spanish wines are hot these days, none more than the fresh and flowery albariño, which at its best is characterized by overtones of peaches and apples. (It's a kin of Portugal's alvarinho.) Once little-known outside of Galicia, in the country's maritime northwest, albariño is often priced in the $15 to $25 range. The biggest and one of the best producers is Martin Codax.
Red: Beaujolais nouveau is a natural choice. Released in November, the 2006 vintage is a fruity, unaged wine (actually, it is just a few months this side of grape juice) from the Rhône Valley; it is meant to be consumed without ceremony or contemplation and is perfect with all kinds of finger food. Look for the names Georges Duboeuf, Louis Jadot and Drouhin, all in the $10 to $12 range. Another versatile choice is pinot noir from the Pacific Northwest, which can be smooth, lush with fruit flavors and low in puckery tannin. In the $15 to $25 range, you can consider Willamette Valley Vineyards, Sokol Blosser (Oregon) and Eyrie Vineyards (Oregon). For equally good deals on a fuller wine, consider a plumy shiraz from South Africa: Fairview Goats du Roam (a shiraz blend, less than $12), Graham Beck ($12) or KWV Shiraz Western Cape ($10).
All of the whites and reds above could be served prior to dinner or even with dinner if the main course is poultry or pork. Beef and ham call for more muscular selections.
Go for Gusto at the Groaning Dinner
Wines with more body and intensity of flavor go well with a big holiday meal.
White: Think about medium-intensity chardonnays. They have enough flavor and body to go with a variety of courses and are pleasing on their own, as well. Here are just a few that combine lovely concentrated fruit with a faint edge of vanilla from their short aging in oak: In California, Beringer Vineyards Napa Valley chardonnay ($17), Chalone Estate chardonnay ($33), Mondavi Private Selection chardonnay ($15), Beaulieu Coastal chardonnay ($10) and Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve chardonnay $20. Similar, if more delicate chardonnays can be found in the Mâconais region of France, south of Burgundy; two of the best buys are Dubouef Macon-Villages ($10) and Louis Jadot Macon-Villages ($11).
What if you want to turn some heads with an exceptional wine that will leave them guessing about its origins. Bodegas Vega Sicilia is among the leading handful of wineries in Spain, known for big, warm wines from the tempranillo grape — at stratospheric prices. One affordable exception is the 2003 Pintia "Tinta del Toro," priced in the $60 range. The wine is ripe and round with a haunting tinge of espresso tones.
Red: You want something bold and intense — but not a two-fisted steak wine that could KO poultry or pork. Two of many grapes that fit the bill are the peppery shiraz from Australia, and the rich, cherry-like barbera from Italy. Good Aussie options include D'Arenberg d'Arry's B Original Shiraz ($22) and Penfolds Cabarnet-Shiraz South Australia Bin 389 ($20). For barbera, look for the names Vietti d'Alba Scarrone Vigna Vecchia ($28) and Bruno Giacosa Barbara d' Alba ($30).
Champagne Time: Best Bubbles, Super Sparklers
In the category of champagnes and sparkling wines, there's plenty of quality stock available at prices around $10. Technically speaking, there is little difference between bona fide champagne produced in the region by that name and, say, Spanish cava — both involve intricate blending and secondary fermentation in the bottle and can be very dry (Extra Brut, Brut) to sweet (Doux). Champagne, however, tends to be more delicate, with more mineral and peachy tones, whereas cava is more full-bodied and fruity. For a cocktail party, a sparkling brut strikes a nice balance. For purposes of your party, don't concern yourself with expensive vintage champagne, which comes along only in exceptional growing years.
In the non-vintage champagne category, you can't beat the crisp and apricot-accented Boyer Brut Blanc de Blanc ($12) or the equally good non-vintage bruts from top houses like Piper-Heidsieck, Perrier-Jouët and Moët & Chandon. Standouts among California sparkling wines include Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noir NV ($16) and Korbel Brut NV ($15). In Spanish cava, perfectly pleasant labels abound for $12 or under, including Freixenet, Codorníu, and Segura Viudas. If your tastes run to slightly sweeter sparkling wine, consider a Prosecco, made from a grape cultivated in the Veneto region of Italy. Among the best: Zardetto Conegliano Prosecco Brut NV (VSAQ), $15.
In France, the most elegant and festive drink for the holidays is rosé champagne, which always carries a premium. Most major champagne houses produce rosé for anywhere from $50 and up. Among the best-known are Roederer, Veueve Cliquot and Moët & Chandon. They're worth the splurge.
Bryan Miller is the author of 10 books about food and wine, and a former restaurant critic for The New York Times.