Pairing holiday foods and wine

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

When pairing wine with food, most hosts and hostesses know that red goes with red meat and white pairs with fish.

But what if you’re serving an appetizer of oysters, a plate of porcini risotto or a cache of special chocolates? How do you choose the best pairings when there’s no deceased animal flesh to guide you?

Pairing wine and food is a lot like pairing different dishes, or ingredients in a recipe. Look for contrasts and complements, so the wine and food work together to enhance each other and hide shortfalls.

Following are some suggestions to guide you:

• Watch your weight, as well as that of your wine and food. Full-bodied wines with flavors that won’t be overwhelmed by gravy best accompany rich, heavy foods.

• Pair complementary flavor intensities, like a pinot noir’s bright berry character with roast duckling. Balance is the key.

• Make sure the wine’s level of acidity complements the flavor and fattiness of the food so it can serve as a palate cleanser.

• Always serve wine as sweet or sweeter than the food it accompanies. Sweet wine can also help tame rich, indulgent foods like foie gras.

• If all else fails, remember that almost everything goes with Champagne.

Those suggestions hinge, of course, on how well you know the wines in your market. The casual host can consider the following classic matches.

APPETIZERS

Serving rich patés or foie gras? Consider a riesling or pinot gris with a good blend of fruit and acidity.

Serving shrimp or shellfish? A French chablis or lightly oaked chardonnay provides sufficient flavor and backbone.

And nothing suits oysters like Champagne.

ENTREES

Most people match turkey with white wine, which is fine if the wine is rich and full like a premium California chardonnay. But turkey is a heavier meal, requiring a robust wine, and a lean bird as well, so tannins must be kept in check. A bountiful beaujolais, powerful pinot noir or even a zesty zinfandel works well.

If you’re serving goose or duck, both high-fat birds, make sure that you’ve saved some of the riesling and pinot gris from the foie gras. Either will provide good service.

Speaking of robust foods, roast beef and even venison are often holiday favorites, and few meats bring as strong a flavor palate. Powerful reds, including wines from France’s Burgundy and Bordeaux regions, are called for here. A top-flight cabernet sauvignon also pairs wonderfully with either.

Stepping outside the norm and serving seafood? Try matching an elegant fresh salmon with a light red, such as a pinot noir. The wine’s fresh berry taste offers a surprising complement, and its natural acidity helps tame the fish’s strong flavor and cleanses the palate between bites.

Vegetarian dishes are becoming more common at holiday gatherings. Generally, they’re lighter in body and flavor density, meaning a light red or a zesty white may offer the best match for meat-free entrees.

THE CHEESE COURSE

A well-considered cheese platter is a delightful accompaniment to any holiday gathering. But it can be challenging when it comes to pairing with wine. Cheeses come in a wide variety of flavors and textures, many of them clinging, cloying and on a collision course with most robust, high-tannin red wines.

Cheese is best accompanied by dessert wines like vintages ports and sherrys, or crisp white wines such as New Zealand sauvignon blancs, chilled California chardonnays or white wines from Burgundy. The wine’s acidity cuts the cheese’s strong flavors and helps dissolve the debris accumulation on the palate while delivering fresh fruit flavors that broaden the tasting experience.

AND, OF COURSE, DESSERTS

When it comes to desserts, sweet almost always rules the palate. The same is true of dessert wines. There are wonderfully fruity and fragrant ice wines, which are from grapes harvested after freezing on the vine, which concentrates the natural sugars Also great with desserts are elegant old ports — fortified wines with full, rich palates and enhanced alcoholic horsepower.

And those tasty chocolates? A vintage tawny port has the sophistication, as well as a drier palate to complement the candy. For something lighter and brighter, a fine muscat can also do the trick. Even a robust red goes especially well with dark chocolate.

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