This is the time of year that savvy credit cards are racking up charges for sparkling wine. You might think my bubbly-loving soul would revel in all those bottles headed for holiday tables. But this is a glass-half-empty situation in my book, because most people will abandon those celebratory sparklers after the toast is taken care of and the appetizers have disappeared, in favor of still wines for dinner—Chardonnay for their crab cakes, say, and Cabernet for their beef.
While I can’t argue that there’s no pleasure in those pairings, leaving the bubbly behind is to waste some of the best food wines on the planet. Petra Polakovicova, wine director at Epic Steak in San Francisco, is of the same mind. “I love sparkling wine pairings through the whole meal,” she says. “There are so many styles of bubbly, that one can find a perfect pairing for each dish. Plus, the acidity in sparkling wine is perfect for food.”
The rub, as they say, is likely in Polakovicova’s point about style. Too many holiday-only bubbly drinkers think of sparkling as a single kind of wine, but nothing could be further from the truth. A delicate, all-Chardonnay Nonvintage Blanc de Blancs is a far cry from a vintage Champagne, rich and full-bodied from spending many years on its lees. And a bright, mineral-driven Crémant de Bourgogne (a sparkling wine from Burgundy) is a world away from a richly fruited bubbly that ripened in the California sun. Across its vast number of iterations, the world’s sparkling wine easily handles every part of our traditional holiday meals.
Polakovicova parses particular styles by course: For lighter dishes (oysters, seafood platters, salads), go for the crisper, cleaner wines, she advises, like Crémant (the term refers to French sparklers from regions other than Champagne), nonvintage Champagne, or Cava (Spanish bubbly, made in the traditional Champagne method). For steaks and richer entrées, she likes vintage or rosé Champagne. That last, in fact, is her secret love. “I really like rosé Champagne with steak. It has a little more weight to match the steak, and the bubbles and acid cut through the marbling, leaving my palate ready for the next bite.” And for desserts? Look for demi-sec (sweet) sparkling wines.
I challenged Polakovicova with an imaginary holiday menu, and her pairings (some of which paint outside her guidelines above—but you can do that when you’re an Advanced Sommelier) have inspired me to make it real on Christmas.
- Oysters on the half-shell: Iron Horse 2013 Classic Vintage Brut Green Valley of Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
- Wild mushroom bisque: Champagne Lanson Brut Vintage 2005
- Seared sea scallops with a root vegetable purée: Champagne Krug Nonvintage Grande Cuvée
- Standing rib roast with fresh horseradish sauce and Julia Child’s potato gratin with Gruyère (oddly specific, I know, but I can’t celebrate Christmas without these heavenly potatoes): Champagne Egly-Ouriet Nonvintage Premiere Cru “Les Vignes de Vrigny”
If you’re still looking for great recommendations, don’t forget we recently rounded up the best wines under $100, the best wines to give as holiday gifts, and even the best steakhouses in America (because you won’t stay home all through the holidays, right?).