My favorite time of year is just around the corner. If your December holidays are anything like ours, you’ll soon find your kitchen bursting with friends and family, and a spill over crowd of sports fans planted in the TV room. And the food you serve is just as diverse as the folks who have taken over your home. You’ll soon find your table covered with a jumbled smorgasbord of everyone’s favorite dishes from recipes gathered over generations.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he annual conundrum is which wines to serve with the diversity of tastes and textures present on the holiday table. To cast the widest culinary net, look for wines with higher acidity, little oak, and alcohol well below 14%. Higher acidity is the classic characteristic of a food wine, refreshing your palate after each sip. However, higher oak imparts bitter tannins that will clash with even the slightest sweetness, ruling out your favorite sweet potato and marshmallow dish. And higher alcohol amplifies the heat in spicy foods, so keep the alcohol low to avoid guests running for the milk after eating a pepperoncini.
Much like fruitcake, cranberry sauce, and other wayward relatives, sparkling wine and Beaujolais pretty much appear only during the holidays. We relegate sparkling wines to aperitif status and serve Beaujolais at one meal a year, if at all. Many sommeliers are a little bewildered that more of us don’t serve these two wines along with our holiday feasts. You can spot this in some fine restaurants, where sommeliers are serving these wines as their secret food pairing.
So, what do they know that we don’t? Let’s start with sparkling wine. Champagne and other sparklers are arguably the most versatile food wines out there. Brut sparkling contains a high level of acidity and a small amount of sugar. These two extremes complement just about any food other than possibly steak and desserts.
Yes, the sparkling is versatile but certain foods match best. And those are foods with texture and a little extra salt. You’ll find that texture in the combination of traditional holiday dishes on your table, when you take a simultaneous bite of the turkey, stuffing, and green beans. Looking for the easiest holiday party possible? Invite your friends or office mates over for a glass of bubbly accompanied by popcorn and potato chips. Toast the New Year and then watch them swoon when they taste this pairing.
Changes afoot in the Champagne world give you new opportunities for value. The recent grower Champagne movement is producing unique and distinctive Champagnes which reflect the attributes of the land on which they are grown. Rather than sell their grapes to the big wineries, farmers produce their own Champagne or Cremant (another category of sparkling French wine) using grapes from just one village or even a single vineyard. One example worth pursuing is the Cremant Jean-Luc Joillot Cuvée Agnes. The French recently voted this Cremant as their fourth best sparkler. And it’s about half the price of Veuve Cliquot, which came in at (a respectable) ninth place.
[quote float=”right”]In the 1980s large producers looking for quick cash unleashed their marketing machines, who made this hastily made Beaujolais the latest wine craze. [/quote]Aren’t you safe by simply selecting the big name Champagnes? Many well known champagnes are a victim of their own popularity. Higher global demand spurs the need for more grapes. Since their original vineyards are as big as they’re ever going to be, the wineries must buy grapes from other properties. The addition of grapes from lesser vineyards has caused a slow decline in quality for some big name Champagnes. And this will continue, as many Champagne houses are now pushing the French government to expand the official borders of the Champagne appellation. Avoid the land mines by selecting the champagne consistently voted by the French as their favorite, Pol Roger.
Another tip for value is to buy from wineries that offer wines at several different levels of quality. Yes, quality is a big factor in higher prices, but so is supply and demand. To keep prices up, many wineries will limit supply by blending some of the premium juice into their entry level bottles. Roderer Estates, a sparkler from Anderson Valley at about $27, is a consistent award winner with ratings often at 90 points or higher. Rumor has it that this success might come from a bit of the French Louis Roderer at $60 added to its California cousin.
And look to Spain for another source of value sparklers. Few know that the name “cava” cannot appear on a label unless the Spanish sparkler is made using the same methods as Champagne. One of the three renowned Cava houses is Gramona. Their highest quality cava at $120 ranked with Dom Perignon and Bolinger in a recent blind tasting. But you can get the Gramona Imperial cava at $30, about half the price of Champagnes with comparable quality. And if you’re looking for even greater value, try Juma y Camps at $15. The new King of Spain poured Juma y Camps to celebrate his inauguration. And if it’s good enough for a king…
Don’t like Beaujolais? If you’ve quaffed only Beaujolais Nouveau, you are missing one of the greatest pairings of the holidays. Beaujolais Nouveau is a wine made in a few weeks to celebrate the end of the harvest. In the 1980s large producers looking for quick cash unleashed their marketing machines, who made this hastily made Beaujolais the latest wine craze. When the novelty wore off, French producers had to dump over one million cases. Most people who tried these Nouveau never forgot or returned.
This year, pour a cru Beaujolais. Made like a fine wine, those in the biz view a cru like a good red Burgundy at half the price. And like Pinot Noir, Beaujolais can easily take on the cacophony of dishes that appear on your holiday table. To get the most from this wine, it’s best to serve it slightly chilled to about 55 degrees. Just open the bottle to let it air and place it in the refrigerator about 40 minutes before serving. To experience just how complex and elegant a cru Beaujolais can be, consider serving Jean-Paul Brun Brouilly or earl Daniel Bouland Morgan, both at about $30.