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Holiday wines

Wine writers are grateful for holidays. It gives them something to write about, particularly since it’s always a little difficult to find wines that match all the foods in a typical Thanksgiving or Christmas meal.

A lot of people seem to favor a rich California chardonnay and low-tannin pinot noir to match flavors that include savory, tart, even bitter Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce.

Others consider it such a festive occasion that they will pour expensive Napa Valley cabernet, no matter the food.

With all the different tastes I run into, I usually just offer a choice and let the guests decide. One regular guest only drank white zinfandel, not a bad match believe it or not, though she’s now enjoying moscatos.

Others are, how to put it politely, wine snobs, and some never met a wine they didn’t like. One holds out for beer. She’d probably drink coffee with the meal if I offered it.

Still, it’s nice to consider other options, some relatively new on the scene.

A festive start

Sparkling wine is a vital beginning in my family, and at least some of us definitely enjoy it while the kids of all ages open their presents before Christmas dinner.

Though Champagne is famed, I prefer most quality California sparkling wines in general. You don’t need to look beyond Napa Valley for great choices: Schramsberg, Mumm Napa, Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros, though a few other wineries here also make bubbly.

This isn’t the only place for great sparkling wine in America, however. Many other places make excellent wines, including Sonoma, Mendocino and the Central Coast. They include Gloria Ferrer, Iron Horse, J, Laeticia and Roederer.

Korbel, the biggest supplier of sparkling wines made by the method traditional in Champagne, is the only quality producer that still calls its wines “Champagne,” but makes some excellent wines though the most popular brut and extra dry aren’t the best.

One interesting development is that Rack & Riddle near Healdsburg helps smaller wineries make sparkling wine from their grapes, making it possible for them to produce “grower” sparkling wine like that that’s the rage in Champagne.

Oregon and Washington also make good sparkling wine, notably Argyle and what used to be called Domaine Ste. Michelle, but is now just Michelle from Ste. Michelle.

In addition, it’s a little easier to make good sparkling wine than still wine in much of the United States since the grapes are picked under-ripe — and that’s sometimes the only grapes they get in some places and some years.

You can easily find bubbly from Gruët Vineyards in New Mexico, which is owned by a French family. Its grapes from an area in southern New Mexico at about 3,400 feet. It’s sunny, not as hot as you might imagine.

Gruët makes quite a bit of sparkling wines, about 100,000 cases, and it’s readily available in most states. Most are under $20.

New York has long made sparkling wines, but they’re virtually impossible to find here. They’ve abandoned native American and hybrid grapes that used to make ghastly sparklers for vinifera varieties like chardonnay and pinot noir, and many of the wines are excellent.

Surprisingly, wines from Chateau Grand Traverse in Michigan can compete with any; they need no qualification “for Michigan.” But try finding them here.

That’s hardly a problem for Prosecco, which is white hot, as are cavas from Spain, and sparkling wine from areas in France other than Champagne like Alsace and Burgundy.

JCB bubbly from Burgundy has become a popular favorite hereabouts, both because of its value and the influence of producer Jean-Charles Boisset.

Franciacorta from northern Italy is made like Champagne with the same grapes, and is another alternative

Most people prefer still wine with meals, though bubbly is great, too. Most sparkling wines contain a little residual sugar to balance the natural acidity, and this makes them better with many holiday-type foods.

A new solution

For years, hosts have struggled to select the best wines to serve with the combination of sweet and savory dishes.

In the last few years, however, the perfect solution to the dilemma arrived as slightly sweet, easy-to-drink red wines became the fastest-growing category of wines in America.

These unusual blends, typically including merlot, zinfandel and syrah with other varieties, have swept the country, igniting outrage from wine snobs and delight from those who just love wine.

The biggest include Menage a Trois from the Trinchero family, which may have started the trend, and Apothic from Gallo. But it seems that every large wine company has its entries. The Prisoner is an expensive example.

These blends differ from traditional Bordeaux blends, sometimes labeled Meritage, that are more expensive dry wines containing some or all of the five popular Bordeaux varieties like cabernet sauvignon and petite verdot.

The new blends are generally less expensive, low in bitter tannins and generally have a little residual sugar, not enough to make them sweet like dessert wines, but definitely in tune with the tastes of Americans who like sodas, sweet tea and sugar in their coffee.

Many if not most popularly priced — and some expensive — wines contain a small amount of sugar even if they’re claimed to be dry in view of the well-known propensity for Americans to talk dry, drink sweet.

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A throwback to the past

Equally ironically, these new blends are very similar in composition and taste to the jug wines we drank when I was young, including Gallo Hearty Burgundy, Carlo Rossi and Cribari.

Wineries who want to respond to popular tastes love these wines for a number of reasons besides their popularity:

Leaving a little sugar unfermented leads to a lower-alcohol wine, which many consumers prefer — and also reduces taxes. Wines under 14 percent alcohol are taxed at a lower rate, and most cabernets and zinfandels, for example, are far above that there days.

The sugar can help compensate for grapes that wouldn’t make it on their own in more expensive wines.

The wines are also made with grapes that have slumped in popularity, including merlot and syrah, which has never taken off with American consumers. The wines often contain carignan, grenache, petit sirah, ruby cabernet and other varieties that are a hard sell as varietal wines.

Almost all the new blends contain zinfandel, absorbing the surplus that would have developed as white zinfandel slowly loses market share to the red blends and equally hot moscatos. White zin is picked less ripe, but the vines can often produce excellent red zins with a little more ripening and sometimes lower yields.

Other widely available new red blends include Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Red Blend ($18), identified as a “barbecue red” by the winery, Hess Treo ($17), and Fetzer Crimson Red Blend ($10). The more expensive wines may have less sugar.

Many other such reds are available from big producers. Look for proprietary names, reasonable prices, and, if they list them, the grape varieties.

White blends

Producers are also making similar blends of whites, often with fruity muscat, riesling or gewürztraminer or other aromatic grapes added to chardonnay and less popular white varieties like French colombard, chenin blanc and even, though it won’t be listed on the label, bland Thompson seedless.

I don’t find them as compelling as the red blends.

Another great choice for holidays, and one that might be pretty traditional, is hard cider. They range from bone dry to quite sweet, but a slightly sweet one seems appropriate. Woodchuck and Stella Artois are examples. We can’t forget craft beers, either.

I suggest you try some with of the new red blends at your holiday meals, though you can also put out some pinot noir or chardonnay for those who prefer them.

I suspect you’ll find wide acceptance for the new blends even as traditionalists sputter and drink their dry pinot.

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