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Must-Have Wines for Your Holiday Tables

It’s that time of year. The crispness of fall is in the air in the northern hemisphere and vintners are bringing in the last of the 2023 harvests.

I’ve been thrilled to follow so many wine growers and wine makers on social media, sharing their thoughts on when best to pick various varietals in what has been a pretty ideal growing season for many regions. Eager palates await…

It’s also that time of year when many of us begin planning for holiday feasts and gathering with friends and family. In my own planning, I go back and forth between researching and thinking through the diverse array of dishes with the wines to serve alongside them that will create the perfect experience. I also ponder which bottles I may want to purchase a few extras of, the perfect host gift for the autumn-inspired dinner parties to which I am fortunate enough to garner an invitation.

With that in mind, it’s also been a pretty busy travel schedule for me. Thankfully, two of those travels involved wines – the annual Santa Barbara Vintners Festival and a grand event hosted on the San Francisco waterfront by Wines of Chile and the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And so, I took advantage of my good fortune, utilizing these two events to help me identify ideal wines for my own holiday tables and celebrations and hopefully, for yours too.

Donnachadh Family Vineyards 2022 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

I will admit that Pinot Noirs are not my go-to reds. I can and do appreciate the expressions the grape finds in places like the Willamette Valley and in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and of course sometimes the food might lend heavily to a Pinot Noir, but it’s not what I am usually seeking out when heading into my cellar or while shopping. Santa Barbara Pinot Noir is changing my mind.

I tasted the 2021 vintage of Donnachadh’s Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir at a local wine tasting near my home and, well, I fell hard. While that vintage is now sold out, I got in touch with the winery in advance of my coming to the Santa Barbara Vintners Festival to ensure they would be there and that they would have the newest vintage.

Drew and wife Laurie Duncan, along with winemaker Ernst Storm, have found the right place and the right approach to creating a delectable and complex wine firmly anchored into Santa Barbara’s terroir. This is an interesting and unique wine that, for me, awakened a new appreciation for the varietal in the midst of what have become either predictable or annoyingly overwrought concoctions of West Coast Pinot Noirs.

The estate is organically farmed, and this wine consists of six different Pinot Noir clones planted in the clay soils of a north-facing hillside and was aged 10 months in mostly used French oak. Bright garnet in the glass, the nose is dominated by ripe red cherry, black olives, sage, and thyme on the nose. On the palate, a pleasant and restrained acidity and smooth tannins create the perfect context for big, red cherry and juicy raspberry with wonderfully contrasting hints of soil. The finish is pure, unfussy, and long. This wine is glorious, refreshing, and a standout of the varietal in the United States.

Pair this incredible quality-to-price wine with a traditional Thanksgiving feast of Roasted Turkey with gravy, bread stuffing with sage and onions, and sautéed green beans with crispy shallots. But frankly, this wine is so versatile and special, I want it whatever is being served.

Dragonette Cellars 2021 Black Label Chardonnay

I had heard of Dragonette Cellars before I attended the Annual Santa Barbara Vintners Festival, held this year at the vast Vega Vineyard & Farm in bucolic Buellton. One friend shared with me that, “Their Chardonnay changed my life.” Wine reviewer Jeb Dunnuck has also praised many of their bottlings over the years. I loved how accessible the tastings were at the festival and I easily found Dragonette, eventually tasting their delicious 2021 Chardonnay from the Rita’s Crown Vineyard. Unfortunately, they were not pouring their highly regarded Chardonnay Black Label that afternoon, but I was determined to seek it out.

The following afternoon, I found myself at their tasting room in the charming downtown area of Los Olivos. There I struck gold, tasting the 2021 vintage of their Black Label Chardonnay. With only 150 cases produced, its artisanal refinement creates a compelling Sta. Rita Hills wine, with lushness and complexity. Eighteen months in French oak imparts a slight wood aroma with additional notes of ripe apricots and flowers on the nose. In the mouth, a full bodied and zippy minerality and racy acidity evolve into ripe and bright fruit, hints of toasted oak, and a refined and lingering finish.

