Toasting with wine at holiday table
Paying less doesn’t mean having to do without anymore. When planning a dinner party, we spend ample time designing the menu, only then to find ourselves having to make a critical decision – go over budget buying six bottles of wine just to impress everyone or settling for an unknown brand just because it fits…


Affordable Wines for your Holiday Table

Paying less doesn’t mean having to do without anymore. When planning a dinner party, we spend ample time designing the menu, only then to find ourselves having to make a critical decision – go over budget buying six bottles of wine just to impress everyone or settling for an unknown brand just because it fits within the budget we have left. Below are some options that can keep our budget intact but give us the big-bucks wow factor.

Sparkling Wine

Sparkling wine has been relegated to celebrations, which is unfair. The wine is a go-to option for professionals across the globe for good reason: the ability to pair with a multitude of foods and high levels of consumer satisfaction. While the price of sparkling wine from Champagne often limits this as an every-week option, the supply chain disruptions add increased challenges for availability anyway. These limiting factors open up the conversation for France’s hidden secret. Crémant is the French term for sparkling wine made outside of the Champagne region and should rank highly on the list of words you say most often. The price per bottle in comparison to the quality makes this a celebratory occasion itself. A few regions to look for are:
  • Crémant de Loire is generally more acid forward and lends itself to cocktail parties and starting courses, but it also works very well with green-vegetable dishes common this time of year.
  • Crémant de Alsace has a full body which easily pairs with almost every dish you will cook this holiday season.
  • Crémant de Bordeaux is an easy substitution for US-based sparkling wine. The ripe fruit tones along with the well-integrated bubbles make this a crowd pleaser. Great for cocktail parties but will easily make the journey to the table for the entire meal. I suggest you serve this a little warmer than usual, around 55°F.


Though technically a beer, saké has a lot of overlap with wine. The first thing to know about saké is it is delicious. Seriously, it pairs extremely well with food. Just as carbonation in beer and acid in wine keep the palate awake, the slightly acidic profile of saké will help to cut the richness of fall foods. What saké has that those other beverages lack is umami—the full, rich, round feeling of satisfaction. Look for sparkling sakés, which bring with them all the tools above but in a fun, light, and enjoyable package. And at roughly 15 percent alcohol, even the most skeptical family member will be saying “Kampai!” by the end of the meal. After the last two years, you should be good at change, and this is one I promise you’ll enjoy. Saké is what I will be drinking this holiday season; I hope you join me.

South African Wines

For some reason, South African wines have not gained a lot of traction in the domestic market. The wines taste exactly like you want them to, are serious enough for the “wine-person” in your family to talk about, but straight forward enough for everyone else to enjoy. And with the disparity of the South African rand to the U.S. dollar, provide excellent purchasing leverage. The two grapes that are easiest to find in the U.S. are chenin blanc, often called steen when grown in South Africa, and cabernet sauvignon. Chenin blanc, or steen, has a similar expression and bright acid to sauvignon blanc, but also brings with it a round mouthfeel with ripe citrus and tropical fruit tones, perfect for fall foods. The balance of ripe fruit and moderate acid effortlessly pair with squash, root vegetables, cream-based side dishes. and roasted poultry.  The only area where this wine falls short: it won’t help with the dishes. The cabernet sauvignon in South Africa is simple. By that I don’t mean simplistic, I mean easy to understand. The limited use of oak and cooler weather influences keeps this expression of cabernet sauvignon light enough for lean meat and sautéed vegetables, and it shines with my favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal: cranberry sauce. Much like the straightforward nature of the wine descriptions above, the wines are structured, focused, and leave you with a smile. If I were going to a friend’s house for a fall meal, I would bring a bottle of each of these wines.

Cabernet Sauvignon Alternatives

If you ask most Americans to describe their favorite red wine, they will say bold ripe berries and plum fruit tones, moderate levels of acid, and round tannins. This description almost always lands an enjoyable wine, and more specifically, one that will pair well with fall and early winter foods. Where most of us go wrong is assigning these attributes to the wrong grape. Most people say the wine described above is their favorite cabernet sauvignon, when what they’re really asking for is merlot. Wait! Don’t stop reading… The 2004 movie Sideways has done more to change wine consumption habits than almost any other single incident, aside from the 1976 blind tasting in Paris. Unfortunately, I think the change has been for the worse. For those who have not seen the film about wine-lovers and their shenanigans around Napa Valley, merlot is the punchline—the last wine anyone would choose to drink and an indicator of poor taste. Cabernet is a wonderful grape and deserves all the attention it has earned. Merlot is equally as praise-worthy, which is why it is often grown right alongside of cabernet. The supple tannins in merlot create a silky mouthfeel, the richness of the fruit integrates well with roasted foods, rich sauces, game meats, and earthy tones of mushrooms and root vegetables. There is acid, but it takes a supporting role, enough to keep the palate alive during a long meal, but not enough to catch anyone’s attention. Sort of like Steve Buscemi, a great actor that nobody knows but everyone recognizes. A well-performed supporting role elevates all other’s performance, making it a meaningful role itself. Merlot is the wine we have asked our cabernet producers to turn their cabernet grapes into – which is what makes this the greatest time in history to drink merlot. The producers who have kept their merlot vines are currently producing the highest quality merlot in 20 years. The nature of the decreased demand trend is they must overproduce quality and undercharge for it. Here is my ask: buy merlot this holiday season and serve it in a decanter. Not specifically because decanters make wine more enjoyable, though decanting any wine helps, but because the label is off the table and there are no preconceptions. Much like a magicians employ misdirection to distract the logical brain so you can enjoy the surprise, this slight misdirection allows you to help your guests fall in love all over again, and that is a worthy cause.

Rory Brown '06 is a Lecturing Instructor of Hospitality and Service Management at The Culinary institute of America in Hyde Park, New York

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