Simple steps for selecting the best vintage
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Know this at the outset: There is no single perfect wine for a given dish. Rather, there are lots of intriguing possibilities. Part of the joy of cooking is the discovery of those wines. Luckily, every now and then, we do experience a taste epiphany, but these "wow" combinations are usually happy accidents. That said, here are some general guidelines for wine pairings to enhance your holiday experience.

1. Match good to good, great to great. If you're having a humble Thanksgiving with a simple roasted bird, mashed potatoes, and vegetables, why buy an expensive Bordeaux? An unfussy dinner needs an unfussy wine -- like a rustic Zinfandel (De Loach, A. Rafanelli, and Lolonis are top producers).

2. Synchronize intensity. Dark meats with rich sauces don't call for a delicate light wines. Similarly, a mild entree isn't built to handle a concentrated wine. Powerful red varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Syrah, and most good Merlots; powerful whites include Chardonnay and Viognier. By contrast, the more gentle red varietals include Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo (this last is the grape in Spain's Rioja wines). Delicate whites include Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and most Sauvignon Blancs and Chenin Blancs.

3. Let food flavors suggest wine flavors. Sweet, earthy dishes suggest wines with sweet earthiness of their own, such as a California Pinot Noir (Saintsbury, Carneros Creek, and Etude are three great producers). Similarly, a spicy dish often begs for a spicy wine -- like a Gewurztraminer.

4. Think about "refreshingness." A big meal -- like Thanksgiving dinner -- needs a wine that continually refreshes the palate, so that a bite of food makes you want to take a sip of wine, and a sip of wine makes you want to take a bite of food. Ironically, the varietal least capable of producing this tasty seesaw effect is the extremely popular Chardonnay. Big, buttery, and fat, it's anything but refreshing. Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling score much higher.