Planning what wines to serve at a Thanksgiving dinner or figuring out which to bring to a Christmas party can be, frankly, overwhelming. Holiday foods tend to be full-flavored whether it's turkey, buttery mashed potatoes or sausage-filled stuffing so here are a few options from local wine experts to complement all of your holiday meals:
Chicken and pork tend to be mild and lean, so they should be paired with a mild, lighter-bodied wine. Look for flavors that can build a bridge between the wine and dish. Baked, smoked or honeyed hams beg for wines with a hint of sweet.
"With a honey-baked ham, we recommend a fruit-forward pinot noir as it cuts the fat and complements the sweetness of the honey," said Emily Mathews, co-owner of Vino Locale in Palo Alto.
"A honey-baked ham is usually glazed with maple or pierced with cloves, to offer up both sweet and salty flavors on your palate. You wouldn't want your wine to compete with those flavors, but instead, complement them. A dry wine won't clash with the sweetness on your plate and will avoid overpowering the entree," added co-owner Debra Szecsei, who recommends a dry rosé or an extra-dry champagne.
For an herbed pork roast, Mathews recommends a creamy chardonnay with hints of fruit and oak, which "won't overwhelm the herbal flavors in the roast," she said.
Mathews also suggests a light red, such as a sangiovese or pinot noir, which is quite flexible and goes well with the multitude of flavors presented at a holiday table, she said.
A traditional Thanksgiving turkey, with all the trimmings, can stand up to a range of wine, either red or white. Turkey is also adaptable in the way it is prepared. Don't forget: Side dishes also dictate what wine will pair best.
For white wine lovers, try a riesling, which is "one of the great white grapes," said Laurie Lindrup, director of business development at Beltramo's Wines and Spirits in Menlo Park.
"Riesling is often highly fragrant, very delicious and totally food-friendly," Lindrup said. "(It) is probably the best food-pairing grape, with its high acid and fresh fruit spectrum it can stand up to most foods and will enhance the experience."
Szecsei recommends a gewurztraminer or sauvignon blanc to balance the acidity and stand up to the richness of the holiday meal.
"Gewurztraminer tends to be aromatic with spicy notes that pair well with turkey and gravy, bringing out the best in both," Szecsei said. "Sauvignon blanc wines are dry and crisp with citrus flavors and mineral undertones, making it a great wine to pair with turkey and mashed potatoes."
For those who prefer red wine, choose a wine with good acidity and soft tannins a textural element that makes wine taste dry to allow the wine to support the flavors of the food, Szecsei said, adding that a pinot noir or syrah would make good choices.
"Pinot noir wines will show bright cherry notes and subtle earthy undertone with few tannins pairing well with traditional flavors of turkey and stuffing," she said.
Syrah is a more full-bodied wine and has a hint of spice, Szecsei said, which increases the complexity, allowing it to handle the multiple layers of flavors of rich holiday dishes, including stuffing and both white and dark turkey meat.
Lindrup recommends a beaujolais, a light-bodied French red wine with a fruity aroma.
"Gamay grapes grow especially well in the Beaujolais district of France, where they are used to produce beaujolais wines. Although the Gamay grape itself has lots of tannins, the resulting Gamay wines are characterized by fairly low tannins," Lindrup said. "Wines made from Gamay grapes have fresh, fruity flavors like strawberry and raspberry and aromas of pears. The high acid and fruitiness of the grape make it an excellent pairing for all the flavors on a Thanksgiving table."
Turkey isn't eaten alone, so Mike Garcia, owner of The Wine Room in Palo Alto, said to take into account the side dishes that accompany the bird, including stuffing.
"If you put sausage in your stuffing, a pinot noir will go better with that," he said. A full-bodied chardonnay or a pinot noir with earthy flavors work well with stuffing that incorporates mushrooms, he added.
There are many wines that enhance the flavors of beef, and as a general rule, red wine goes well with plainly cooked beef. But during the holidays, dishes may be served with different sauces and seasonings, and that "kind of helps the wine selection," Garcia said.
A pinot noir would go well with roast beef tenderlion served with a currant sauce, because the pinot noir, which exhibits flavors of ripe red fruit like cherry, raspberry and currant, will pick up the fruity flavors of the sauce, he said.
For roast beef, Garcia recommends "going off the beaten path" and serving a cabernet franc.
"Cabernet franc tends to be a little more spicy, which will pick up the pepperiness of a roast beef dish," he said. "If you are someone who likes a bigger style red wine and are doing a more meatier course, I'd do a cab franc."
Fat and acidity play a crucial role in pairing an assortment of non-meat dishes with wine, Garcia said.
"If you're going to eat sides of mashed potatoes and dishes that are fattier without the proteins, a crisp, clean French-style chardonnay or unoaked chardonnay go better with those dishes," he said.
The gravy that comes with mashed potatoes, and creams in traditional dishes like a green bean casserole "mimic French cuisine with its heavy sauces, that's why the French tend to like crisper wines with higher acid, so that the acid cuts through the fat and makes it more refreshing," he said.
Don't forget the dessert ... wine
Finish the holiday dinner with something sweet by offering a dessert wine. When considering what wine can accompany a traditional pumpkin pie or apple tart, Szecsei recommends a port wine, which is a fortified wine often served as a dessert wine.
"That's an obvious choice," Szecsei said. "An alternative is a late-harvest riesling for rich flavors of honey. Fortified wines and late-harvest wines will bring sweetness and viscosity to support the spice of the pumpkin pie or apple tart you're serving."
Lindrup recommends a late-harvest gewurztraminer, which has a spiciness to it that will pair beautifully with the melange of spices of a pumpkin pie, she said.
For darker and richer last courses like pecan pies or baked plum desserts, Garcia recommends a tawny port, which is mellow, nutty and slightly woody, and will pick up the nuttiness of the pecan pie, or a vintage port, which is a little more grapey and will complement desserts with darker fruit profiles.