How to Pair Wines for the Holidays

Local wine experts help take the stress of choosing a wine off your plate.
Photograph by Kristen Carlson

There’s nothing that says “celebration” like the sound of a cork popping out of a bottle of effervescent wine. But holiday entertaining goes beyond the New Year’s Eve Champagne toast.

Most revelers will attend many different types of events, from office post-work gatherings to family celebrations to boisterous bashes with friends. Every holiday party is likely to serve up many different types of food, from New Year’s brunch to elegant finger foods to hearty roast beef.

Choosing the perfect wine for each occasion might take some forethought and a bit of advice from the experts, but you shouldn’t sweat it too much. That’s what our experts say. They’re here to help you pick the best vino for a party, whether you’re hosting or attending. They’re also on hand with tips and tricks for gifting, charcuterie pairing, and the real etiquette for who opens the bottles that are brought to a party.

How to Choose Wines for a Party

No matter the occasion, the experts we talked to all agreed that keeping it simple is ideal. Mikiah Westbrooks, owner of Brix Wine, a bar and retailer in Detroit’s Rivertown neighborhood, likes to choose a red, a white, a rosé, and a sparkling wine for parties, just to make sure everyone has something they like.

Popular varietals like Pinot Noir and Vouvray make for good choices on the drier and lighter side, but, Westbrooks says, “no matter what kind of party, you have a Cabernet drinker always in tow” so she makes sure to have some Napa Cabs on hand.

Kristen Carlson, head sommelier at The Wine Grotto at Saint John’s Resort in Plymouth, suggests folks “go to your local independent retailer, talk to the professionals there,” she says. “This is what we love doing: We love teaching. We love helping.” Carlson recommends wines that are, she says, “palatable for the novice drinker,” like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Hosts can have a little fun with their selection, though. Westbrooks likes to add in the occasional offbeat wine, like a Rioja or a Lodi red Zinfandel. Carlson’s maverick wines of choice are Movia Puro, a crisp white wine from Slovenia on the border of northern Italy, and Treehouse, a white Pinot Noir by Big Little Wines in Suttons Bay.

How to Pair Wine with Food

Zach Berg is the co-owner and cheesemonger at Mongers’ Provisions and The Rind wine bar. He has one simple rule for pairing wine with food, especially cheese and charcuterie: “If it grows together, it goes together,” he says. For example, “it’s rare that a good Tuscan wine isn’t going to go with a good Tuscan cheese. There are just so many centuries of cohabitation” in agricultural products, he says, that it’s an easy cheat.

Next, he recommends that hosts “decide who’s boss” between the wine and the cheese.

“It’s just like dancing — you both can’t lead,” he says. “It’s about deciding, Who are you showing off tonight? Is it about the three cheeses that you just bought and finding the perfect wines to express those? Or is it that you have this beautiful bottle that you’ve been saving in your cellar for a couple of years that you’re about to bring out? In that case, that’s the boss and it’s about finding a supporting cast.”

If you’re still in doubt and really want to wow your guests, Detroit Vineyards has you covered. It’s offering a hands-on charcuterie board workshop on Dec. 8, where participants can sample wine and snacks and hear from the tasting room chef on how to compose the best charcuterie board for your event.

Should the Host Open Right Away the Bottle of Wine That a Guest Brought?

This can cause anxiety for hosts and guests. No one wants to appear rude or greedy. Fortunately, there’s wiggle room. No less an authority than Martha Stewart says it’s not necessary or expected, unless the bottle was brought to accompany a specific dish. Brix’s Westbrooks agrees.

“I think whoever is receiving the gift, it should be up to them,” she says. “If, once you take it to someone, they decide to open it, that’s perfectly fine. But if I’m going to give you a bottle of wine, I definitely wouldn’t open it.”

Wine and Wine-Related Gifts

As Carlson recommends, your local independent wine retailer can find fun, fanciful, or elegant wines that make great gifts at any budget. MotorCity Wine in Corktown has a selection of eclectic, approachable wines with a focus on sustainable and Old World varieties; Brix has an extensive list of Michigan wines and other options.

Got an oenophile in the family? They probably already have plenty on hand for enjoying a nice pour, but there’s always room for a new gadget, tool, or trick. Brix’s Westbrooks is a fan of giving a nice bottle opener or pair of Viski glasses as a gift.

She recommends the Rabbit brand system. Carlson of The Wine Grotto uses the Coravin bottle-opening system at home and at work, which uses a thin needle rather than removing the cork and replaces the oxygen in the bottle with inert gas. This allows one bottle of wine to remain stable for many months, so a fine or rare bottle can be enjoyed over time.

Wine Events for Gifts and Gatherings

Group wine tastings also make great gifts and holiday outings. Plenty of metro Detroit locations offer private or public group tastings. Detroit’s House of Pure Vin, Detroit Vineyards, and Michigan by the Bottle offer private group wine tastings.

For the ultimate luxurious wine lover’s gift, Hazel Park’s Framebar offers private wine tasting concierge services at the bar’s private space or in the comfort of your own home. Wine Director Diego Aliste works with producers from around the world to select wines for a personally tailored class.

Wine clubs are another option for delightful new discoveries that will last all year. Oak & Reel, Detroit Vineyards, The Royce, Vertical Detroit, House of Pure Vin, and Cata Vino all have a variety of wine clubs for most budgets, from two bottles per year up to a dozen per month.

If you’re looking for something fun to do this month, Alpino in Corktown will feature alpine wines at its “Winter White” wine tasting on Dec. 6 in the restaurant’s private cellar space. Cold-climate wine varietals will be on hand for sampling and purchase, with guests encouraged to dress in white.

Downtown’s The Apparatus Room will host a “Vines and Vibes” wine class and tasting event on Dec. 13 featuring mountain and alpine wines, perfect for the winter season. Sommelier and General Manager Liz Martinez will highlight five different wines paired with bites.

The right wine bottle, the right wine gift, and the perfect wine education experience are all right here in metro Detroit — for any budget, any occasion, and any person. You just have to ask the experts. As Carlson says, “Don’t overthink it.” That’s what the experts are for.

This story is from the December 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.