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Holiday Food Pairings~Avoiding Disasters

I was lucky growing up; my family drank wine "just because it was Sunday" or "just because the sunset was beautiful." Truth is we didn’t need a reason; good food and friends was all the permission we needed. However, most families I knew only drank wine twice a year: Thanksgiving and Christmas.

According to The Wine Institute, 100 million adult Americans do not drink wine. Many of these folks, no doubt, also serve wine only at holiday dinners. What if they buy the most heavily advertised supermarket wines; Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet for holiday dinners? I'm sorry; most of these wines will only reinforce their dislike toward the beverage. The majority of wine ads around the holiday time are so misleading that they are destructive to potential new wine lovers.

"I guess I just don't like wine," they'll say, and not touch the stuff until next year, when they'll repeat the cycle. Those who regularly drink wine for pleasure may venture a guess about which wine "goes" with which food. The reality is that, with wine you never know anything for sure until the cork is extracted and you are answering a mouthful of food with a sip of wine. No less an authority than Alice Waters says as much in Chez Panisse Cooking where she writes;

"In practice, it is nearly impossible to predict the outcome of food and wine together unless both are well known ahead of time. Moreover, one of the delights in bringing food and wine together is the element of surprise; great marriages of wine and food are more often than not accidental."

Experience has shown that Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon can be astringent with traditional holiday foods. The liberal use of oak and the lack of natural acidity in these ripe wines make for appealing cocktails, but react violently when paired with the fixings associated with a typical holiday meal. (turkey, cranberries, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, fruit salads, etc.)

To prove that point, we recently "volunteered" a wine drinking friend who knows what he likes. He admitted that he hadn't given much thought to the belief that the taste of wine could change with food. We had our friend taste the wines we brought twice, once without the food and then together with the food. (a popular California Chardonnay, a well known Merlot from Washington State, a German estate Riesling and Pinot Noir from the Russian River) The results were dramatic. The food for pairing included slices of turkey, cranberry sauce, an ambrosia salad, candied yams, mashed potatoes and gravy.

Initially he was complimentary of the Chardonnay and the Merlot, but described the Pinot Noir as "light." We didn't even sample him on the sweet German wine the first time because he had previously declared that he didn't like sweet wines. Then our volunteer sampled the mashed potatoes and the gravy with the popular Chardonnay. The look on his face said it all. The bitterness created by chemical reaction of the food and the oak made the taste unbearable. A similar acidic result occurred when the turkey and cranberry sauce clashed with the oaky Merlot. We then moved to the Pinot Noir, which the volunteer had previously dismissed as "light." The wine soared with the turkey and cranberry, became expansive with the mashed potatoes and possessed the character to complement rather than obliterate the sweet things on the plate.

Finally we offered the sweet German Riesling; the volunteer was amazed at how well the flavor, the acidity and even the sweetness complemented the totality of the plate. A wine he had previously dismissed from his repertoire had suddenly become his favorite wine at the table this day.

"It kind of blends right in with the food doesn't it?" he said.

"That is what is known as 'harmony,'" I answered.

In the real world, food can literally destroy one's favorite sipping wines, while wines not appreciated at the cocktail hour can soar. Simply paying attention to those flavor combinations in the mouth will reveal the importance of proper wine and food pairing, perhaps for the first time.

Perry Rankin
Thirty Four North Wine Merchant
34 North Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448

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