When it comes time to select the best wines for the holiday season, it’s well worth the effort to seek out bottles that feel truly celebratory (especially at the end of a tough year). For NYC-based sommelier and wine expert Denise Barker, wines with a history and a true sense of place are the ideal choice for festive imbibing; and because the storytelling aspect of wine first drew Denise’s attention when she launched her career, she gravitates toward these bottles all year long. “I fell in love with wine during my first sommelier training course in culinary school in 2007. The wine course was very dynamic; it felt like we were learning about history, travel, climate, geology, etc… all while developing a deeper understanding of how we taste and smell. I was smitten! I moved to France shortly after graduation and worked on vineyards in the Loire Valley, and when I came back to the States, I got my first job at a major wine retailer,” Denise tells us.
If you’re in the market for a little help finding the perfect wines to serve at your holiday gatherings, or to give as gifts to the wine lovers in your life, Denise’s top six bottle picks for this season will serve you well.
Favorite Holiday Bottle of All Time: 2003 Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage ‘La Chapelle’ ($189)
When we asked Denise to name her favorite holiday wine ever, she immediately answered with “this is such a hard question!” But after a bit of reflection, she told us that “my favorite is what I recently brought to Thanksgiving Day Dinner this year: 2003 Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage ‘La Chapelle’, a 100% Syrah from Hermitage Hill in the Rhȏne Valley region in the south of France.” Barker describes this wine as “an 18 year old bottle [with] beautiful tertiary notes of underbrush, cured meats, green olive and dried plum. The palate was powerful yet refined, with a fresh lift and taut finish.”
When it comes to enjoying this complex Rhȏne Valley red, Denise says that “I LOVE Syrah from the Northern Rhȏne with ‘holiday fare’, which is usually a mixture of savor, sweet, and umami flavors…and Syrah with age is really special.”
The festive nature, frequent get-togethers, and gift-giving traditions of the holiday season make it a prime time for spending. That said, if you’d like to uncork a celebratory and delicious bottle at a reasonable price, try one of Denise’s recommended value wines: Beronia Rioja “Crianza” and Pierre Cotton Brouilly.
Denise insists that “I’m a fan of bringing Rioja to a party. The flavor profile is oftentimes bold enough for Bordeaux drinkers, yet earthy enough for Tuscan lovers. Rioja offers wines in all price ranges, and it’s one of the best regions to find value. One of my favorites for less than $20 is Beronia Rioja ‘Crianza’ which has beautiful oak integration and ripe dark fruits.”
When it comes to the Pierre Cotton Brouilly, Denise says that “Beaujolais Cru wines offer drinkers an easy, palatable wine with freshness, spice and a pleasant fruit profile that (usually) won’t break the bank. I LOVE the organic, unsulfured and unfiltered wines from Pierre Cotton, specifically the ‘Cote de Brouilly’ line, as they burst with just enough minerality and brambly red fruits. I always notice that when I pour a Beaujolais Cru for a group of wine lovers, their glasses often empty faster than other reds. It’s a wine that most wine lovers didn’t know they already loved.”
Favorite Bottle To Bring To A Holiday Party: Acores Branco ‘Terras de Lava’, Ilha do Pico 2019 ($19)
Denise views holiday parties (and parties in general) as great opportunities to introduce friends and family to tasty under-the-radar wines. “I love bringing wines that most people (probably) wouldn’t think to try on their own,” she tells us. This year, she’s excited to attend seasonal gatherings with “a white from the Azores Islands in Portugal: COOP Vitivinicola da Ilha do Pico, ‘Azores Terras de Lava’ Branco. This wine is a blend of indigenous varieties like Arinto dos Azores, Fernão Pires, Verdejo and Moscatel. I often describe its flavor profile as tasting like a cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris! It’s super zesty with citrus fruits, savory herbs and an enveloping briny finish. It’s great served on its own at the beginning of a party or pairs well with a cheese board or oysters – AND it’s under $20!”
Favorite Bottle To Pair With Holiday Meals: Tenuta Terre Nere Etna Rosso ($23)
Rich holiday meals call for a wine with nuanced flavors and bracing acidity, and according to Denise, Tenuta Terre Nere Etna Rosso delivers on all of those fronts. “If I know there’s going to be a wide variety of foods (spicy / savory, light / heavy), I love bringing wines from Sicily, specifically Mount Etna. Anytime I’m not sure what to pair with foods, I go with a wine with medium-plus to high acidity and a medium to light body so that it won’t overpower the food, but will instead enhance it. The ’Etna Rosso’ or ‘red wine’ that I love here is called Nerello Mascalese, an indigenous, mouth puckering red grape with crushed rock, bing cherry, and dried herbs. If I’m able to choose the dish, I’d pair this with a hearty seafood pasta, which is my mom’s take on the Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes,” she explains. Her specific bottle recommendation? “Tenuta Terre Nere Etna Rosso, which is widely available and affordable.”
Favorite Bottle To Give As A Holiday Gift: Chateau d’Issan Margaux ($75)
“If I’m gifting wine, I like to go big, yet stay classic,” Denise says. A surefire hit in this category is, in Denise’s estimation, “an age worthy Bordeaux from France. One of my favorite Chateaux is called ‘Chateau d’Issan’ in the commune in Margaux on the left bank of Bordeaux. This is where Cabernet Sauvignon thrives. The wines are so age worthy and yet still lovely to try young (with proper decanting).”
Taylor Tobin is a Brooklyn-based food, beverage, and lifestyle journalist with bylines at HuffPost, Insider, Wine Enthusiast, Observer, and Chilled Magazine, among others. When she isn’t eating, drinking, or writing, she enjoys riding her bike, hanging out with her dog Marty, and watching reality shows (the sillier, the better!). Twitter: @teetobes. Instagram: @tee_tobes