We are entering the spring holiday season and I know from experience that every time there is a holiday, stress levels go up for anyone charged with choosing wine for the feast. The pressure to “get it right” can be enormous when families gather. It’s not made any easier by the sheer number of wines available these days – from specialized wine shops to larger markets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, wine is everywhere, so let me pass along some tips to make things easy on you in choosing wines you love, and pairing them with the food on the holiday table.
First, remember that most fancy spreads at holiday time tend to carry plenty of salt, and that is a really good thing for wine lovers because salt is a big friend to wine. Salt in food makes both red and white wines taste fruitier, richer, less acidic and, with red wines, less tannic. That means that even well-seasoned white meats (turkey and pork, I’m looking at you) will go well with that Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah you’ve been craving. If you, like me, are a lover of Bordeaux, you are also in luck, because salt tames the tannins we find in many Bordeaux reds, and it helps the fruit rise up alongside all those wonderful earthy and mineral notes. And don’t forget they make white wine in Bordeaux as well, frequently a blend of semicolon and sauvignon blanc that gets a little oak age, so the wines can be a bit spicy and have an underlying tannic note. Stay tuned - I’ve found a lot of good Bordeaux lately and I’ll pass along some tasting notes in an upcoming post.
For lighter dishes without strong seasoning, think about how flavorful the dish is – lighter wines pair well with dishes with lighter flavor, and by the same token more flavorful wines go with dishes that also have more flavor. Shrimp is a good example – for a simple shrimp cocktail where you have steamed shrimp with lemon perhaps, a Pinot Grigio could be a welcome addition. Pick one grown in a cool climate region with steep slopes – I’ve really enjoyed several from the Italian province of Alto Adige recently, including a vibrant wine from Abbazzia di Novacella that is fairly widely available.
Now, if you are having a more forceful shrimp dish, say the classic Spanish preparation of grilled shrimp with garlic, a more flavorful wine is called for. I’d love this dish with a more forward style of Sauvignon Blanc (Oyster Bay in Marlborough, New Zealand, would work well), or the Henri Bourgoise Sancerre from La Côte de Monts Damné vineyard that wowed everyone in a recent WSET Level 2 course. We tasted the two whites side by side, the Marlborough wine more aggressive in its herbal notes and refreshingly crisp in its acidity, while the Sancerre had more depth, fewer herbal notes and more tropical fruit nuances. Both would go well with shrimp and garlic so it’s a question of personal preference as to which wine works “best.”
We taste a lot of wines in Fine Vintage Ltd’s WSET courses - it’s a great place to learn to taste critically, and find wines you love. And, don’t forget that element of personal preference when choosing wines to pair with foods. It’s a hallmark of WSET pairing theory that personal preference is just as important as chemistry. You will easily forgive a less than perfect match if you love what you are drinking!