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Wines for Holiday Feasts
By Michael Franz
Dec 22, 2009
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Wine writers have wallpapered the world with recommendations for Thanksgiving turkey, but comparatively few suggestions have been offered for year-end feasts such as Christmas dinner.  Since I live to eat and love to drink, I figure I’m the man for the job, so here we go with six wine ideas for a half dozen dinners:

Standing Rib Roast:

Savvy carnivores know that meat is almost always better when cooked on the bone, and though filet mignon has somehow gained a reputation as the ultimate cut of beef, I’d always rather have a rib roast.  Some people prefer this marvelously tender and juicy roast without the bones (in which guise it is sometimes called a Delmonico roast), but I think this is borderline sacrilege.  Any convenience gained by de-boning is vastly outweighed by the enhanced flavor and juiciness resulting from roasting and serving this cut with the bones in the style known as “prime rib.”

Wine wise, the consideration in this case is the soft, almost delicate texture of the meat when prepared in this manner.  Whereas a charcoal grilled rib steak would be delicious with a big, intense wine, an oven-roasted slice of prime rib would be overmatched by that same bottle.  The end cuts of the meat won’t be as soft and delicate as the inner slices, but you’ll still find that throttling back on your red wine will make for a better match.

Lots of particular wines can do well, so the general principle to follow is to lean toward a more delicate choice than you would if picking a wine for a steak.  For example, go with a really good Merlot rather than a Cabernet Sauvignon.  (A Merlot-based wine from Pomerol in the Bordeaux region would perhaps be the ultimate selection.)  Or, if you want Cabernet, pick an older one as opposed to a more assertive young one.

Roast Lamb:

I know a fair number of people who shy from lamb, thinking it too “gamey.”  Although the aromas and flavors of lamb are certainly more assertive then beef, I’ve loved them since I was a child.  Slow-cooked lamb shanks served with white beans is one of my all-time favorite meals, but for a holiday occasion a roasted leg or a “crown roast” is probably a more appropriate choice.  (A crown roast is basically two racks of ribs cracked and “Frenched” and tied into a circle so that the chops are roasted with the meat at the bottom of a pan.)

Lamb is an extremely flattering meat for all big red wines, but particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon.  Whenever I travel to Cabernet country such as Napa or Bordeaux’s Medoc, I prepare myself for a daily dose of lamb, as vintners love what it does for their Cabernets.  Syrah can also be terrific with lamb, but bigger, bolder ones do better than more delicate renditions of the grape.  In the French context, this means that most bottlings from Cornas or Hermitage provide better matches than most wines from Côte Rôtie, which are best reserved for another meat that we’ll address in a moment.  Big Aussie Shiraz wines can be wonderful with lamb, and two relatively new sources of world class Syrah that work wonders with this meat are Hawkes Bay in New Zealand and the Walla Walla Valley in Washington state.

Another amazing wine with roast lamb is made from the Tempranillo grape in Ribera del Duero.  This region actually has a protected appellation (or D.O.) for baby lamb, and the far-and-away best lamb I’ve ever eaten is from this spot in north-central Spain.  The particular wines to look for would be designated Crianza or Reserva (rather than young, minimally-oaked “Roble” or old, maximally-oaked “Gran Reserva” bottlings).  The vintages to look for are 2001, 2004 and 2005, which are all phenomenally good.

Roast Goose:

I’ve led a very fortunate life except in one respect:  I was deprived of goose until adulthood.  I’ve been dealing with this in therapy for years, and can now excuse my parents by acknowledging that goose can be expensive for the little meat that it yields, which is notoriously difficult to cook and carve.

You won’t get a lot of meat off a goose, but as Spencer Tracy is reputed to have said of Katherine Hepburn, his conspicuously skinny lover, “there’s not much there, but what’s there is choice.”  The meat is tender and rich and very complex in aroma and flavor.  In my opinion, it deserves to be paired with an excellent wine that is likewise very aromatic and flavorful, but without too much weight or power, as the goose meat can easily be overwhelmed.

Two wines really stand out as partners for roast goose in my experience.  Neither comes cheap, but if you are going to pony up for a goose, you’d be well advised not to skimp on your wine.  Mature Côte Rôtie is unbelievably delicious with this meat--so good that you should make your guests sign a liability waiver before the meal in case anyone expires from the ecstasy.  The other clear choice is aged (we’re talking 8 years minimum) Nebbiolo from the appellations of Barolo or Barbaresco in Italy’s Piedmont.  A sauce using a bit of the bird’s fat will tame Nebbiolo’s famously assertive tannins, and the gorgeous perfume of these wines can produce a sensational combination with goose.

Roast Pork:

If money is too tight this year for a goose, a pork roast may fit the bill.  I ate pork loin roasts frequently and with great pleasure as a child, but today it is very difficult to find loin roasts that are fatty enough to be as good as the roasts that my mother used to slow cook for hours on Sundays (as I was being smacked for fidgeting in church).  However, if budget concerns loom large for you this year, there’s good news:  Pork shoulder (a.k.a. pork butt) really makes a better roast than the loin of today’s leaner pork, and it can be very affordable (I’ve seen it offered for less than a dollar per pound several times in 2009, and it rarely costs more than two dollars).

Properly roasted pork is very tender and full of subtle flavor.  It can be delicious in preparations that incorporate fruit, in which case white wines are usually more successful.  Riesling is particularly good with pork served this way, although other fruity, unoaked wines like Viognier can also be excellent.  If you’d rather forego the fruit, a simple roast rubbed with garlic, thyme and sage and served with de-glazed pan sauce can be terrific, and you’ll likely prefer a light red in this instance.

