The wine question I am asked more than any other is actually not so much about wine as it is about food: “What wine goes with … “
I suppose we wine and food lovers are always intrigued by the challenge of creating good pairings. The situation is only ramped up this time of year when we are surrounded by friends and relatives, people we are either eager to impress or loathe to disappoint, or both. Add to this the fact that most of us bump up our wine budget for the holidays, and who wants to buy a special bottle and have it figuratively crash and burn on the dinner table.
Of course, if you burn dinner, I can’t help you, but if you are making or buying food that is relatively flavorful, I have good news for you – there are a lot of options to help you have a tasty holiday and some good wine in the process.
Here are some tips to speed you on your way (and if you are really in a hurry, just skip to the last paragraph where I’ll give you some nearly can’t-miss wine suggestions):
- Wine does not change the taste of food – you won’t wreck a meal by choosing the “wrong” wine. Your food will still taste good (presuming of course that it’s good to start with).
- Food does change the taste of wine, or at least our perception of it, and this is why we care about what foods go with what wines.
- Think about the big picture of your meal – don’t pair a wine with turkey or ham or lamb. Pair a wine with an entire course. That means taking into account not only the meat (or tofu if you a tofurkey family) you are serving, but the seasoning and the side dishes.
- Almost any wine will go with turkey, or steak for that matter – what makes a wine work or not work is usually how we cook the meat and how we season it.
- Look at your meal as a whole and don’t be afraid of variety. You are having two or three or four courses, so why not two or three or four wines?
Now, let’s get practical and kick around some things you can do to increase your chances of success.
Pairing wine and food is about creating balance, so keep in mind:
Match the flavor intensity of food and wine, so powerful food flavors with powerful wines, delicate food with delicate wines. How do we do that? Well . . .
- Salty foods need stronger wines because salt tames bitterness in wine (if you have salty gravy for your turkey, you can get away with a more tannic wine; or, if you have a tannic wine, be liberal with salt).
- By contrast, less seasoned foods (roast turkey with little seasoning and no gravy) will taste better with wines without a lot of oak – a riesling, an unbaked chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, Beaujolais, some pinot noirs)
- Acidic foods (like cranberries) will make wines taste sweeter,
- And by contrast, sweeter foods (that sweet potato casserole with marshmallows for example) will make acidic wines taste more acidic. If your turkey is lightly seasoned, and your sweet potatoes are adding sweetness to the plate, try a flavorful and off-dry wine like a German riesling or an Alsatian gewurztraminer. Both of these wines are fantastic with turkey and won’t turn sour next to the sweeter dishes on your plate.
Have a little bit of food from every category and style? It happens with pot luck and a lot of guests, so here are some wines that will work beautifully with a wide range of dishes.
The above mentioned German riesling and Alsatian gewürztraminer are flavorful white wines for almost any meal. If you are having a lightly seasoned seafood course for a starter, try an unoaked chardonnay (Chablis is a perfect option – vibrant chardonnay flavor and no oaky tannins to get in the way of delicate flavors).
For a red wine, I like Beaujolais. I’m not a fan of Beaujolais Nouveau – too often that is little more than alcoholic grape soda. The real Beaujolais wines, made from the gamay grape and without oak (so no tannins to create bitterness) have lovely flavors and are easy drinking. The best ones are named after one of the 11 villages that make up the prime territory of the Beaujolais region. Among these villages, I suggest Fleurie, Saint Amour and Chiroubles. Look for the 2013 vintage and enjoy.
If you are having a spicier turkey and can go with wines that have some tannins, you will please many palates with wines from the Southern Rhône – Côtes-du-Rhône, Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape (in ascending order of price and quality). These wines are made with syrah and grenache and balance their tannins with bright fruit flavors.
Pinot noir is a welcome guest at many tables. Pinot has high acidity, so use it if you are having richer dishes – if you use a lot of pan drippings in your gravy, for example. Acidity cuts through fat in food.
And don’t forget dessert. I wouldn’t try to pair a wine with pumpkin or pecan pie, but a glass of Port after dinner is a lovely gesture to your guests. Try a ruby port like Fonseca Bin 27 or Graham’s Six Grapes, or for something really special, a 20 year old tawny port from one of the big producers like Dow or Taylor.
And then, plan on a nice nap – a nap goes with every wine.