Pairing Food and Wine for a Holiday Feast

Dec 20, 2018

Credit Elspeth Hay

This time I want to tap into some local knowledge on a big and often daunting subject. How do you pair wines with different courses for a holiday feast? It can be intimidating, but what we drink is often integral to showcasing the meals we’ve worked so carefully to source and prepare. The other day I sat down with wine enthusiast Michael Rose of Wellfleet to get some tips.

“The most important thing is to know the complexity of the food that you’re presenting and relatively speaking, the complexity of the wine should be at the same level,” Michael said.

Most meals start lighter and with each course get heavier and more complex. Michael says the wine should follow suit. He suggests welcoming guests with simple finger foods and to drink, something sparkling.

“Nothing says welcome we’re here to enjoy ourselves better than a sparkling wine.”

Michael’s go-to is from New Mexico. It’s called Gruet but pronounced GRU-AY. It’s called that because a family from Champagne studied soil types and climates throughout the United States before purchasing a very large tract of land in between Albuquerque and Santa Fe and now they have an array of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They’re making a range of both still wine and sparklers.

Credit Elspeth Hay

For any sparkling wine, Michael recommends something that hasn’t been chapetalized—that’s the process of adding sugar to induce a second fermentation. For instance, most champagnes are chapetilized and a lot of proseccos are not. The second fermentation creates a layer of richness that, in his opinion, ruins the wine’s freshness, especially when you’re just welcoming a party. Once guests have mingled and finished their first drinks, he puts out the first course.

He’ll start with a plate of oysters. “And with oysters frankly the best wines are crisp and clean” he said.

Think dry reisling, chablis, albarino, or sauvignon blanc. Up next? A fish stew made either with fish stock—slightly lighter or poultry stock—which is a little more complex.

“There’s two great grapes that people should be aware of. Reisling, which can be small, medium, or large, and there is another grape called jacquere which is grown in the savoir region, the foothills of the alps, and each of them is I would say medium in terms of the body.”

When we talk about body, we’re talking about the way a wine feels in our mouth—think of light body like skim milk, medium body like two percent, and full body like whole milk straight from the cow. Michael says you can use geography as a general predictor—the cooler a vineyard’s climate, the lighter and less complex the wine is likely to be—and it also tends to have a lower alcohol content. Vineyards in warmer climates tend to produce wines that are bolder, higher in alcohol, and more complex. And generally, red wines are fuller bodied than most whites—and also what you want to serve with the main course. For Michael’s family—and mine!—the main course is a leg of lamb.

“I think there’s nothing better than either a pinot noir with lamb or a Grenache. These are medium to lighter bodied wines with a decent amount of tannin that’s going to pick up the animal fat. The two together will set each other off in your mouth and really create a moment of umami,” he said.

This moment, what he describes as umami, enhances the flavor of the wine and the lamb—and it’s really the experience you’re looking for when you’re pairing wine and food. After the lamb, it’s time for a rich, dark chocolate cake. Michael says an ideal pairing would be a sauternes, made with grapes partially engulfed in a fungus known as noble rot.

“And anyone who lives in Eastern Mass is going to appreciate the source of this noble rot. It is the mists coming off the relatively warm water in the fall.”

Sauternes traditionally come from the Bordeaux region of France, but there are several great dessert wines made in the US in microclimates like Michigan and New York State that produce this same noble rot. Look for sauterne with a lowercase on the label for these domestic wines.

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Here is the link to a list of vineyards in Massachusetts:

https://www.mass.gov/service-details/wineries