If you are a wine lover, when the assignments are handed out for constructing holiday meals you probably are asked to bring the wine. It’s an honor, sure, but it’s also a reflection of how difficult a task it can be. Consider the Thanksgiving table – for many of us in South Florida it includes a bewildering array of Cuban, Latin American and traditional New England dishes. Turkey and roast pork (does any wine go with both?), cranberry relish that is usually both tart and sweet, odd casseroles from old family recipes and, since everyone brings at least one item, a diversity that may be tasty but has no theme for wine pairing. What a daunting task!
Have no fear – there is no need to chicken out on having wine with turkey! Here’s the trick to having a successful, winey holiday: don’t try to make one wine do everything. Have a small but well-chosen variety of wines and you’re sure to make each guest happy with at least one selection. The key is choosing wines that are “low risk,” by which I mean wines that pair with many foods. These wines tend to have modest levels of alcohol (12 percent or less), crisp acidity and plenty of fruit.
Here’s my reasoning: high alcohol and high tannin wines don’t handle spice very well – it makes them taste rougher, and if your turkey is overcooked and dry, a tannic wine will just make it taste drier still. Wines with plenty of acidity pair very well with more acidic foods (like the mojo I love with roast pork) and help cut the richness of more fatty dishes (like anything coated with gravy made from pan drippings). Highly flavored dishes also tend to make wine taste less fruity, so starting out with a wine that has plenty of fruit guarantees you won’t lose flavor as the parade of dishes continues.
Do any wines fit these specifications? Actually, there are quite a few. There are many white wines with good fruit, plenty of acidity, relatively low alcohol and no oak (which usually means no tannin). Chablis is an unoaked chardonnay from France with bright acidity and many German rieslings have opulent fruit, low alcohol and high acidity – look for wines marked “Kabinett” or “Spätlese” because these have a little but not too much sweetness and are extremely food friendly. I also like the Spanish wine called Albariño, with its delicate fruit, crisp acidity and refreshing qualities.
For red wines, Beaujolais is a popular option. Skip the Beaujolais Nouveau that was released last week just a couple of months after the grapes were harvested – it’s too simple for most holiday tables. Instead, try a wine marked Beaujolais-Villages (Georges Duboeuf and Louis Jadot both make very good ones) or for something more serious, opt for one of the Beaujolais “crus,” wines from one of 10 villages and are allowed to use their own name on the label. These have deeper fruit and more minerality than Beaujolais-Villages but are still notable for good acidity and low levels of tannin.
Pinot noir is often a very good choice because it goes with a wide range of foods (like Beaujolais, it has good acidity and the levels of tannin are low) but let’s be practical – pinot can be expensive and if you are having a large gathering, for many of us it is not economically viable for volume purchases! On the other hand, if you have a smaller group coming, pinot may become everyone’s new favorite wine. Another red grape that has wonderful fruit but low tannin is grenache (called garnacha in Spain) – this is a popular grape in the south of France, but be forewarned that it can have fairly high levels of alcohol so may feel a little “hot” if you are having any dishes with spicy heat involved.
There are lots of choices within the grapes I suggest, so my advice is to turn to a retailer you like and ask for recommendations. To get you started, here is one value-priced suggestion for each of the grapes I mentioned – none of these would be out of place on any holiday table:
- Chablis: I like William Fevre’s straightforward, basic Chablis called “Champs Royaux.” It’s about $25 a bottle.
- Riesling: You won’t go wrong with anything from Ernie Loosen – he joined forces with Washington winery Chateau Ste. Michel to make a nice riesling called “Eroica” (about $22 a bottle), and his line of German wines with the Dr. Loosen brand is wonderful – try the “Red Slate Dry Riesling” that sells for about $17.
- Albariño: These wines come from the Spanish region of Rías Baixas and are refreshing crowd pleasers. Try the $15 Martin Codax Albariño.
- Beaujolais: I already mentioned George Duboeuf’s widely available Beaujolais-Villages (about $12); among the “cru” wines, I love those from the village of Fleurie – Duboeuf makes one called “La Madone” that tastes expensive and only costs about $22.
- Pinot Noir: I very much enjoy pinots from New Zealand producer Loveblock (about $34). These are made by Kim Crawford who was a Kiwi pioneer of sauvignon blanc until he sold his brand (and his name).
- Grenache/Garnacha: From France, Cellier des Dauphins makes a $10 Côte-du-Rhône that is hard to beat for value (they also have white and rosé versions in the same line). For Garnacha, a popular choice is the brand called Las Rocas. They make a “regular” bottling that sells for $15, but even better is the Vinas Viejas (Old Vines) version that is about $20.
Splurging? Oh, there are so many options, but I’ll save some of those recommendations for a year-end posting about wines for the holidays so you can enjoy them at dinner or contemplate giving (or receiving) wine as a gift.
In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving, and Cheers!