Dec. 1 2010 12:00 AM

Making spirits light is easy — if you shop wisely for the holiday table

It’s the time of year to hear some of the most frequently asked questions in wine shops across the land: What wine should I serve with my holiday dinner? Or at my holiday party? And can I do it without breaking the bank?

Of course, in the world of wine, there rarely are “right” answers. Tastes and perspectives are as varied as the number of wine drinkers. Some consumers prefer red, some white, some dry, some sweet.

And how would one ascertain the perfect wine to match with turkey, sausage dressing, cranberries, candied yams, sweet potato casserole, or whatever mélange of competing textures and flavors may grace your table?

The simple answer probably is to drink whatever you enjoy, but the typical holiday meal probably isn’t the best occasion to open a big, burly, tannic Cabernet, or a flabby, low acid white. Think “fruit forward” for broad appeal, and seek out a wine with a nice acid backbone to help cleanse the palate of the fats and butters of stuffing, gravy and casserole. And finding wines that are flexible for the holiday table also makes them great candidates for stocking the holiday party. (Prices reflect recent shopping at Goodrich’s Shop-Rite on Trowbridge Road.)

Sparklers are always appropriate for celebrations. The bubbles and acids make them versatile palate cleansers, plus they are just plain fun to drink. Remember “Champagne” refers only to wine from the Champagne region of France. But great value sparkling wine is made elsewhere in Europe, such as Cristalino Brut Cava ($7.79), a zippy dry bubbly from Spain, or Lunetta Prosecco ($9.99), a light, crisp Italian sparkler with a bit more sweetness.

A variety of white table wines can match well with the occasion. Barton and Guestier Vouvray ($11.89), a floral, fruity, French wine made from the Chenin Blanc grape, is typically characterized by fine acids, off dry sweetness and tree fruit overtones, such as pear, peach and apple.

Other options for those who prefer a bit of sugar in their white wines include the ever-versatile Riesling grape, ably represented by Dr. Loosen’s “Dr. L” Riesling ($11.99) from the Mosel region of Germany. Scoring 90 Points, it was a Wine Spectator Top 100 wine in 2009. Or consider Chateau St. Michelle Riesling ($8.79) from Washington’s Columbia Valley, a Wine Spectator Best Buy, or Michigan’s own Chateau Grand Traverse Riesling Semi-Dry ($10.99) from Old Mission Peninsula.

For a more unconventional slightly sweet selection consider Columbia Crest Two Vines Gewürztraminer. Warning: Gewürztraminer can be an intensely spicy and aromatic wine and it isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. It is a wonderful accompaniment to a sage and sausage stuffing, but it’s probably not the best choice as the only white.

Chardonnay frequently is the dry white wine of choice at the holiday party table or dinner table. Fans of a clean, crisp, unoaked style should enjoy Four Vines Chardonnay Naked from Santa Barbara. In this case, “naked” means no oak. Stainless steel aging helps produce a citrusy, bright fruit style. Another clean, bright wine carrying the “vines” theme is the barely oaked Columbia Crest Two Vines Chardonnay ($6.99) from the Columbia Valley in Washington. One of 12 different wines in the “Two Vines” series, it is a terrific value.

For those who prefer Chards with a bit more heft, consider Chile’s Viña Cono Sur ($8.79) or Clos du Bois Chardonnay North Coast ($10.99), which is partially aged on the lees in oak barrels, imparting an extra layer of creamy toastiness. Or return to cool climate Santa Barbara with Geode Chardonnay. Barrelfermented in French oak and undergoing full malolactic fermentation, it will appeal to those who prefer a creamy, buttery style of Chard.

A wine of similar style and pedigree, but from Washington State, is Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay (($10.99).

Moving into the world of reds, now is the only time of year to find Beaujolais Nouveau.

The classic George Dubouef version ($8.39) has just the slightest tannic edge and shows quaffable, bright, red berry fruit. It’s a great crossover wine for white wine fanciers.

Rosé wines are also very food-friendly crossover wines with low tannins, fine acidity and vibrant red berry fruit. Barton and Guestier Rosé d’Anjou ($12.59) is a fine choice, and La Vielle Ferme Rosé ($6.99), another French option, is a screaming bargain.

Among the more “serious” red wines, Pinot Noir may be the most traditional companion to turkey. Characterized by very distinct varietal character, and frequently emphasizing the strawberry and cherry ends of the fruit spectrum, it usually shows only modest tannins.

It can be much tougher to find decent Pinot Noir at value prices, and the options frequently have a lighter style with less concentration. Current selections include Cartlidge and Brown ($13.99) from California’s Central Coast, Castle Rock California Cuvée ($8.99), or Monterey Cuvée ($12.69) for a bit more oomph, and Chile’s Cono Sur ($8.79). Chile is a great source of value wines, and I would lean toward the Cono Sur.

Two dependable grapes which provide great value for your wine buck and can stand up to the competing flavors at a holiday table are Zinfandel and Shiraz. Zin is always one of my choices due to its body, modest tannins, and mouth filling fruit, and the same can be said about Shiraz.

A tasty and mouth watering Shiraz option is Australia’s D’Arenberg Stump Jump Shiraz ($9.79), a Wine Spectator Top 100 wine. The generous cherry and berry flavors make this great juice for your

wine dollar. And for an offbeat Zin label featuring great jammy fruit from Lodi (an excellent source of fine Zinfandel), try Earth Zin and Fire ($11.69).

Year after year, Cline ($9.99) produces one of the finest values among California Zinfandels. Open and accessible, with a finely integrated tannic backbone and just the right touch of oak, this wine is ready to drink and should be worthy companion with dinner or just for sipping.

Whatever your choices, sip, savor and enjoy the holidays.

In vino veritas.

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly.)