The holidays may bring joy, but they also pack a sleighful of anxiety for those whose job it is to do the entertaining. And for those of us who write about wine the annual call from an editor to start pulling together the holiday wine column can stir a bit of angst in its own right.
The festivities that coincide with harvest and solstice times really are focused on the table, and with good reason. They were once known in the traditional calendars of many cultures as feast days – a time to forego ordinary fare and make the effort to put something extraordinary on offer, to indulge ourselves in a way we can’t afford to do more than occasionally.
We all feel a certain amount of pressure to do it up in the right way, and I do my best each year to adminster some comfort to those perplexed about what wine is best for the holiday table. I don’t think (though I’ll have to check) that I’m breaking any wine writer’s union rules when I tell you that there really isn’t one.
Like all politics, wine choices for the holidays are local. And since I can’t guess what will be going on your family’s holiday table, or what your guests like and don’t like in wine, the best advice I can offer comes in the way of a few guidelines, ones I stick close to at the family dinners we host at home. Here goes.
1. Don’t give the centerpiece of the meal too much weight in deciding what to pour. A whole turkey or goose, prime rib of beef, or crown roast of lamb may take center stage but is less relevant than you think when it comes to pairing with wine. Instead, turn your attention to the side dishes. If you’re serving roasted root vegetables, wines at the savory end of the scale should work nicely. With sweeter sides (caramelized carrots; honey-glazed Brussels sprouts) something with a fruitier character can be a better choice. Either white or red can work (more on this below).
2. Put multiple bottles on the table. No matter how sure you are that you’ve chosen the ideal wine for each dish, offering just one wine per course is pretty risky business. Instead, put several out at once, with the idea that these will take you through the entire meal. Be sure there are both white and red options. Remember that from the point of view of compatibility with a given dish there’s probably less difference between heftier whites lightish reds than you imagine.
I realize that his is the antithesis of food and wine pairing practice as we’ve come to know it, but I love the way it promotes conversation, helps everyone feel involved, and generally democritizes the table. True, you’ll likely have wine left over. Nothing wrong with that.
3. Some of the most important work wine does for us at table is to offer periodic pauses to clear the palate and provide refreshment. Wine is there to whet the appetite, not dull it, so keep your choices on the lighter, brisker side of things and mind the level of alcohol in what you pour. A muscular 15% alcohol zinfandel or Chateauneuf-du-Pape may lend power and drama, but in my experience this really isn’t the place for it. It’s one of the reasons I like cru Beaujolais or lively Loire Valley Cabernet Franc for holidaytable reds. In whites I generally reach for somethihng fresh and unoaked — think dry Riesling or simple Macon-Villages.
4. Start and finish with flair. Another way to think differently about holiday meals (and dinner parties in general) is to acknowledge the outsized importance that attaches to the first and last things we sip. It’s standard proceedure at our place to welcome guests – even on the most informal occasions – with a glass of sparkling wine. It needn’t always be Champagne – there are many fine regional bubblies out there that will do the job — but there’s nothing quite like popping the cork on a bottle of fizz to sound a note of celebration and good cheer.
That’s it. I hope you find these suggestions helpful and that your holidays are memorably delicious.