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Wine Pairing For the Holidays

As the days grow shorter and shorter here in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s no wonder many of our ancestors chose this time of year for celebrations. The fall harvest has been stored away for the winter and to prevent from going stir crazy, they decided a party would be in order instead. So as we plan this year’s holiday seasons’ menus, what wine you plan to pair with the food should also be on that planning agenda. While the food menu may be diverse from house-to-house depending on family traditions, there are some good general rules of thumb to follow based on the main course.

Turkey Pairings 

Here in the U.S. turkey has practically become synonymous with holiday feasts, mainly focused around Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, and Easter celebrations. Being such a staple in so many homes during holidays means that it should be one that most people should be able to pair wine with. Luckily there is a wide range of wine styles that pair well with turkey: White, rosé, lighter-bodied reds, and sparkling wines.  

When it comes to pairing whites with turkey, it’s nice to find one with a moderate to high acid level with some minerality that can really brighten the flavors found in the bird. Alsace-style white wines are where my tastes head to first. Early-picked Chardonnay (fermented and aged clean), Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Albariño, or Chenin Blanc are a few varietals that spring to mind. Dry rosé with a nice acid profile can also enhance the flavors. 

Luckily there is a wide range of wine styles that pair well with turkey: White, rosé, lighter-bodied reds, and sparkling wines.

If going for a red to pour, a low-tannin, lighter-bodied, and higher acidity wine would best pair with turkey . . .Pinot Noir, Gamay, or Grenache are three that may fit that bill. Finally, drier brut-style sparkling wines pair excellently when turkey is at the center of your holiday table. You know your cellar best though and may find other wines that fill the role well. 

Ham Pairings

Many homes will find ham on their table for either Christmas or Easter. Often salty and sweet, pairing ham with a medium-bodied red wine that can lean towards jammy is one direction to take the pairing. Varietal wines like Zinfandel or Syrah should foot that bill. A blend such as a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre (GSM) could work very well here. If the ham you are cooking is not to be sweetened with a glaze, I would lean to a more austere medium-bodied red. Grenache or maybe a lighter Merlot or Sangiovese might work well in this wine-food pairing.

If you’re looking to put some white wines on the table as well, look to full-bodied whites to pair well with a ham. A little oak-barrel aging on that Chardonnay may play well with the roastiness of the ham. Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sémillon, or Viognier may also play well on your palate to match that sweet and savoriness of the ham. Don’t overlook the possibility of pairing rosé as well, particularly a darker, more full-bodied rosé. 

wine pairing with several cheeses

Also, don’t forget about the possibility of a slightly sweeter white or even rosé sparkling wine. Think a Prosecco style of sparkling wine.

Roasted Beef Pairings

There are several cuts of beef that different cultures will serve for the holidays like a prime rib or brisket. Here is where bigger red wines are going to shine at the dinner table. Any full-bodied Bordeaux-style blends or their varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Malbec; bigger Syrah, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, or Sangiovese wines; or even lesser-known varietals like Aglianico or Graciano, will play nicely with a beef main course. Just like with a steak, the fat will cut the larger tannin load found in these styles of wines and proteins found in the roast, providing a smooth, fruity, and delicious pairing. 

If you do want to try to pair a white wine with a roasted beef I would say that you would try best to match the richness of the beef. A white that has been aged sur lie would be a good start, but a California-style Chardonnay may also fit the bill with malolactic fermentation and some time on oak providing a buttery richness. 

Seafood Dish Pairings

Growing up, my family always had seafood lasagna on Christmas Eve as the Feast of the Seven Fishes was a popular Italian tradition. What type of seafood and how it is prepared are going to be the driving forces behind what kind of wine you would want to pair it with. Is it going to be creamy-based northern Italian-style preparation or will there be more a southern, tomato-based sauce or even citrus? There is a large array of possible pairings here, but the main focus will often be white, rosé, or sparkling styles of wine. Lighter reds like those mentioned in the turkey section could also be utilized if you would like a red to sit on the table too. For example, salmon and a light, fruity Pinot Noir are a great match.

Meatless Pairings

If your household doesn’t serve meat, well then there is no way to tell exactly where you may want to go with your pairing. The sky is the limit considering all the meatless options that we find out there today.  You have to go on science and gut. Luckily for us, Bob Peak’s “Techniques” column from the April-May 2022 issue (or found at https://winemakermag.com/technique/delicious-endeavors-the-science-of-food-wine-pairings) digs into the science behind making those decisions.

Happy holidays no matter what you are celebrating or wine you are drinking!