By Dave Rudman, Director Of Business Development, USA at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET).
Cooking for the holidays is notoriously stress-inducing and labor-intensive, with choosing wines to pair only adding to the stress. With so many dishes, the quest to find wines that work with everything can cause considerable trouble. Fortunately, Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) teaches basic food-and-wine pairing in its one-day entry course, Level 1 Award in Wines. The Wine 101 course gets straight to the point on different flavor elements of food (sweetness, saltiness, fat, spice, etc) and how they are going to be affected by wine. Keeping that in mind, here are 10 “dos and don’ts” to remember when you’re popping corks this year:
- Start Your Meal with Bubbles – The holidays are a time to celebrate, and no wine is better suited to celebration than sparkling wine. The course introduces the different bubbles from around the world, like Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, or what-have-you. As an added bonus, the effervescence cleanses the palate before the meal!
- Relax – The most important thing to get right when pairing food and wine is to make sure you drink wines you enjoy with food that is delicious. Most of the time that means whatever wine you normally like to drink at dinner is going to be just fine. Holiday dinners are usually very well-seasoned with salt, which is good news for most wine pairings because saltiness in food makes wines seem fruitier, less dry and bitter, and less acidic – meaning that a wide variety of wines will be tamed into pleasantness that most drinkers will enjoy.
- Acidity is Your Friend – Acidity in wine often tastes tart and fresh, which is taught in WSET Level 1 Award in Wines. It is almost always a welcome thing as it makes wines and foods more vibrant. Some high-acid varietals that you might want to choose to amplify the flavors in your meal include dry Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc for whites, and Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon for reds.
- Slightly Sweet Wine with Dinner – Holiday dinners are known not just for its savory dishes but also for its sweet ones, such as cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. As the WSET teaches, sweetness in food will make wines seem drier and more bitter. If you’re not into dry and bitter, consider a slightly sweet Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or even an effervescent Moscato d’Asti.
- Give Thanks – Wine has been used as part of celebrations and holidays for thousands of years. Take a moment to raise your glass with your family and friends this holiday season and drink to all of the good things in your life.
- Be Given the Bird – Turkey contains high levels of umami, the fifth taste known sometimes as “savoriness.” Umami by itself causes problems for wine pairing because like the WSET teaches, umami makes wines taste less fruity, more dry and bitter, and more acidic. You will want to pair with a fruit-forward and soft wine, such as Pinot Gris for whites or Merlot for reds.
- Mix Alcohol and Spiciness Haphazardly – Holiday season meals aren’t traditionally known for incorporating spiciness, but if you do have something on the table with a lot of spicy heat, beware high alcohol wines. Some people love spicy food, the hotter the better, but most palates will want to be wary. Some varietals that often make high alcohol wines include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Zinfandel.
- Be Overwhelmed by Richness – Turkey is a lean bird, but there are many other oils and fats working in your holiday season meal. For fans of the skin of the bird, and butter melting over every dish, a wine with high acidity will help cut through that richness. Try wines including Riesling, Muscadet, and Chablis.
- Drink Dry Wines with Dessert – As previously mentioned, sweetness in food will make wines seem dry and bitter by comparison. So at dessert time, when the sweetness of the food is at its maximum, dry wines are going to be really tough! This is when you need to pull out your fully sweet dessert wines like Port, sweet Sherries, and Sauternes in order to have a really enjoyable pairing.
- Drink and Drive – A tragic aspect of the holidays is that we see a surge in alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Especially on a holiday where lots of families will be on the road, make the personal commitment to consume moderately and never to drink and drive.