The holidays are an especially good time to pick out some fun wines. First of all, you might be expected to, so why not enjoy doing it? Secondly, since holiday menus are often written in stone for years on end, you have a good excuse to choose some wines that might be a little more unusual, if for no other reason than to make it easier for some of your relatives to discern this year’s repast from the last ten. Luckily, most holiday foods are “wine friendly.”
The three characteristics that can make certain foods a challenge to pair wines with are extreme acidity, spiciness and sweetness. Usually, these characteristics are not very prominent in these foods, except occasionally for sweetness. With all this in mind, let’s look at some classic holiday dishes and some “off the beaten path” wines to drink with them.
It doesn’t get any more classic than roast turkey with chestnut dressing. Although it would be hard to go wrong with a Chardonnay or White Burgundy, an Albariño will be a great change of pace. Albariño is the name of a grape used mostly in the Galicia region of Spain. It produces medium bodied dry white wines with strong acidity, generous alcohol and a very pleasant, peachy flavor and aroma. Campus Stella 2002 Albariño ($14) is a fine example. Its fruit brings out a lot of interesting sweetness in the turkey and dressing, and its acidity will even help with some of the unfortunate dryness of the dish if the cook was a little aggressive in his cooking of the bird. If you’re more interested in a perfect match for the sweet potato casserole or cranberry sauce, try a German Auslese. These wines, made from the Riesling grape, can be some of the most sublime white wines available. They are fairly sweet, with tons of delicious fruit and scant alcohol but, because of a strong acid framework, they don’t come across as cloying or meretricious. A good, simple, reasonably priced one to try is Wilhelm Bergmann 2003 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Auslese ($16). If there was such a thing as adult cotton candy, that would describe its nose. Its smooth, pleasantly clean unctuousness will make the sweetest dishes on the table taste better than ever, and is sure to be the hit of the night with at least some of your guests. I promise, the most challenging thing about this wine is its name.
While German Rieslings range from very dry to very sweet, Alsatian Rieslings are always bone dry (although both types come in tall, skinny bottles). Baked hams, with all of their warm spices, can be problematic for a lot of wines, but not Alsatian Rieslings. They are one of the most natural pairings that I know and enjoy. A real treat and fine wine by any standard is Domaine Zind Humbrecht 2000 Heimbourg Alsatian Riesling ($42). This wine is a real aristocrat without being austere, stuffy or recondite. Beautifully aromatic and crisp with an amazingly complex and interesting finish, ham never had it so good (to say nothing of what it does for mustard).
For the acute traditionalists among us, a roasted goose might sound like a good idea. Guigal 2003 Tavel ($20), a very dry, highly alcoholic pink wine from the southern Rhône would be a great match. Its fresh, barely ripe fruit will uncover subtleties in the goose that could easily have otherwise been missed, while its alcohol will cut through the richness of the dish while simultaneously making both of your Cousin Bennie’s jokes seem funnier than ever.
Roast leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic is a great and relatively economical way to serve lamb to a crowd. A perfect wine match is Gigondas, a Grenache based wine from the southern Rhône. Caves des Papes Réserve des Fustiers 1999 Gigondas ($20) is a beauty. With its big, plummy, concentrated fruit, the slightest hint of barnyard, nicely balanced acid and alcohol, all served up on a bed of freshly chopped herbs, it’s hard to decide which tastes better, the wine or the lamb.
One of my favorite things to serve during the holidays is a standing rib roast with wild mushrooms in beurre noisette. Bonny Doon 2002 Cardinal Zin ($21 ) is a refreshing match. Its totally clean concentrated fruit, acidity and demeanor, in conjunction with its massive girth, easily stands up to the roast while mitigating some of the dish’s over-the-top old world charm. Plus, it has a fun label and a fun name.
If you are having your pumpkin or mincemeat pie and are still in the mood for more wine, know there is a perfect match. Quady 2003 Essensia ($13/375ml), made in California from the Orange Muscat grape, is sweet without being syrupy, redolent of spicy oranges, and makes your favorite dessert a more welcome treat than ever.