As we enter the fall and winter feast season, with Thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, New Years parties, and the Super Bowl ahead of us, thoughts turn to foods and the wines that (we hope) go with them.
First, trying to do perfect wine-and-food pairings this time of the year is next to impossible. Among the reasons are the myriad misconceptions that sound like rules — “White wine with fish.” There are so many exceptions the entire subject often collapses in confusion.
I lived in San Diego years ago, where many Mexican fish dishes went only with red wines: filet of sole or tilapia Veracruz (with tomatoes and savory spices); sea bass molé; chicken with (salsa, cumin, and cilantro); seafood fajitas (with pico de gallo and guacamole).
Some wine lovers opt to open older wines, even if most guests won’t be interested in them. Since such events are more about family and friends, wine shouldn’t be esoteric.
As much as I love “great wine” and wines with distinctiveness, most multi-food events are best with simpler fare. There’s no reason to haul out old treasures when the crowd is so diverse and the noise level so high it precludes explanations of what’s being served.
At most larger parties, it’s best to keep the wines simple, especially since most will opt for other beverages (beer, punch, cider).
Thanksgiving is always tricky for wine people. Typical menus have sweet courses (candied yams, cranberry sauce, baked ham) and savory dishes (turkey with sage, pecan, or oyster dressing). With such diversity, an off-dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer (see Discovery of the Week below) are solutions.
One option is to have several wines, but it’s unnecessary to have one for each course. That’s unwieldy and costly. Picking wines for a multi-course meal shouldn’t be like rocket surgery: just keep it simple.
Assume a disparate crowd with widely differing preferences. Some people won’t drink red wines; I know people who won’t touch Chardonnay.
At multi-food events, I usually have a few wines to choose from: a dry white (Sauvignon Blanc?), a slightly off-dry white (Chenin Blanc?), an off-dry rosé, a dry red. Backup bottles usually are a good idea.
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Want just one wine? Best bet is a dry-ish rosé. Pick the youngest you can find. People love pink!
At someone else’s house, be prepared for anything. Some people will serve only sweet white wines, even though beef is served. And no, I can’t imagine a steak with Pinot Gris.
Buying tips for holiday parties:
— If many people are attending your event, offer moderately priced wines in the $8-$10 range. I prefer varietals. Generic whites and reds (blends) may be dry or sweet. But it’s rare that the label says which it is.
— As for reds, I usually prefer the better flavors and softer tannins that Merlot offers. But each crowd is different.
— How much to have on hand: In most cases, for a three-hour dinner, calculate about a half bottle per person, which includes the fact that some people will have no wine at all. Remember that more people prefer white or pink over red by about a 4-1 margin.
— Sparkling wines as an aperitif can be fun. French Champagne is dry, but pricey. More broadly appealing and a lot cheaper are Italian Prosecco and Spanish Cava.
— If dining at a friend’s home and you decide to bring a bottle, determine ahead of time if it’s going to be opened at the event. Occasionally, the host thinks it’s a gift and it goes into his or her cellar.
Above all, drink a glass of water for every five ounces of wine. It’ll help ward off a hangover, and allows you to better enjoy the wine.
Discovery of the Week: 2018 Alexander Valley Vineyards Gewürztraminer, Mendocino County ($14)—From this year’s harvest(!) comes a dramatic and wildly floral (gardenia, carnation, jasmine), slightly sweet but perfectly balanced white wine with spiced and tropical fruit notes (mango?) and rose petals. A near-perfect compromise for most dinner parties, it will please everyone. From the terrific Potter Valley vineyard of Mendocino grapegrower Guinness Mcfadden.