Food, Wine and Holiday Feasts: What to Pair?

The holiday meal fosters anxiety on so many levels …

A last minute RSVP from Aunt Gloria (BTW, she’s bringing three extra guests, do you mind?); you forgot to defrost the turkey; your house smells like fried onions; and what the hell goes with Brussels sprouts?

With so much to agonize about, we’d like you to remove “worrying about wine pairing” from your list. We’ve talked to some local wine merchants and gotten the skinny (and believe me, it’s the only way the word “skinny” equates with the holidays!) on what to drink with all of your winter festival favorites.

Brisket: This Hanukkah meal standard might be sweet, it might be vinegary; you could encounter tomato juice or onion soup mix. Try my brisket recipe
and pair it with the 2010 Cercius Cote du Rhone ($15.99), according to owner Craig Brautigam of Lake Forest’s Grand Cru Wine Merchants. “This is a Grenache and Syrah blend, very fruit forward. It delivers twice as much wine for half the price.”

Maggie Noonan, proprietor of Sips on Sherman, favors a 2009 Killka Malbec ($15.99) from Mendoza, Argentina. It’s softer than most Malbecs, “layered and luscious. Perfect with fatty meats that might have a rub or other spice component.”

Brussels Sprouts: A tough one to pair, but the secret is in the preparation. At Wilmette’s Convito Café & Market, they pan saute them with caramelized onions and pancetta, which helps alleviate the cabbage skunkiness. Then, says General Manager/Partner Candace Barocci Warner, “serve them with a minerally white, like the 2009 De Falco Fiano di Avellino ($23.99) from Campania, Italy, to find a great balance.”

Cranberries: Warner recommends the 2008 Brezza Cannubi ($24.99), a Barbera d’Alba with a light to medium weight, and not too tannic as the cranberries can have plenty of pucker on their own. It’s a mouth-filling, fruity wine, “but not like fruit juice,” she laughs.

Dark Chocolate: My opinion: it can be a wine killer. One festive option is to offer the Graham Fine Ruby Porto ($18.95), which when sipped with a rich chocolate dessert, gives the impression of a really delicious Raisinet. But Noonan disagrees with me; she’s “found a beautiful pairing for it: the 2007 Marietta Petite Syrah ($17.99) from the Alexander Valley, with its aromas of dark chocolate and cocoa flavors on the finish. “Amazing,” she insists.

Gingerbread: This holiday stalwart is laden with warm spices like ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. Amy Lafontant, co-owner of Wilmette’s Bottle Shop, loves it with the 2010 Brooks Winery Gewurtztraminer ($19.95) from Oregon. “The 13% alcohol level has a nice level of acidity, which pairs well with ginger and unusual spices like sumac. It’s a small-production, Alsace-style Gewurtz, not too sweet.”

Green Bean Casserole:
To go with this classic side dish, or for that matter, the whole turkey dinner concept, Barbara Baskin, General Manager of Binny’s Glencoe location, suggests we try the 2009 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir ($14.99) from California’s Central Coast. “It’s a lighter red that will allow you to taste the flavors in the casserole but also pairs well with turkey and cranberry sauce.”

Ham: Two different options here. According to Johnson Ho, owner of Northbrook’s Pantheon Wines, “many people make the mistake of pairing Chardonnay with ham. But it’s a lean, slightly gamy and salty meat, and needs a fruity wine like an Alsatian Pinot Gris (around $20) or the Bonny Doon Pacific Rim blend (around $12).” Lafontant says to try the Sparkling Gamay NV ($19.95) with that salty ham – “it’s like liquid crack!”

Latkes: Baskin is going with a German 2009 Donnhoff Riesling ($17.99), a light and crisp wine with the right acidity to cut through the fatty, albeit delicious, potato pancakes.

Oysters: These raw bivalves are a traditional New Year’s Eve treat. There are two tried and true choices: Chablis and Muscadet. “Oysters are texturally creamy and gooey,” says Ho, “so it’s crucial to avoid buttery wines. I’d suggest the 2008 or 2009 Domaine William Fevre Chablis (around $22); its tartness will cleanse the palate.”

Brautigam also turns to France for the oyster pairing. “The 2010 Domaine de la Pepiere Clos de Briords ($16.99) from winemaker Marc Olivier is very clean, crisp, nervous… perfect with shellfish or seafood.”

So much food, so much wine… better get started!