The festivities that coincide with harvest and solstice times really are focused on the table, and with good reason. They were once known in the traditional calendars of many cultures as feast days – a time to forego ordinary fare and make the effort to put something extraordinary on offer, to indulge ourselves in a way we can’t afford to do more than occasionally.
Since I can’t guess what will be going on your family’s holiday table, or what your guests like and don’t like in wine, the best advice I can offer comes in the way of a few guidelines, ones I stick close to at the family dinners we host at home. Here goes.
- Remember that your home is not a restaurant and unless you are blessed with a restaurant-quality wine cellar it’s not conducive to try make restaurant like wine and food pairings. Traditional and even traditional with-a-tweak holiday meals aren’t really challenging from this point of view I would very surprised if the sort of wine you generally like to drink wouldn’t do just fine — with maybe a little special-occasion upgrade.
- Try not to give the centerpiece of the meal too much weight in deciding what to pour. A whole turkey or goose, prime rib of beef, or crown roast of lamb may take center stage but is less relevant than you think when it comes to pairing with wine. Instead, turn your attention to the side dishes. If they consist mainly of savory sides (roasted root vegetables, buttered potatoes, rice, or noodles) then drier wines (like red Bordeaux or sturdy Cotes-du-Rhone) may be your best option. If there’s a significantly sweet slant to side dishes (candied yams, honey-glazed Brussels sprouts, etc) something with a fruitier character (Cru Beaujolais or Languedoc red) may be a better choice. Either white or red can work (more on this below).
- Put multiple bottles on the table. No matter how sure you are that you’ve chosen the ideal wine for each dish, offering just one wine per course is pretty risky business. Instead, put several out at once, with the idea that these will take you through the entire meal. Be sure there are both white and red options. Remember that from the point of view of compatibility with a given dish there’s probably less difference between heftier whites lightish reds than you imagine. I realize that his is the antithesis of food and wine pairing practice as we’ve come to know it, but I love the way it promotes conversation, helps everyone feel involved, and generally democritizes the table. True, you’ll likely have wine left over. Nothing wrong with that.
- Some of the most important work wine does for us at table is to offer periodic pauses to clear the palate and provide refreshment. Wine is there to whet the appetite, not dull or exhaust it, so keep your choices on the lighter, brisker side of things and mind the level of alcohol in what you pour. A muscular 15% alcohol zinfandel or Chateauneuf-du-Pape may lend power and drama, but in my experience this really isn’t the place for it. It’s one of the reasons I like cru Beaujolais or lively Loire Valley Cabernet Franc for holiday table reds. In whites I generally reach for something fresh and unoaked — think dry Riesling or simple Macon-Villages.
- Start and finish with flair. Another way to think differently about holiday meals (and dinner parties in general) is to acknowledge the outsized importance that attaches to the first and last things we sip. It’s standard procedure at our place to welcome guests – even on the most informal occasions – with a glass of sparkling wine. It needn’t always be Champagne – there are many fine regional bubblies out there that will do the job — but there’s nothing quite like popping the cork on a bottle of fizz to sound a note of celebration and good cheer.
Then bookend your feast with something lusciously sweet. Sauternes and Saussignac are good choices, as are ice wines and those late-harvest beauties from Germany with the ponderous handle trockenbeerenauslese. These rich, complex, and intensely sweet wines aren’t inexpensive, but you need offer only a tiny pour to each guest to leave them dazzled.
We hope you find these suggestions helpful and that your holidays are memorably delicious!