Wine and Food Pairing for the Holidays

By Denman Moody –

My all-time favorite wine for holidays, birthday parties and all celebrations is Champagne or California or Oregon sparkling wines. And for me, even though Champagne goes with light courses, the best pairings are with hors d’oeuvres, such as smoked salmon on a cracker with crème fraiche, capers and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and country pâté or truffle mousse.  A Champagne designated “Brut” is generally only one percent or so natural residual sugar and tastes dry. An “Extra Dry” is sweeter — around two and a half percent sugar – and is for those with a slight sweet tooth. A “Demi-Sec” is even sweeter and can be used as a dessert wine.

For appetizers, white wines usually do the trick. For shellfish, I like Sauvignon Blanc and Dry Riesling. For crab cakes and things such as chicken taquitos, Chardonnay is best.   

For roasted chicken and duck entrées, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are my favorites, and if a red is desired, then Pinot Noir is unrivaled, but if served in other than a Pinot Noir glass, such as a Riedel Pinot Noir glass, you will unfortunately miss out on the glories of a great Pinot Noir or Red Burgundy (which is, of course, Pinot Noir also). The difference is amazing. I have fortunately been at tastings with Georg Riedel and Maximilian Riedel, and the proof is absolute.

On to pork, chicken and beef entrées.  While pork can pair well with Riesling or a good Zinfandel, steak and lamb generally need a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec or Tempranillo.  Beef stews go well with Southern Rhone varietals such as Grenache, Syrah and Mouvèdre, together called GSM.  Texas GSMs have recently become noticed for quality.

In the 60s and 70s, rosés were usually sweet and described by one wine writer as “pairing with nothing.”  Today, most rosés are of much higher quality and are dry, and it can be argued that they go with everything but desserts.  I especially like rosés with crab cakes and light chicken and duck courses, as well as at picnics with ham, turkey and cheese sandwiches.

For spicy foods, such as spicy Asian, the tannins in red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, are contra-indicated. A semi-sweet Riesling seems to tone down the spice and perk up the Riesling at the same time, allowing for a great match-up.

A Brut Champagne is a great way to start a celebration, but serving a Dom Perignon or a Crystal — both Bruts — with the birthday or wedding cake, or after Christmas dinner with apple pie ala mode, is a mistake. A dry, acidic sparkling Brut, which is a perfect appetizer enhancer with hors d’oeuvres, is not a good match with sweets. Even though a sparkling demi-sec will work, there are much better dessert wines.   

To me, ice cream is too rich and sweet to enhance any dessert wine and instead makes some taste like water.  My favorite pairings are puddings like crème brûlée and banana pudding with Tawny Port, chocolate cake and fruit tarts with Vintage Port (very expensive), and the great Sauternes and Barsacs from Bordeaux with anything from apple pie to coconut cream pie to short breads dipped in caramel sauce.

Several other dessert wines are worthy of mention. Of the four generally-known Madeiras, the Malmsey and Bual Madeiras are sweet and work well in the same manner as Ports. They are slightly oxidized, though, and may need a little getting used to! Warning: You can eventually get hooked on them. Another outstanding dessert wine is Tokay Azsu from Hungary. I won’t go into detail, but the “5 Puttonyos” is the best of these wines generally available. The grape is the Furmint, along with some amount of Hárslevel. Serve one blind to your favorite connoisseur and ask him to name the grapes.

Whatever you choose to serve this holiday season, cheers!