Don't go to the party empty-handed

Choose a bottle that complements what is being served.

Published: Wednesday, December 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 30, 2004 at 11:12 p.m.
Blue Nun was my introduction to the pairing of food and wine when, as a 13-year-old who had never imbibed, my parents allowed me a small glass of the white, chilled wine to wash down a holiday turkey.
Unlike the bitter memory later of my first beer, the wine's tart sweetness was readily appreciated as a perfect complement to the turkey, savory stuffing, candied yams and cranberry sauce. Unremarkable as the Blue Nun was, it was in retrospect an apt choice for both the meal and my rite of passage.
Although the choice of wine was largely a result of what was affordable and readily available at the local wine store, it was also a reflection of the inexpensive Rieslings my parents had come to know in the years the family spent on an Army base in Germany.
Now, some three decades along, I know that Riesling is a perfect complement for turkey, and that knowledge has given me a greater appreciation for my parents' choices.
Things are not always simple when a holiday host says "just bring some wine." How do you pick a wine that's sure to be a hit around the table? Like beauty to the beholder, a good wine is in the nose and mouth of the imbiber, so here are some thoughts from people who make a living matching wine with food.
Getting started "At our house, holiday meals begin with great smells coming out of the kitchen and Champagne all around," said Doug Shafer, president of Shafer Vineyards in Napa, Calif. "While, of course, it makes a tasty appetizer, Champagne's crisp, apple-like acidity is a great dance partner with cheeses and savory pastries."
Sparkling wines make excellent holiday traveling companions because they exude a sense of celebration.
If your host has a favorite Champagne, you can play it safe and buy that brand, but your local wine merchant should have many types of Champagne in the $20 to $35 price range. If you want to experiment, you might also consider an Italian Prosecco, a cava from Spain or a German sekt. Although these wines are generally more modestly priced, you get what you pay for, so expect to spend $15 to $20 for an acceptable wine.
The main event Turkey, the traditional holiday bird for most Americans, makes a somewhat challenging wine match because it has both light and dark meat, and has an oily quality that is not always friendly to the dry wines we come to appreciate as adults.
On holiday tables, "there are lots of flavors and dishes, many of which have an element of sweetness," said Debbie Zachareas, the wine director of the San Francisco restaurant Bacar. "Sweet flavors in dishes need sweet flavors in wine."
Among the wines Zachareas recommends are the resurgent Rieslings of Germany and Austria's Gruner Veltliners. Global competition has changed the notion of what is acceptable, and these varietals are among the greatest beneficiaries.
German winemakers are creating Rieslings of great concentration and age worthiness. The dry Kabinett-designated wines have a hint of sweetness and minerality and aromas as varied as green apples, peaches, honeysuckle, melon and white flowers.
Gruner Veltliner, the most widely grown grape in Austria, yields dry aromatic wines that, Zachareas said, "almost smell like Riesling, but whose often zippy, citrus and peppery flavors resemble Sauvignon Blanc. The richer styles can easily satisfy, if not fool, White Burgundy drinkers." Gruner Veltliner is also the answer to wine-unfriendly foods like artichokes, asparagus and Brussels sprouts, she said.
Beaujolais Nouveau is a popular red wine for the holidays, in part because it is released each year on the third Thursday of November, "but it makes its way to the table because it is fruity, light, lower in alcohol and one of the best-suited red wines with the sweeter dishes," Zachareas said.
Other reds to consider with turkey are fruity Italian Primitivos or medium-bodied Zinfandels. And at the Shafer home, Sangiovese, another Italian favorite is often on the menu.
"A classic Sangiovese has flavors of cranberry and a touch of saltiness that matches beautifully with turkey," Shafer said. "For this, your mouth will give thanks."
Beyond turkey "We've been known to cook a goose or something heavier and gamier than turkey," Shafer said. And succulent roasts of beef, pork or lamb might also serve as the main course. "That's when I like to open a full-bodied Syrah. A classic Syrah from the Rhone Valley in France, Barossa Valley in Australia or from California gives a richness and meatiness that pair well with such meats."
Pinot Noir is one solution: It's strong enough in character to complement a wide variety of foods yet subtle enough to be bright and palate-cleansing between courses.
For Pinot Noir lovers who like to experiment, consider the exciting wines being made in the Marlborough, Martinborough and Central Otago, regions of New Zealand.
Since family traditions and recipes vary widely, it is possible to be invited to a holiday gathering where you will have only the broadest idea of what's on the menu.
"To try and make sure I have a wine that will make everybody happy I usually chose a bottle of Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir," said Brian Streeter, the resident chef at Cakebread Cellars in Napa, Calif. "But the holidays are a time to celebrate our good fortune with family and friends, not to worry if you've chosen the right wine for the day."
How to pick 'em Employ these simple strategies when selecting wines to bring to a holiday feast or dinner party.
  • Give 'em what they want. If you have finicky friends with decided leanings, chose wines you know will be appreciated. If you know your hosts prefer Oregon Pinot Noirs to French Burgundies, chances are you've shared wines together and can use those experiences to your advantage.
  • The white and red gambit. Bringing both a white and a red provides the best opportunity to select wines that will complement a varied menu as well as please people of differing tastes. It also allows you to pick one "safe" wine to please your hosts while experimenting with your other selection.
  • Two of a kind. For your more adventurous companions, select wines from the same grape variety that are produced in different regions or countries. This introduces an element of continuing education with an opportunity to compare Cabernet Sauvignons from South Africa with those of Chile or Alsatian Gewurztraminers with their German cousins.
  • Magnum opus. A large wine bottle adds a festive element to any holiday table, but since a magnum holds two bottles of wine, it's important that you know the wine is a winner.
  • It's the food, stupid. Wine is best enjoyed when paired with the right foods, so ask your host about the menu before heading to the liquor store.
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