October 26, 2016
Many of us wrestle with a conundrum at holiday time: if I’m the host, what wine should I serve with dinner, and if I’m a guest, what wine should I bring the host? Here are some suggestions to help you resolve these questions.
Let’s start with the easiest. If it’s a special occasion, like celebrating the arrival of the New Year, a sparkling wine is always appropriate. French Champagne is certainly the most authentic and traditional, but not necessarily the cheapest. (To legally label a wine as “Champagne” it must come from the Champagne region of France—although the name has been usurped by many wine makers.) If you like the idea of a sparkling wine, you could also choose spumantes from Italy, Freixenet from Spain, or sparkling wines from many parts of the world including our own Finger Lakes. Incidentally, sparkling wine is appropriate for most dinner occasions because the action of the bubbles brings out the flavor of food.
If you or your host plan to serve turkey, there are many possibilities based on personal taste. Among whites that would be appropriate are Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc. A zesty wine like Gewürztraminer can balance the wide variety of pungent accompaniments often served at holiday dinners like earthy Brussels sprouts, chestnut dressing, turnips and tart cranberries. As a guest, if you really want to make an impression, bring a bottle of white and a bottle of red. The white could be served to guests who prefer white meat, the red to the dark meat fans. Among reds, you could choose a varietal such as Pinot Noir, Merlot, Côtes du Rhône, or Beaujolais.
Categorizing the sweetness of wine is somewhat subjective, especially for those wines that fall between sweet and dry. Usually labeled semi-dry or semi-sweet, most experts would agree these wines have residual sugar in the ballpark of 2 to 6 percent.What we’re considering here is how much acid is in the grape to offset the sugar. When I’m not sure what to give or to serve, I often hedge my bets and choose something in the semi-dry category, particularly when I bring a wine that will be served to several guests. A semi-dry Finger Lakes Riesling with residual sugar of 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent is usually popular.
If your host or guests have a sweet tooth, that’s not a problem. There are plenty of wines with high residual sugar levels ranging from 5 to 10 percent. Many Finger Lakes wineries offer sweet wines because, generally speaking, they are more popular in this area than dry wines. Some experts posit that novice wine drinkers prefer sweeter wines and the more experienced and sophisticated a wine drinker becomes, the dryer the wine he/she prefers. If you buy into this theory, it could be an important consideration when selecting a wine as a gift or for guests.
Looking for a wine to serve with dessert or strong cheese? Some people prefer fortified port wines and brandy to “regular” wines for these courses. Port (Porto) traditionally comes from the Douro region of northern Portugal. Brandy is added during wine making, in effect stopping the fermentation and leaving the finished wine quite strong and sweet. Brandy is a distilled spirit that can be made from a variety of fruits. The wine or juice is run through a still which separates the water from the alcohol leaving a strongly flavored, high-alcohol product. Cognac is brandy that has been produced in the Cognac region of France. All cognac is brandy, however not all brandy is cognac.
When I lived in England I watched a popular food and wine television program with a hostess, Gilly Goolden, who made a big deal out of tasting a wine and interminably swishing it around her mouth. Finally she would utter her eagerly awaited assessment, which was always ridiculous like, “It tastes like old, wet shoe.” I never figured out how she knew what old, wet shoe tasted like but it sure was entertaining. There’s a lot of pretension and snobbery associated with wine. To me, it’s very simple: A “good wine” is the wine you like. The upcoming holidays are the perfect occasion to share a “good wine” with friends and family.