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Holiday Wine Pairing Guide

By Mina Williams

As Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's swiftly approach, getting the wines to pair with turkey, maybe a roast or ham, plus the multitude of side dishes is high on the to-do list.

While turkey, and most meats, are generally wine friendly; once dressings and toppings are added for that holiday punctuation, things can get complicated. Holiday meals are a mess, flavor profile-wise. With all the variety of flavors, the cornucopia ranges from tart cranberry and workhorse turkey to truffled mashed potatoes and Auntie's famous yams.

For example, the acidic notes of cranberries can make a big bold Cabernet taste a bit bitter. For the most part, you will want to grab soft and elegant red wine keeping in mind the tips of food and wine pairing.

Here are a few fail safe tips to ensure a good match:

• The wine should be sweeter than the food.

• The wine should have the same flavor intensity as the food.

• The wine should be more acidic than the food.

• Red wines pair best with bold flavored meats (red meat).

• White wines pair best with lighter meats (fish, chicken).

Rather than matching your wine selection's flavors to those on the table, go for bottles that complement a wide variety of foods.

Classically, this would call for light-bodied red wines that are fresh and not heavily oaked. Those in this class have enough fruit and acid to complement, not overshadow, the breadth and depth of the sides and salads on the table.

Wine pros all point to French Beaujolais Gamay, such as a Cru Beaujolais, as the go-to wine of the Thanksgiving table. It is dripping with juicy fruit and rounded up with an earthy finish. Similar to Pinot Noir in body and weight, it is not as spendy at Pinot Noir and pairs well with most items on the table - squash, turkey, cranberries, wild rice, salad. Gamay's secret is that it brings balance to the crazy meal that features everything from sweet dishes (yams) to savory items (stuffing and gravy) with an earthy quality.

Rhône Blends that generally showcase Grenache, Syrah, and Mouvédre grapes either as a blend or a single varietal is another holiday meal option.

With flavors of dried red fruit, an earthy and meaty quality that frames savory turkey gravy plus a medium body, Rhône selections are a most versatile table wine and a must-have for a meal featuring smoked turkey or ham.

Zinfandel is another wine to consider for end-of-year celebrations. With its smoky back beat and its bold and rich intensity (plus being generally higher in alcohol) Zinfandel makes for a good turkey accompaniment as it mirrors the fall spices of clove, allspice, and cinnamon.

As if selecting wine to pair with your celebratory meal is challenging enough, the distribution situation facing us this holiday season is proving to be a Grinch. Should you run into a lack of imports or even domestic wines waylaid on the freeway, Northwest wines stand ready for your holiday needs.

Delicate Pinot Noirs, like those from Oregon's Willamette valley, are perfect domestic options. Crowd pleasers, these light bodied wines have plenty of red fruit and spice flavors that can keep pace running alongside cranberry flavors as easily as they run alongside the turkey, all the while swinging both ways pairing with dark and white meat turkey.

If you can tear yourself away from the red wines, you will be gob smacked when positioning sky white wines with the fall feast. Those young and fresh Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings prove to be versatile with noted herbal flavors, partnering perfectly with green beans, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts, often a challenge.

One of our French favorites is Sancerre, Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire River region of France. With lean and herbaceous qualities, it possesses high enough acidity to refresh the palate when the meal includes rich gravies and meats.

Perhaps the best game changer for bridging the red wine - white wine gap is White Pinot Noir. These balanced rosé-toned selections receive just a wee bit of time macerating the juice with the grape skins for color. The result is a delectable blend of fruit and minerals packing plenty of mouth-clearing acid while also serve as a great conversation starter.

Whatever wine you select…don't forget about the bubbles. These perfect aperitifs and palate cleansers add sparkle and flair to your holiday celebrations.

Classic Champagne comes only from the Champagne region of France, yet there is a big wide world of other bubbles that are delicious options for all celebratory occasions…. including Tuesday!

Classic Champagne offers up an unforgettable creamy quality, due to the yeast used in its production. For the Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's meal, Rosé or Blanc de Noirs Champagnes are recommended. These selections bring along a hint of the dark grapes they are made from with flavors of strawberry, currant, raspberry.

Some French Cremants (sparkling white wine) from Burgundy possess this same flavor profile, at a lower cost. California and Northwest wineries also have delightful sparkling white wine made from the same varietals as the French.

In any event, bobbles serve as the most pleasant palate cleanser while enjoying heavy, rich dishes.

Not dining on turkey this season? That opens the field to the crowd-pleasing Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines. These bold selections that have aged in oak barrels, that manifest into butterscotch, spice, and vanilla flavors, go with roasted red meats often dished up for December celebrations.

One showstopper wine to enjoy at a non-turkey dinner is Italian Amarone, particularly suited for a ham feast. This wine, full of red cherry flavors, is rich and full-bodied with chocolate-like notes that accentuate the sweetness of ham. It is expensive, due to its particular production methods that include hand-picking grapes then leaving them to air-dry and raisinate before starting the traditional steps of wine making.

Enjoying the holidays with good food and good drink is a pleasure of life and putting them together should not be a chore.

Remember what these wines have in common:

  • They have distinctive red fruit flavors (like cranberry sauce) that prove to be a nice match for autumn spices of clove, allspice, cinnamon.
  • They have light tannin structure and moderate acidity that pairs with the texture and intensity of turkey.
  • They have a subtle earthiness that mirrors the umami-rich flavor of gravy.

November 2021


Mina Williams, a certified sommelier, is the owner of Blanc & Rouge, the wine shop in Snohomish, Washington. Blanc & Rouge has a full selection of International wines perfect for your holiday entertaining and gift giving.

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