Pork is so good with Pinot that only duck rivals it as a Pinot partner.  Older wines from Burgundy that have softened and become more aromatic over time are the best of the best, but since I’ve got economy in mind in this section, I should point out that New World renditions can be extremely tasty as well.  Their fruity sweetness works very well with simple preparations finished off at the table with a grind of pepper and a sprinkling of a crunchy, coarse sea salt (like Maldon form the U.K.), and there are many suitable examples made in California, Oregon or New Zealand.

Another light red that really sings with roast pork is Chianti.  Pinot is a safer choice because its sweet softness won’t scare off any novice at your table, but more experienced tasters often love the more earthy aromas and the more structured feel of a good Chianti.  Other Italian reds such as Aglianico from Campania can also be wonderful with this meal, but if you want to keep things simple, grab a Chianti Classico from 2004 and you’re ready to rip.

A third winner with pork roast is Rioja from Spain, though oakier renditions aren’t as successful as wines made in a more modern, fruity style.  Your best chance to get an affordable wine in this style is to bypass any wine designated in reference to a wood-ageing regimen, namely, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva.  Just look for a straight Rioja from the 2005 vintage.  If it is priced in the mid- or low-teens, it will likely be minimally oaked and very pretty with your pork.

Baked Ham:

As far as holiday feasting is concerned, we’ve already hit my Final Four, but since some families have other traditional attachments, we’re not quite done.

My friend and WRO colleague Paul Lukacs can be a bit doctrinaire on some issues but I happen to subscribe wholeheartedly to at least one of his doctrines:  Ham belongs on a sandwich.  Period.

Nevertheless, if ham is mandated by family tradition, or if you like ham as much on a plate as on a sandwich, you’ll want to get the wine right.  Many ham preparations are overtly sweet (either from fruit or brown sugar) and most harbor a lot of salt.  Add this up and the equation yields but one conclusion:  Riesling, with just a little hint of sweetness.  Most renditions from Austria or Alsace will work well, and those from Germany designated Trocken or “Halbtrocken” (literally, “half dry”) can also be very good with ham.  As for regions within Germany, the Mosel and Rheingau make more stately wines than Rheinhessen, but for some mysterious reason, Rheinhessen’s Rieslings are peerless when it comes to plated ham.

On the red side, you’ll likely find that hams prepared with honey or brown sugar favor a wine with an impression of sweetness, and Pinot Noir fits that bill better than anything else you’ll find without a major search.  Dolcetto from Piedmont in Italy can work well.  Finally, although Beaujolais is definitely not among my favorite wines, it is among the more successful ones with ham. 

Roast Turkey:

To my mind, turkey is an even more surprising choice for an end-of-year feast than ham, since almost everyone has just downed a turkey for Thanksgiving, and since turkey’s inherent charms are, well, limited.  Nevertheless, turkey is precisely what my family made for Christmas for decades, and the stores in my area are now full of them, so I know that there are plenty of people who must now pick wines for a re-run of last month’s giant Thanksgiving production.

If you want to enjoy wines that work with the meal but don’t turn it into a déjà vu nightmare along the lines of the movie “Groundhog Day,” you’ll need to find a new set of wines that are functionally akin to the usual suspects from Thanksgiving.

On the bright side, it is indeed possible to do exactly that.  You can have a lot of fun and stretch your experience with wine by jumping the typical Thanksgiving track and riding an adjacent line.  If you drank Riesling last month, try Vouvray from France’s Loire Valley this time around.  Made from Chenin Blanc, most Vouvrays are lightly floral and sweet, but abundantly supplied with acidity.  Similarly, if Gewurztraminer was the white on your Thanksgiving table, try a Muscat from Alsace, which will probably be nearly as aromatic as the Gewurz was, but drier and fresher and probably even better with the bird.

On the red side, you can swap Thanksgiving’s Pinot for a Tempranillo and do at least as well.  Look for a minimally-oaked version designated as “Joven” or “Roble” from Ribera del Duero, or almost any bottle labeled as “Vino de la Tierra de Castile” or “Vino de la Castilla y León.”  These latter designations are akin to “Vin de Pays” (i.e., “country wine”) bottlings from France, and they can be very tasty at relatively low prices.  One that is in national distribution in the USA is Tapeña, a brand that includes a Tempranillo and a Garnacha that have repeatedly earned good scores on Wine Review Online but ring up for only about $10.

Garnacha is the Spanish term for the grape called Grenache by the French, and if you served Beaujolais for Thanksgiving, this grape provides you with a very promising alternative.  Widely planted across Spain, Garnacha does very well in Navarra, and you may also find some wines from Rioja Baja that designate the grape on the label.  Tapeña makes a good Garnacha that is widely available.  Grenache is the most widely-planted grape in France’s southern Rhône Valley, and though most bottlings of Côtes du Rhône may incorporate some Syrah or Mourvedre, they can be quite good with turkey and are almost always more interesting (to me, at least) than comparably-priced Beaujolais.

Finally, if you are among those who bought Zinfandel for Thanksgiving, you might try Primitivo from Puglia, which is the “heel” of the boot of the Italian peninsula.  The grape is exactly the same despite the difference in nomenclature, and the Italian versions tend to be a bit less grapey and a bit more fresh and zesty, which is definitely a plus with a turkey in play.

I hope that you’ll thoroughly enjoy whatever you eat or drink over the holidays.  If the pairing isn’t quite perfect, we can find some consolation in the fact that we’re all lucky to have food and wine at all.  Happy holidays to you!

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Questions?  Comments?  Favorite Pairings?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com