Monday, November 10, 2008

Wine, Food and Thanksgiving

I miss summer... not only the warm weather but the general simplicity of the food that lends itself to most types of wines. In the fall and winter we have two of the biggest headaches for people when it comes to wine selection, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. People have been trained "red meat, red wine" and "fish, white wine", but what the heck is turkey? The problem is not so much their learning a red wine/white wine rule but the lack of understanding what it means. First, it isn't a rule and as you gain more exposure to more wines (especially wines with food) you find out that the world is far more open than that simple rule.

What's wrong with the rule? Simply put, it doesn't do enough with the information about the food. The actual food product is but one part of the pairing equation, you need to think about how it is prepared. Baking, roasting, BBQ, boiling all change the basic flavor of the food (Raw tuna and grilled tuna have different flavors and different textures). How the food is dressed needs to be taken into account as well. What spices are present in the preparation? Is the food "hot" or mild? Are there heavy sauces present? The list goes on and on...

Afraid now? Don't be. You can cut through a lot of this with some simple augmentation of the basic "red wine red meat" rule. Rather than that rule, learn these simple guidelines:

  • Pair lighter-bodied foods with lighter-bodied wines. You don't want the wine to overpower the food and you want to be able to taste the wine "through" the food.

  • Think of counterbalance (say, spicy food and a sweeter wine) or compare (say a sweet wine with a dessert).

  • Acidity is one of the best keys for wine pairing. Acidic wines go well with acidic foods, fatty foods (one of my favorite pairings), and even salty. This is why you see Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir very common recommendations. In fact, when in doubt these are three very good "go to" recommendations for almost any meal.

  • As you grow in wine you can augment and change these rules to make your own. Let's see how we can use them for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Here we have tart (cranberries), fatty (mashed potatoes and gravy), slightly sweet (yams with or without marshmellows), roasted fowl (turkey). What to pick? How can one wine go with all these flavors? Two very traditional picks are the Riesling (leaning toward a dryer domestic or a German Kabinett) and a Pinot Noir. You won't go wrong with these and here you have a white and a red offering. Here acidity is king and the lighter bodied, higher acid, and in the case of Pinot Noir lighter tannins make these two the wine equivalents of "universal donor". Want something a little more off the beaten path? Consider the following:

  • Beaujolais. Even the best "cru" are not very expensive and can add a little flair to the meal. Beaujolais tend to be lighter bodied and relatively high acidity (note the theme here) with good, straightforward fruit.

  • Merlot. The chameleon of wines, a good "cooler region" Merlot like those of Washington state are light/medium bodied, good acidity, fruit forward (almost Pinot-like in its characteristics). Ignore the rantings of Miles from Sideways and pick up a good Washington Merlot.

  • Gewurztraminer. I love a good Gewurztraminer. These wines tend to be somewhat "perfumey" and have a hint of spice that goes well with most roasted poultry dishes. I love these wines because they often have a little "kick" to them and they provide another white wine to add to your list.

  • Those are the basics. You'll find some people will like more spice, more pepper and offer a Syrah while other keep the elegance flowing with a good brut sparkling wine (the exploration of sparkling wines is a joy... you will find out they go with a wide range of foods). In the end the key rule the the rule you should always follow when buying wines, that is, buy what you like and don't let anyone make snide comments about your selection. After all, you're the host and they should be gracious guests at your table.

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