Liquids: Holiday Food & Wine Pairings

Thanksgiving with my family is probably not like Thanksgiving with your family. Does your mother start the meal by clinking a glass with her fork and announcing, “And now … Anthony is going to conduct a wine tasting—just for us!” I didn’t think so.

Actually, she calls me Mr. Fancy Pants, and I am expected to pair a wine with each of the 12 courses while providing play-by-play commentary for 26 Italian relatives who are pretty much just hungry. Invariably, my uncles, who prefer their red wine poured from jugs fresh from the fridge, remain unmoved by my pleas to switch to pinot noir. And my cousins, who love white zinfandel, promise to drink more riesling or real (read: red) zinfandel. But I know they’re just trying to appease me.

In the end, this annual experience confirms the universal truth that what tastes good to you is what’s good for you. I say that with no snobbery or irony. As much as my people ask me for pairing suggestions and advice, they almost always eventually revert to what I call their “true love” wines. Which is fine. I honestly believe that any food and any wine can get along, because food and wine complement each other. If only we could say the same thing about my 26 Italian relatives, we’d have a perfect holiday.

That said, if you’re one of those people who just love rules, don’t worry. I can tell you, just as I tell my family every Thanksgiving (and Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s), that there are a few tricks to the game of wine pairing. The key is understanding the components in the wine (alcohol, sweetness, acidity, and tannin), then using them to complement or contrast with the basic tastes of food (sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness). You want to emphasize good elements, and compensate for bad ones. Here’s how to make it work with standard holiday foods.

>>BIRDS The pairing options for turkey, chicken, and game are vast—which means you really can’t go wrong. If your turkey is prepared with a sweet or fruit-based sauce, as many are, select off-dry whites that have an underlying refreshing acidity, such as rieslings and gewürztraminers. For a simpler roast turkey drizzled with its own jus, choose the buttery richness of white burgundy (a.k.a. chardonnay) or other barrel-aged California-style chardonnays.

Fruitier reds pair with turkey, too. Depending on the complexity of the preparation, you can work your way up from medium-bodied reds, such as beaujolais (gamay) and pinot noir, to fuller-bodied syrah/shiraz, zinfandel, or a bold cabernet sauvignon.

The safest bet, however, is pinot noir, which goes with just about everything. “Pinot noir’s earthy tone contrasts with the strength of game and yet is flexible enough to complement anything, including salmon and tuna,” says Maxence Compagnon, food and beverage director at the Fairmont Copley Plaza.

>>SEAFOOD Whether you’re slurping raw clams and oysters or working your way through the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, champagne is a classic for everything from simple crudo to a whole fish swimming in a creamy sauce. Don’t feel obligated to stick to a brut. Try a velvety blanc de blanc, a heartier blanc de noir, or even a rosé, which packs red wine power that can stand up to the oiliest of fish.
For cold seafood, a light-bodied, crisp sauvignon blanc is the perfect zippy contrast. Buttery California chardonnay, on the other hand, suits warm, cream-sauce preparations. The bracing acidity of slightly sweet riesling is ideal with fried or caramelized dishes, such as oysters Rockefeller, seared sea scallops, and grilled shrimp.

Red wine also fares nicely with fish, as long as they’re the meatier ones—tuna, shark, and swordfish. The best choices are light-to-medium-bodied beaujolais (ask for one of the 10 cru Beaujolais), pinot noir, even merlot.

>>ROASTS All roasts share a common sweetness thanks to the rendered fat (the “drippings”). With lighter meats, such as loin of veal, boneless pork rib roast, or classic roast ham, think fruity, light-to-medium-bodied whites, like off-dry German rieslings. Or, if the roast is heavily spiced, a zesty gewürztraminer will punch up the savory notes. In contrast, as you probably know, beef and lamb demand more body in the wine. I love Châteauneuf-du-Pâpes from France and Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco. For a cheaper option, I go southern Italian—a nero d’Avola from Sicily or a negroamaro from Puglia.

Get the picture? Good. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to pass on dessert and head straight to a glass of Amaro Lucano, a sage-y elixir that aids digestion. What does it go with? Nothing more than a little peace and quiet after a long-winded meal.