Saturday, November 14, 2009

Back to Basics: Holiday Wines and Food

Now that the taste of mini-Snickers and gummy bears no longer invade our palates, it’s time to think about holiday wine and food pairings. As the title suggests, this is about applying basic pairing rules to your holiday feasts. Just remember, rules can be broken, but have a valid reason. Some examples of shaky reasoning follow.

I like the label: Fine, but make the bottle part of your table decoration if the flavors are at odds with the meal.

I always drink this wine: Why not put a little adventure in your meal and try something different? Alternately, find out what foods go best with your wine and plan the meal around that.

My guest brought it: This is a tough one if you don’t want to offend. Tactful: “This will go great with a meal I’m planning for Saturday.” Alternately, serve it with appetizers if it will clash with dinner. Tactless: “Have you no food sense, this will clash horribly with the smoked ham!”

First some basic basics: Food friendly wines work best. These will be lower in alcohol, not over-oaked, particularly whites, have good acidity, and not be overly dry or tannic. If your favorite wine is a big red wine with enough oak to produce splinters, enough tannin to require re-hydration, and enough alcohol to put great aunt Mildred to sleep in her chair, you might want to save it for the cheese plate.

Traditional holiday fare, such as turkey and ham will be hard to match with heavy, tannic reds. A lighter red, such as Pinot Noir or Beaujolais will work much better. Save the bigger reds for steaks and heavier grilled meats. Beef Wellington, an English holiday treat, will pair wonderfully with Cabernet Sauvignon. If the meat is smoked, however, more red wine choices open up. A dry rosé will also work well here.

What are the overall flavors of your dinner? If they tend to include yams mottled with marshmallows, cranberry sauce, and a candied ham, you’ll do better with a white wine with good acidity, fruit-forward, less oak, and off-dry or slightly sweet. Riesling and Gewürztraminer will work well here, German, Alsace, or domestic depending on your preference. Turkey with root vegetables and fewer sweet sides will also work with Viognier, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris white wines. Chardonnay should be more in the French style with subtle oak and good fruit that does not require 100% malolactic fermentation. Milagro Vineyards & Winery make an excellent Chardonnay that meets this criteria.

If the turkey is smoked, or has a spicy stuffing or sides, try Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Barbera, Nebbiolo and other Spanish and Italian wines. These wines were made to pair with local cuisines which offer flavors similar to southwest cuisine. Many New Mexico wines feature these grapes including Luna Rossa, which specializes in Italian varietals that pair well with spicy offerings. It is a basic rule that wines often go well with a local cuisine if it has a defined one. California cuisine, on the other hand, is not well defined. My experience with it suggests that it’s whatever you’re eating in California.

The easiest choice is a sparkling wine, as many of these can go with everything but chocolate cake. In New Mexico that’s almost a no-brainer as Gruet is also a best buy. Gruet Brut will harmonize better than Gruet Demi Sec which is an off-dry sparkler. Gruet Blanc de Noirs, which also uses the Pinot Noir grape, works with many holiday meals. Sparkling Rosé is another good choice, but make sure it is a true rosé, such as Gruet makes, and not pink champagne, which can be overly sweet. Too much sweetness will clash with most palates, at the other end of the spectrum from a too-dry wine.

If you go to a wine store and ask what wines should go with your dinner and they reply with “whatever you like” realize that this is not an answer. Otherwise, why were you asking in the first place? A good wine shop should at least have ideas and suggestions for you to consider.

Another possibility is the Shotgun approach. This doesn’t require the use of firearms, but buying a mix of wines and discovering which ones go best with the meal. You can even make a game of it, asking your guests to vote for their favorite pairing. You’ll learn more about your palate, food pairing, and what your guests like or don’t like.

What about dessert? At this point your guests will be so overloaded with food and wine they probably won’t care what you serve, but here are a few more rules, just in case. Fruit-based desserts will work with sparklers and white dessert wines. Muscat wines, such as the Corrales Winery Muscat Canelli, are wonderful here. Chocolate and butter cream-based desserts are best with big red wines, Port or sweet Sherries. If that big Cab is still waiting for a pairing partner to dance with, that chocolate cake is perfect. Salut!

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