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Wine for the Holidays ... don't make the usual mistakes ...

The relatively small amount of wine consumed per capita in the United States is mostly taken care of by a few dedicated wine drinkers. But once or twice a year, between Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve, nearly everyone contributes a little to the overall depletions.

Unfortunately, these occasional wine drinkers are unlikely to join the ranks of the regulars for three reasons... First of all, most of the wine sales in the U.S. are rung up in supermarkets, where the selections are generally limited to the only most widely-available and advertised brands. Secondly, most of these sales are in the $10-and-under bracket, where the quality is likely to be acceptable, but not likely to stimulate many vinous epiphanies.

The third and most pervasive reason is that the overwhelming majority of occasional (read: Autumn Holidays only) wine drinkers most often pick wines that clash with elements of the Traditional Holiday Meal, so the wines end up tasting not very pleasant to them, their family, and/or guests. The repeat offenders are the current wines of fashion -- Chardonnay and Cabernet (or other red Bordeaux varieties).

The old advice of white wine with fish and red wine with meat is obsolete; new wine styles and complex methods of food preparation mean almost anything goes. Most of the time, wine and food are complimentary. Some combinations, however, can be nasty.

Foods and beverages all contain portions of some "basic" flavor elements: salt, sweet, and sour. Foods that are "balanced" in these flavor elements tend to match well with wines that also have "balanced" flavor elements. Foods or wines that are out-of-balance may still find their complementary match, but the range is likely to be more narrow or even downright specific.

The important thing to remember in food and beverage matching is: Match the Principal Flavors. If the preparation is simple, match the main ingredient; if the sauce is the main flavor, match the sauce. Sweet with Sweet, Tart with Tart, Tannic with Tangy. Sparkling wines work great for almost everything, because they have those scrubbing bubbles that cleanse the palate, regardless of the food. While sparkling wines may not provide many perfect matches, they also will rarely clash.

Alcohol clashes with food flavors generally, while oak and tannin are not complimentary to the usual dishes served during the harvest and year-end holidays. Save the wines with the bruising flavors until we return to barbecue, leafy greens, and grilling season.

Turkey has distinctive, but light and somewhat fragile flavor; oaky cab or chard will make it taste cry and bland. Ham tends to saltiness and may make tannins seem overly bitter.

Traditional Holiday Meals are likely to include sweet elements, such as Candied Sweet Potatoes, Fruit-laced Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce, Waldorf Salad and Apple, Mince, Pecan and Pumpkin Pies. These sweet flavors will make most dry wines taste hot and alcoholic even if they are relatively neither. Wines that are slightly sweet, on the other hand, will taste pleasant and more dry than they would with savory or tart food.

Sparkling Wine
Johannisberg Riesling
Chenin Blanc


Beaujolais (French)
Pinot Noir
Chianti (Italian)
Zinfandel (watch the ALCOHOL!)

Chardonnay (If you MUST, pick a cheap one -- it is less likely to have oak flavors that will provide the same flavor appeal with a T.H.M. as would liquid kindling)

Sauvignon Blanc
Fumé Blanc

Cabernet Sauvignon (too TANNIC)
Merlot (too TANNIC)
Barbera (too TANNIC)
Syrah (too TANNIC)

PLEASE use the same wine you are serving to cook with. Most recipes call for only a little (1 cup or less), and wine should be added after cooking (such as in soups and stews).

Any wine labeled "cooking wine" is to be avoided. This is typically wine otherwise not suitable for consumption and usually has had salt added to it to replace or mask over the poor flavors and to make certain the chef doesn't over-indulge.

Save leftover wine from the table for marinating; combine the reds together in one bottle and whites in another (fill as full as possible, leaving little air or "head space" and refrigerate until needed.

If making a wine reduction, use the leftovers or purchase wine that is pleasantly drinkable, but not necessarily distinctive in flavor. Reduce it slightly more than needed and stir in a tablespoon or so of that glorious DRC (or whatever "special wine" you've planned to serve) just before presenting. It's not wasting if that small sacrifice enhances and makes the entire dining experience magical.

Take the WHITE wine OUT of the refrigerator and put the RED wine IN. The whites will taste richer and fuller and the reds not so harsh.

Don't drink and drive. Stay safe; that means more than anything to you and your family at this time of year.
These last two tips are good advice for any time, not just during the Holidays.





Article written November, 2001; updated November 8, 2012.
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