Holiday Pairing with the Pros

By Sara Shaw

Let’s not fool ourselves: The most important activity during the holidays is eating. We gather around a table with our friends and family and ingest enormous quantities of food, whether at home or out on the town. The question that comes up at all these meals is which wine do you pair with which holiday dish? 

There are some basic guidelines to follow. One of the first lessons in wine and food pairing is to pair like-minded things. Are you having traditional fare like roast turkey and mashed potatoes? Then pair it with a lighter red like Pinot Noir or a heavier white like Chardonnay. This way the flavor of the wine doesn’t overwhelm the white meat, but instead complements the juicy roast flavors, butter and starches.

The key is to achieve synergy and balance; pairing delicate food flavors with lighter wines allows for the characters of the dish to be enhanced rather than overwhelmed. Following the same rules, big red meats or heavily herbed or peppered dishes pair well with bold, tannic red wines strong enough in flavor and texture to hold up to more intense tasting foods so neither overpowers the other.

For light-to-medium fare, Riesling can be an accommodating wine for your holiday table. Riesling, a German grape, is versatile with food because it has bright, crisp acidity to break through fats. It also has light stone fruit aromas and great minerality to complement dishes ranging from salads to poultry to pork.

There are multitudes of unique and delicious pairings out there, so to get an idea of what people love to eat and drink during the holidays, I asked Portland wine and food professionals for their favorites during this season. Their responses were educated and even inspired; and their pairings of Oregon wine with standout dishes from some of the best Rose City restaurants has me thinking of putting away the roasting pan and meat thermometer and making dinner reservations.

Lauren Souther, sommelier at Clyde Common recommends the 2006 Belle Pente Riesling with Cornish Game Hen, Brussels Sprouts, Foie Gras and Seckel Pear.

“This Riesling, with its mere 1 percent residual sugar and just enough age to express beautiful light apricot and pear on the nose and palate, has minerality and a crisp finish to cut through the deep and savory flavors of the hen, with just enough sweetness to complement the foie,” Souther noted.

Megan Moffatt of Triage Wines (a wine importer/distributor) loves the Ransom whites from Oregon, especially the 2006 Ransom Chehalem Mountain Riesling. She agrees that Riesling is a great wine for pairing and selected one that is fermented dry, meaning that it contains no residual sugar. Winemaker Tad Seestedt focuses on sustainable vineyard practices, and his Ransom label wines are all made from organic grapes with only free-run juice. Moffatt advises pairing this Riesling with the Boudin Blanc Sausage from Lovely Hula Hands.

Riesling is versatile enough to pair with soups, greens, chicken, shellfish and many kinds of dessert, but white blends can also be a worthwhile holiday pairing because of the complex combination of flavors from each varietal in a blend.

Both Ken Collura, sommelier for Andina (a Peruvian restaurant located in the Pearl District), and Neil Thompson from the well-respected wine shop Liner & Elsen choose the 2008 Matello Whistling Ridge White Blend as one of their favorite pairing wines this season. Besides Riesling, it contains Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer. Each adds different flavors, aromas and textures that marry to create a great winter white that is perfect for rich seafood dishes. 

Collura pairs this wine with Andina’s Cebiche Mango Verde.

“The hint of sweetness, slate and spice on the finish of the wine pairs superbly with the semi-sweet/spicy leche de tigre in the cebiche,” Collura said. “This white is brisk and acid-driven, which is a prerequisite for any wine being paired with cebiche, regardless of the ingredients.”

Thompson would pair the 2008 Matello Whistling Ridge White with about half the menu at Tabla.

“The menu changes a lot, but recent standards like the Octopus in Romesco with Papas Bravas, Celeriac and Fennel or the popular Tabla Ravioli (a housemade pasta with chard, ricotta, a poached farm egg and poppy seed butter) are what come to mind.”

Another more versatile varietal is our own locally produced Pinot Noir. Pinot can pair with all kinds of dishes on the holiday table because the flavor profile ranges from intense dark cherry, earth and mushroom flavors to light cherry and strawberry as well as different flavor combinations.

Because of its variability, Pinot, like Riesling, has a tendency to enhance dishes that are built of lighter flavors like chicken and salmon, but it can also pair with things that are a little heavier like lamb, duck and pork. Dana Pickell, sommelier of the soon-to-be restaurant Grüner, picks the 2007 Cameron Arley’s Leap Pinot Noir for this reason, and Souther concurs.

Pickell pairs it with the Rotisserie Chicken with Tomato and Rosemary-Braised Lacinato Kale from Firehouse. “[It’s a] a great match of earthy notes in both the wine and the kale,” Pickell noted.

Souther matches the same wine with Clyde Common’s Lamb, Butternut Squash Bread Pudding, Merguez and Braised Kale. She loves this vintage of Arley’s Leap because “it is earthy, but also very bright and brings out the best in the warm fall flavors in this dish.”

For more intense red meat flavors, big red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo and Zinfandel pair readily with the bold, powerful flavors of heavier meats.

Darryl Joannides, owner of Cork Wine Shop, chooses red this holiday season with the recommendation of the 2007 Grochau Cellars Tinto—a Syrah/Tempranillo blend—paired with Toro Bravo’s Meatballs with Tomato-Almond Sauce and Phipps Beans.

Whether or not there is room, most people make space for dessert at the end of a hearty holiday meal, and choosing wine for the food finale is as important as the choice for the first course.

For Morgan Ennis of Immortal Pie, a pie shop opening soon in the Montavilla neighborhood, her match made in food and wine heaven consists of her Caramel Apple Pie with a sweet dessert wine like the newly released 2008 Daedalus Cellars Maresh Vineyard Sweet Riesling.

The local professionals all provide excellent ideas for eating out this season, but these recommendations can also be springboards for experimentation in your own kitchen. Though there are some basic guidelines to pairing wine and food, there are no absolute rules. When in doubt, choose a few different wines to pair with your meal, so that if the Cab you chose doesn’t work out, perhaps the Zin will.

Sara Shaw is a writer and wine professional originally hailing from Alaska who has chosen the Pacific Northwest as her home.

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