Great Wine with Great Meals

by John Fischer | March 1, 2010 12:09 pm

The holidays are a time for tradition; however, let’s try jumping out of the box and explore some new and different wine-food matches. We will look at wine parings for three time-honored holiday meals: traditional turkey dinner, baked glazed ham dinner, and crown roast of beef.

Let us start with a traditional turkey dinner accompanied by all of the classical fixings. Picture in your mind’s eye a golden brown turkey stuffed with raisin-nut dressing, cranberry sauce, candied yams, sweet corn casserole, buttered sweet peas, sliced glazed carrots and a big bowl of creamy mashed potatoes. Finish this off with your mother’s celebrated apple pie. Is your mouth watering?

Does any particular taste sensation predominate? It should be glaringly clear that it is sweetness. If you don’t remember anything else from this article, tuck this rule away in your memory bank: sweet foods call for sweet wines, and preferably wines with sweetness greater than that of the food! We’re not looking for super sweet dessert styled wines the likes of Sauternes, but wines with a moderate degree of sweetness. One wine should immediately come to mind, and that wine is German Riesling.

Sweet wine for a turkey dinner? Are you kidding? What’s wrong with the classical duo of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay? The answer is simple: They are not sweet enough. Granted, alcohol and ripe fruit flavors furnish a dry wine (a wine with no residual sugar) with a bit of sweetness but often not enough to match with our traditional turkey dinner. If you serve wines lacking sweetness with sweet foods, the foods will rob the full modicum of sweetness from the wine, and the wine will taste unduly tart. The wine will appear unbalanced.

I know what you are thinking; why doesn’t the sweetness in the food carry over into the wine? The simple fact is that it doesn’t. The reason is that your brain sets up a comparison between wine and food, and the wine loses out. When you sample the food, and then go back to the wine, your brain detects a wide variation between the sweetness in the wine when compared to the food. The end result is that the wine will appear unduly tart.

Without doubt, Germany makes the best Rieslings in the world. Moreover, they come in gradations of sweetness. Wines labeled Kabinett generally have the least amount of sweetness, Spätlese has a little more, and Auslese has the greatest amount of sweetness of the three. Wines labeled Trockenbeerenauslese, Beerenauslese, and Eiswein are dessert wines and would be unsuitable for our purposes.

Either Kabinett or Spätlese would be suitable for a traditional turkey dinner; furthermore, the Auslese would work wonderfully with the apple pie. If you have a mindset for a red wine, I would suggest a Pinot Noir, as it has more apparent sweetness and less tartness than a Cabernet or Shiraz; however, Pinot Noir would not be my first choice.

Sweetness and tartness are dominant flavor-supporting taste sensations; both of which are found in abundance in German Rieslings. This is especially the case for the style of Rieslings from the Mosel valleys. These are light and have a classic sweet and tart taste. Typically these are sold in green bottles (as opposed to brown). Although it is best to match the weight of the food to that of the wine, light-bodied wines, the likes of German Rieslings, can be paired to foods of any weight. In contrast, full-bodied wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon should only be matched to big, rich, full-bodied dishes.

Let’s look at a traditional baked ham dinner. Baked ham topped with a fruity brown sugar glaze is often served with such accompaniments as butternut squash, boiled potatoes, and sweet and sour cabbage. My mother decorated her ham with cherries and pineapple slices each affixed to the surface of the ham with toothpicks. I think that you can see the same domination of the sweet taste sensation in this meal as with the turkey dinner. In addition the salty nature of ham calls for a tart wine. Salt has an aggressive nature and acts in a fashion similar to acidity. This leads us to another rule to remember: always keep the tartness of the wine greater than that of the food. The sweetness and refreshing tartness of a German Riesling is the perfect match for our holiday ham dinner too.

Bring on the beef! A crown roast of beef served with Yorkshire pudding would be a classic holiday dinner. This dish calls for a rich and sophisticated red wine such as a California Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Bordeaux. White wines do not work with beef dishes regardless of their weight. There is no going out of the box here. Big hearty dishes call for similar styled wines, and in the case of beef, it is red wine. My choice would be a rich, full-bodied California Cabernet Sauvignon.

Do serve a quality wine with your holiday meals. Remember, a great wine-food match can turn an ordinary meal into a festive occasion.

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