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Uncorking the Possibilities

Local experts shed light on what to pour for the holidays.

Whether purchasing a bottle of wine for family or friends, or stocking up for the holiday season, choosing the right wine for the right occasion is no easy task.

Sergio Mendes of the Ashburn Wine Shop, 44050 Ashburn Shopping Plaza, Suite 159, said that knowing your audience is one of the most important factors. "Typically people will buy others what they enjoy instead of what the receiver does," he said.

Rob Stewart, wine manager at Whole Foods in Fairfax, understands consumer confusion and is one of many qualified experts throughout the county acting as a liaison between the vineyard and the dinner table.

"Rules are made to be broken," said Stewart, "but rules are also there for a reason."

Stewart’s suggestion? Talk to a local wine expert.

"I suggest you patronize a store where there are knowledgeable people on staff," he said. "Ask for assistance, it doesn’t take long."

Over at Total Wine & More in Chantilly, wine manager Neev Exley agrees.

"A lot of the obstacles are just going to the stores and seeing there are so many bottles," she said. "Each family has their own traditions. You may have an ideal match but it might not be their style."

But when it comes down to it, Exley says she always ends up basing her suggestions on what the customers tell her, stressing an open dialogue between the customer and wine manager.

Andrea Cooper of the Wine Cabinet in Reston agrees. According to Cooper, conversations with her customers center around a number of set questions used to narrow down the selection: Taste preference — such as, bold flavors versus light — preference toward red or white, the main dish, and finally, the budget.

"That’s why we have a variety of wine from $7.99 to hundreds of dollars," she said. "But the $7-$20 range, those are the ones that people are going to drink every day."

Mendes said that sometimes a more exotic wine can make for an interesting gift or meal addition.

"Interesting, off-beat wines that we carry here are usually from Australia, such as Grenache for reds and Semillon for whites. Grenache, which you see in many countries such as Spain, France and United States, are so unique and so very different due to the microclimates that they grow in," he said. "Australian Grenache, because of its climate — warmer temperatures — increase sugar levels in all grapes in the varietal making it very fruit forward complex."

ACCORDING TO STEWART, his first step with a customer is finding out what’s on the menu, especially the main dish. While there are a variety of flexible wines that work with a number of dishes, narrowing down the meat is the first step to a successful wine accompaniment.

"For beef I tend to prefer a more complex wine," said Stewart. Such wines would include a reliable bottle of red Bordeaux, but Stewart also suggests going with a California cabernet or even trying one of Australia’s number of Shiraz varieties.

Exley digs a little deeper with the California wines, suggesting one of her favorite companions with beef: something red, like a good Cabernet Sauvignon from the Baldacci Winery, located in the Stags Leap area of Napa Valley. This wine, she said, has elegant flavors and holds up really well with prime rib. For pot roast, Exley suggests a decent cabernet.

For those forgoing an annual roast and leaning toward ham as a main dish, Stewart reminds that although ham usually goes well with a white wine, the type of ham makes a big difference. According to Stewart, those cooking a saltier Smithfield ham want to shy away from the drier varieties and grab a bottle of either rose or pinot grigio. For the sweeter sugar-cured hams, he suggests a sweeter German wine, but nothing tannic.

For those who plan to present a variety of flavors at the dinner table, Stewart also suggests picking up a bottle of Pinot Noir.

"It has a flexible red grape variety," he said. "There’s nothing heavy about it — it works with a wide range of dishes."

But if hosting a group split in preference between white and reds, Cooper’s suggestion is simple: "Get a little bit of red and a little bit of white," she said.

Stewart agrees, that if the size of the party won’t cause the host to break the bank, it’s always safe to stick to a wide array of wine.

BUT WINE ISN’T just for the dinner table. While many prefer an aperitif that mixes well with tonic and a slice of lime, or an after dinner digestif of the whiskey variety, both Stewart and Exley suggest looking into sparkling wine to open the evening and a nice dessert wine after the meal.

"I love sparkling," said Exley. "I always start with sparkling, it starts the mood right."

As for dessert wines, Exley said "they’re not all super sweet."

"That’s one thing people forget to buy during the holidays," she said.

Stewart suggests trying a "port with chocolate cream cherry or black muscat." He also suggests accompanying aged tawny ports with chocolate desserts or even a variety of cheeses.

But when it comes down to it, most guests for the holidays aren’t sommeliers with sensitive pallets. Instead, Exley reminds, wine is just a fun way to enjoy a good meal and company.

"After two glasses, you don’t even know the difference," she said. "[Holidays] are a time to enjoy family and not worry about the wine. You’re not supposed to stress about wine."