Trying to decide which wine to pair with typical holiday fare sends some to bed dreaming of sugarplums and late-harvest chenin blanc. Others, scared off by visions of the sweet flavors of the season or gingery spice taunting their favorite cabernet sauvignon, head straight for the hard liquor.
Matching wines to foods associated with holiday meals can be daunting, given the aforementioned swirl of sweet, savory, and spice unique to the holiday season. But pay careful attention to the prominent flavor-themes and characteristics of the foods you’re serving, and it becomes a simple matter of balancing what’s on the table with what’s in the glass. Holiday flavors tend to be rich, with savory/sweet contrasts and forward spices. And then there’s the question of what to match with one very big bird. I encourage you to deviate from the norm in this matter: Getting creative with the produce of the season is always a good starting point, and to keep things rolling you can mix it up—for example, serve prime rib on Thanksgiving and turkey at Christmas! To get you thinking in this direction, here are some recipes and further explanation.
WHY THE PROBLEM?
When your Auntie Mae insists on adding as much marshmallow to the casserole as she does sweet potato, or brings out that ham slathered with honey glaze, there is good reason to fear that the meal will ruin the pleasure of those good bottles you set out for that special night. Very sweet food can amplify a wine’s inherent acidity and tannins, causing even a very smooth wine to taste sour or feel harsh on the tongue. And such dishes can overwhelm the nuances of a good wine, robbing it of meaty, earthy, tobacco flavors and crowding out any sweetness imparted by the grapes.
However, most of the sweetness in the classic holiday meal (as it was served before the introduction of such mid-20th-century favorites as Jell-o, marshmallows, and brown sugar) comes from the natural sugars of the season’s harvest, such as sweet potatoes, squash, and pecans or hazelnuts. If sugars in the food can be kept under control, the natural sweetness of wine grapes can easily match the food without problem.
HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR WHITES
There are two good ways you can go about pairing white wines to holiday sweet/savory dishes. The first is to choose wines made from aromatic and spicy grape varieties. Aromatic whites have floral or spice-like qualities that can charm the socks off the nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger used in the wintry dishes like roasted sweet potatoes or squash. The gingery rose and pear flavors of a gewürztraminer can be just the ticket with such dishes, as can the floral peach and vanilla characteristics of a viognier or a blend made with grapes from the Rhône Valley. German grapes like sylvanner—full of spicy notes and fresh apple flavors—or riesling, with a touch of sugar and bright, mineral fruit could do the trick. Or a floral, white peach-scented albariño.
Perhaps you’d rather highlight the flavors in your meal by contrasting some of the food’s dominant characteristics rather than trying to match them. The way to do this is with high-acidity wines. We always remember the natural sweetness of the meal, but what about its lushness? Chances are those sweet or mashed potatoes are made with enough butter or cream to make a croissant feel light, and for this we are thankful. Like squeezing a touch of lemon juice into a cream sauce, a high-acidity white can help add balance to those rich foods. Try a white that exhibits crisp, clean mineral flavors. Excellent bets are a lean sauvignon blanc or pinot gris, an un-oaked chardonnay, a peppery grüner veltliner, or a citrus-scented Italian white.
AND THE REDS
Unless you are serving prime rib instead of ham (please let me know if this is the case so I can offer my address for an invite), the general rules for holiday dinner reds are to pick a wine with a bit of sugar and spice and to go easy on the tannins. This will help to prevent the drink from fading away under the season’s vibrant flavors. Look for wines made with grapes that feel a bit fuller and sweeter on the palate, that come from warmer regions where the fruit gets riper and the wine assumes a smooth, round finish.
Pinot noir is a good choice. Its red raspberry, cherry, and strawberry fruit and light-bodied spice handle lush, warm wintry foods well. Keep in mind that California and Oregon’s best pinot-growing regions generally get more sun than Burgundy does. The grape growers can thus leave fruit on the vine a bit longer, producing wines that attain more sweetness, develop a plusher quality, and have lower acidity than their European cousins. This makes the domestics easier to match with winter fare.
Rhône reds, made mostly from syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, carignan, cinsault, or a combination thereof, can do more than just add a little Continental flair to a Thanksgiving meal. As darker, very meaty, full-fruited, spicy, peppery grapes, they are plush enough to pair well with sweeter meats and spicy holiday favorites too. Look for Rhône grape blends—or syrahs—from California, where grapes are left on the vine a little longer than in the French valley after which the grapes are named.
If you prefer an even smoother, darker wine, perhaps the ultimate holiday red wine is zinfandel. Certainly fit for the Thanksgiving table, zin is a grape synonymous with the United States, where this relative unknown was made famous because of the endearing big, fruity, and lush qualities it took on in the California climate. It’s a decadent wine good for special occasions, sipping without food, or for enjoying with dishes that have a little sweetness or spice: think yams, ham, ribs, and mole.
Another holiday wine-pairing worry is that surrounding the turkey. “If white is for chicken and fish, and red is for prime rib,” people think, “what do I pour the in-laws with the bird? It has white and very dark meat!”
The truth is, this bird actually has the most pairing potential of all the holiday goodies: light, dark, lean, and rich all on one animal. It would be a rare grape that wouldn’t look good next to this beauty. Put white and red wine on the table, and people will grab whatever they want. It will taste fabulous because they poured it with their chosen piece of flesh.
Or, think of the mix of meat as an excellent opportunity for you to pull out a bottle of your favorite rosé, clue in your guests about the glory of classic turkey-rosé pairing, remind people that no one has to choose between white and dark when there’s pink handy, and lecture the assemblage about the difference between white zinfandel and blush wine. Oh, Thanksgiving!
Light with light and dark with dark works for dessert too. Lighter “stickies” (sweet dessert wines) pair better with less-sweet desserts like pumpkin pie or custard, and darker stickies go better with richer, darker desserts like pecan pie or chocolate treats. For dark, nutty treats, I like port, a late-harvest zinfandel or a nutty Sherry. For lighter pumpkin pies nothing can beat a sweet chenin blanc from the Loire Valley or a sauternes from Bordeaux.
Enjoy the harvest, and have no fear at the table.
KIRSTIN’S 2009 HOLIDAY WINE PICKS
Here are some of my favorite versions of the holiday wine suggestions that are crushed in our very own East Bay:
2007 Dry Riesling, McFadden Farms
2008 Two Mile Central Coast Viognier
2008 Edmunds St. John Heart of Gold Vermentino/Grenache Blanc
2007 Edmunds St. John Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir
2007 Broc “Cassia” Grenache Ventana Vineyard
2006 Eno “Acre of Happiness” Zinfandel
Kirstin Jackson is a Bay Area–based food and wine writer, instructor, consultant, and author of It’s Not You, It’s Brie: Unwrapping America’s Unique Culture of Cheese. Visit her blog for the latest.