I’m always a fan of a lush and rich Chardonnay with roasted fowl. The 2021 Black Label Chardonnay would well-complement an oven-roasted chicken with crispy, herbed skin, roasted rainbow carrots with coriander seeds, and a wild rice medley with currants and pecans. This is also a wine to impress, so consider taking one as a host gift, encouraging your host to stock it away for next year’s celebrations (or even longer). This bottling will be even more satisfying with a few years of additional aging in the bottle.

Story of Soil 2021 Ampelos Vineyard Pinot Noir

While in Los Olivos, I also took the recommendation of a friend-in-the-know and visited the tasting room of Story of Soil, a bespoke and masterful winemaker of fruit sourced from impeccable sites in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. It’s a rare thing when each and every taste creates both bliss and wonder, but that is the case at Story of Soil. Winemaker Jessica Gasca has some serious magic happening, but you need to be quick in buying once a wine is released or, better yet, join their wine club for regular shipments. For example, between my visit and writing this column – three weeks – the wonderfully unique 2022 Slide Hill Vineyard Grenache had sold out of the 225 cases produced.

This is even more reason to immediately get your hands on the 2021 Ampelos Vineyard Pinot Noir. The Ampelos Vineyard sits at the eastern end of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA where cool breezes make it ideally situated for growing Pinot Noir in clay and sandy soil. It is also certified bio-dynamic and organic.

This wine is elegant from the start. On the nose, ripe fruits and earth pleasantly exude from the glass and on the palate, ripe blueberries, raspberries and lush tannins create a medium-bodied and delicious fruit-forward expression of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir. My mind immediately jumped to how extraordinary of an accompaniment this wine would be to a roasted pork loin with fresh sage leaves and root vegetables, or served alongside delicious canapés of bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Marcona almonds and puff pastry filled with herbed goat cheese.

J. Bouchon Pais Salvaje

I have previously written about Chilean reds, praising both the quality and value to be found in the nation’s exploding wine industry (Polo Lifestyles, July 2023). In that column, I included a wine made from the Pais (Mission) grape, the 2020 Santa Cruz de Coya from Roberto Henriquez. Now I am back, recommending another Chilean País, well, because… it’s delicious. In fact, in the same way that Santa Barbara has me questioning my own prejudices about Pinot Noir, Chile has me confronting established prejudices against the humble mission grape.

Chilean Producer J. Bouchon’s País Salvaje is a tale of fortitude and minimal human interaction. This is wild wine. Literally and wonderfully. The País grapes for the wine grow wildly on trees next to Bouchon’s vineyards and are harvested from the trees by pickers standing on ladders and using a zaranda (a tool made of sticks) to destem the grape clusters in the treetops. Note the artistic interrelation of this on the bottle label. The vines, such as they are, are left to grow wild without irrigation and some are over 200 years old.

The fermentation occurs with whole grape clusters with natural yeast and aging is carried out in cement vats, again all in seeking to mitigate factors of human intervention. Finally, bottling occurs without filtering. The result is a bit of cloudiness to a ruby hue in the glass, but the lack of what we might call “refinement” ends there. This is a surprisingly delicate, yet rustic wine with none of the harshness that too frequently accompanies País bottlings. Floral essences on the nose, it is light- to medium-bodied, bursting with wild red fruits such as strawberries and boysenberries, balanced acid, and a fresh and long finish. This is an example of País at its best.

The País Salvaje is a food wine and seemed to me to be perfect with a clove-spiked holiday ham, rich and creamy scalloped potatoes, and green beans almondine. If you’re seeking something a bit more obscure and decidedly unmessed-with, this belongs on your holiday table.

2023's Beaujolais Nouveau

Finally, I’d be remiss in not mentioning that I always have a few bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau on hand during the Thanksgiving season. To be released this year on November 16th, drinking the first wine of the year’s harvest feels very much a celebration of wine and of life itself.

Producer Georges Duboeuf has shared the following about their soon-to-be-released 2023 vintage, “This Beaujolais Nouveau displays a brilliant garnet color with purple reflections. It offers fresh aromas of black cherries and blackberries, as well as a dense texture, and an admirable richness. Refreshing, fruity and supple on the palate, this vintage is a perfect expression of Nouveau.”

Your local wine shop is likely to carry a couple of bottlings of this year's harvest, so indulge in what you can find.

As always… happy holidays!


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