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Wine Pairings for Classic Holiday Meals
By Michael Franz
Dec 7, 2022
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Many people I know do more cooking and entertaining in the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day than during the rest of the year combined.  That adds up to a lot of stress for those who aren’t regular cooks or entertainers, so the one thing I can do to help is offer some wine recommendations to go with end-of-year meals.  The recommendations that follow can at least take one set of worries off your proverbial plate, and I’ll offer ideas for several classic holiday meals beyond turkey.  Hopefully you’ve already cooked and eaten your only turkey of the year at Thanksgiving and will shift to alternatives for end-of-year occasions such as Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve and Day.  However, I know some tradition-bound families revert to that damned bird yet again in December, and if you belong to one of them, at least I can help you switch up the wine!

Roast Turkey:

I’ve already alluded to my limited affection for turkey, but I should add that one of the disadvantages of this Thanksgiving staple is that most of us are forced to eat the same entire meal—fixings and side dishes and all—year after year.  This is the inevitable result of the fact that most of us eat it with the same people every year.  It also stems from the fact that Thanksgiving is a big production in the kitchen, and few home cooks are comfortable with trying new recipes when confronted with the inherently daunting challenge of cooking a giant bird that tastes like cardboard if mishandled.

Given the fact that most of us are stuck with a déjà vu meal along the lines of the movie, “Groundhog Day,” it seems to make sense to change up the wines if we can’t change the menu.  And, in fact, 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.  If the variable sweetness in Vouvray makes you nervous, go with Chenin Blanc from South Africa, which is more consistent stylistically and almost always less expensive—but still delicious and very well suited to turkey.  Similarly, if Gewurztraminer was the white on this year’s 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.  These have become rare, but rarity suits our theme of change, and dry Muscat from Alsace can be stunningly good.

On the red side, you can swap your usual 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.  

Garnacha is the Spanish term for the grape called Grenache by the French, and if you served Beaujolais for Thanksgiving in years past, this grape provides you with a very promising alternative.  Widely planted across Spain, Garnacha does very well in Aragón (look for the sub-regions of Cariñena and Campo de Borja) and also Navarra, and you may also find some wines from Rioja Baja that designate the grape on the label.  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.  I’m glad to grant, however, that wines from Beaujolais priced above $20 or so have gotten much, much better during the past decade or so, though “Nouveau” bottlings are still best avoided.

Finally, if you are among those who bought Zinfandel for Thanksgiving last month and liked it, 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 in a fresher, zestier profile, which is definitely a plus with a turkey in play.

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 over-matched 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 wines can do well with this dish, 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.  Similarly, Cabernet Franc could be a great choice, though you’d need a New World rendition rather than one from the Loire (which would likely be too light).  Fantastic Cab Francs are now being made in California as well as Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, and they could provide a real revelation for guests who’ve never tried 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 than 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 sources of world class Syrah that work wonders with this meat are Hawke’s 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.  If you don’t see a promising looking bottle from Ribera del Duero where you shop, don’t hesitate to buy one from Toro; wines from this latter region tend to be a bit more tannic, but with lamb that isn’t overcooked, that won’t pose a problem at all.

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 region.  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 four dollars per pound several times in 2022, and it rarely costs more than five or six dollars, even from a high-end grocer like Whole Foods).

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 from 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 Schiava from Alto Adige (on the lighter side) or Aglianico from Campania (notably bigger and more tannic) can also be wonderful with this meal, but if you want to keep things simple, grab a Chianti Classico (or Chianti Classico Riserva) from 2016, 2017, 2018 or 2019 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 vintages including or after 2015.  If it is priced in the mid-teens, it will likely be minimally oaked and very pretty with your pork.  If you’re willing to spend more, then there’s no reason to shy away from bottlings designated as Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva — but be sure they’re old enough to have integrated the oak from the aging process.  Go with the 2015 vintage or earlier, and 2010 would be a particularly good year.  

Read more from Michael:    Michael Franz
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