With the holiday season approaching, it’s time to start thinking about what favorites will be served on this year’s table. For many families, it’s all about tradition, pulling out grandma’s stuffing recipe, leaning into dad’s basting technique, and arranging the place settings meticulously, just like mom. The festive season is also a time to savor the sweet treats; pies, cookies, and cakes are often only served once a year and thus enjoyed until the last bite.
Since there’s so much anticipation around beloved holiday desserts, it’s crucial to have a proper wine pairing, especially as many of these celebratory desserts are packed with pungent flavors and spices. From pumpkin pie to molasses cookies, here are some ways to elevate the season’s favored desserts.
At Bouchon Bakery, Chef Nicholas Bonamico shared that apple pie is one of his favorite holiday desserts. Though he grew up making the classic pie based on a Betty Crocker recipe with his grandmother, he now sources the finest apples for this dessert at the Yountville institution. To accompany the festive pie stuffed with spiced and stewed apples, Bouchon head sommelier Kelly Booth suggested a late harvest Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley for its “notes of honey and a rich fruitiness that pairs well with desserts based on stone and tree fruits.”
Another iconic holiday pie is pecan pie, which Materra Wines advised to pair with their Cunat Family Vineyards 2021 Nekomata Port; the deep, rich flavors of honey and almond stand up to the nutty richness of pecan pie for a balanced and elegant pairing. It is also excellent with molasses cookies. “The sweetness of the molasses cookies dances harmoniously with the velvety richness of our Nekomata port,” the team shared.
When it comes to berry pies, like cherry or boysenberry, a fruity Rosé such as Markhams’ 2021 Oak Knoll Rosé of Pinot Noir or 601 Cellars’ 2022 Rosé of Grenache from Rutherford’s McGah Heritage Vineyard are formidable picks. The wine’s bright red fruit flavors and light acidity complement the red fruit in the pie and its buttery, flaky crust.
Chandon California Winemaker, Pauline Lhote said for pumpkin pie, Chandon Etoile Brut is distinctive for its tiny bubbles, elegant aromas, and notes of brown spices that pair well with the pie’s subtly sweet and aromatic flavors.
On the topic of bubbly, Frank Family Vineyards’ Blanc de Blancs pairs delightfully with a variety of chocolate nibbles that tend to take over table spreads after dinner – chocolate bourbon balls or chocolate-covered pretzels. And JCB Collection’s sparkling Brut complements the layers of cocoa and brioche in a chocolate babka.
Chef Elliott Bell from Charlie’s in St. Helena shared that he enjoys making his version of his mother’s banana bread. “We use whichever fruits are in season, like persimmons around Thanksgiving. The warmth of fall spices and richness of fruit pair nicely with a smooth, lower alcohol Cabernet (like that from Hayfork Wine Company) or a balanced, crisp white wine (like that from Massican Wines).”
At the Four Seasons Resort and Residences, Chef Rogelio Garcia pointed to a classic Mexican dessert, bunuelos – a thin dough rolled out and fried for a crispy bite before being dusted with cinnamon and sugar. For this, Auro’s Sommelier Derek Stevenson pairs it with a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc done in a demi-sec or moelleux style from Vouvray: “The layers of caramel pear, golden apple, ginger spice, and honey. These wines can age for years, and their beautiful acidity harmonizes with the festive foods.”
Lhote also shared a globally-inspired holiday cake from where she grew up in France – bûche de Noël, a flourless chocolate cake rolled with a cocoa mousse into the shape of a log. Due to its decadence, Lhote said this dessert requires a “lush and refreshing” sip like that of a sparkling Demi-Sec. “Demi-Sec is ideal for sipping after dinner with a sweet treat. The grapes are harvested at night to keep the fruit cool and preserve freshness, so the balanced sweetness and acidity is lovely.” For a local interpretation of bûche de Noël, Sweetie Pies Bakery in downtown Napa specializes in these sweet treats during the holiday season.
And for those who may opt for a sweet wine, a savory cheese course offers the ultimate opportunity to pull out the dessert wines. Port or Madeira and Stilton blue cheese are a traditional pairing, but they also get along well with Gruyère and hard cheeses, such as Parmesan. Adding some candied nuts, such as pecans or walnuts, will bring out the nuttiness of the wine. Spanish cheeses, such as Manchego or Cabrales, pair perfectly with a nutty Sherry, and Sauternes is sublime next to a salty rind cheese, like Brie or Epoisses.
Whether staying with tradition or venturing into new sweets territory, Booth concluded with a key reminder for holiday dessert pairings. “In general,” he shared, “when pairing wine with dessert, the wine must always be sweeter than the dessert, or else the sweetness will wipe out the flavors of the wine.”