How to choose great wine for the festive season

Raised glasses of wine

Blanche Clark

Posted December 15, 2021


’Tis the season for indulgence, and it’s fitting that the wine is as good as the food. Whether you’re after a Champagne, chardonnay, shiraz or sticky, there are a few tricks to tracking down great wines without spending a fortune. After all, knowing that Krug Champagne is deemed the world's best non-vintage Champagne, doesn’t mean you can afford it.

RACV Club Sommelier Christian Maier says Piper Heidsieck Champagne is remarkable value for money, while the Upper Yarra Valley is renowned for chardonnay.

“If you know what varietals you like, whether it’s chardonnay or shiraz, then you’re halfway there in terms of choosing your wines for the festive season,” Maier says. “The next step is knowing which wine regions excel with those different varietals. If you pay a bit more for a wine from a good producer, then it usually pays off.”

Start with a bang

“You can never make a faux pas with a bottle of Champagne,” says Maier.

“Go with the classic ones that are widely available; Bollinger, Veuve Clicquot and Louis Roederer are your benchmark. If you want to make an impression, then get Charles Heidsieck. That’s on par with a luxury vehicle like Rolls Royce. Charles Heidsieck wines work like Krug, which is a top label, but without the price tag.”

For a nice local sparkling, Christian suggests a vintage Clover Hill or Delamere, both from Tasmania. He’s also a fan of Australian sparkling reds. These combine the flavours and tannins of a good red with bubbles and chill for a summer’s day. For fantastic value, he recommends Seppelt Original Sparkling Shiraz, which you can find for under $20.

“Sparkling red wine works because it can go with your barbecue, or even turkey, but it’s cool – from being chilled in the fridge – and it’s sparkling, which induces an element of freshness and liveliness. When it’s 30-plus degrees, and you’re eating outside, this one excels.” 

Shopping for Champagne

Bollinger, Veuve Clicquot and Louis Roederer are your benchmarks for good Champagne. Photo: Getty


 

Consider Chablis 

Maier says Chablis is the best expression of chardonnay. “It’s associated with freshness and energy.” He recommends a Bernard Defaix or Gilbert Picq Chablis for an extra special drop. “These are great wines, and they go well with oysters, seafood and first course.”

Chablis refers to the winegrowing region in Burgundy, France, which has four appellations. The names Grand Gru, Premier Cru, Chablis and Petit Chablis indicate the location of the vines and the rank of the wine. Grand Cru comes from low-yield vines and is the most complex and expensive, while Petit Chablis comes from the youngest vines and is a light style and reasonably priced.

Maier says the Upper Yarra Valley, which has a high elevation and cool climate, produces chardonnays that embody the elegance and freshness of a Chablis, particularly wineries such as Giant Steps, Oakridge and Gembrook Hill.

Turn your feast into a degustation 

If you’re having a traditional Christmas dinner, pair a wine with each course to take it to the next level. Maier suggests pouring 90ml glasses rather than 150ml, so you can appreciate each wine in moderation. You don’t have to finish a bottle of wine. If the lid is back on, both white and red wines keep in the fridge for several days.

“The festive season is a time to indulge with family and friends,” Maier says. 

“Start with a sparkling and canapes, then move on to a Chablis, pinot noir or Burgundy. For the main meal on Christmas Day, try something from a good producer that has been aged in a cellar.”

He says stickies or dessert wines are particularly festive.

“Dessert wine was known as the ‘wine of kings, king of wines’ in Hungary, so what better occasion than Christmas to drink them.”

Different regions are renown for particular varietals

Different regions are known for particular varietals. Photo: Getty


 

Choose varietals from the best region

Australia has more than 100 different grape varieties planted in 65 designated wine regions across the country. Every region has different soil and weather, and that affects the quality of the wines produced. “It’s important to know the strengths of the regions when you’re looking for a special wine,”  Maier says. “Even within a region there are particular producers that stand out.”

Here is a quick guide to six regions, as an example:

  • Yarra Valley: chardonnay, pinot noir.

  • Mornington Peninsula: chardonnay, pinot grigio/gris, pinot noir

  • Riverina: sweet wine

  • Barossa Valley: shiraz, fortified wines

  • Clare Valley: riesling, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz

  • Tasmania: sparkling, chardonnay, pinot noir.

Glassware makes a difference

If you’re splashing out on great wine, it makes sense to consider the glassware too. “Great glassware contributes to the sense of occasion,” Maier says. “Thin glass feels better, and a large bowl allows you to swirl the wine and release the aroma. Wine is like a prisoner in a small glass; it can’t express itself.”

 

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