Did you know that there is more wine sold in the United States for Thanksgiving Day dinner than for any other meal all year? As wine plays an increasingly important role on America's dinner table, it's a good time to discuss food-pairing principles.
At the most basic level, the role of wine is to quench thirst and cleanse the palate. By choosing the best food and wine combinations, you can optimize the food flavors as well as enhance the wine's subtleties. At the root of this theory is the fact that wines and foods share certain basic tastes. There are four food tastes -- sweet, sour, salty and bitter -- while wine tastes are three: sweet, sour and bitter.
The most important ingredient in wine is acidity. It can reduce the perception of fatty, oily or salty qualities in accompanying food just as a squeeze of lemon will cut the oiliness or saltiness of fish. Acidity also is a great enhancer of flavors and pairs well with foods that are rich, sour or bitter, but must be judiciously used with foods that are sweet.
Sweetness in wine is a good counterbalance to spicy heat and can take the edge off foods that are too tart. It also is a pleasing complement when there is slight sweetness in the food. When serving dessert wines with a sweet dessert, it is essential to remember that the wine must be sweeter than the dessert.
Saltiness is not normally found in wine but is present in most foods and so can influence a wine's taste. The perception of saltiness will be lessened by a wine's acidity but exaggerated by its tannins. Balance salty dishes by serving them with off-dry semi-sweet wines.
In wine, tannin can be associated with a bitter taste so foods that are bitter -- such as grilled meats, arugula, endive or broccoli -- show well when paired with a full-bodied tannic red wine.
"Weight" also is a factor in balancing wine and food, so wines with heavy tannins are more appealing when served with protein-rich fatty foods such as red meats and strong cheeses. Alcohol content also factors into the weight of a wine. The higher the alcohol content, the heavier the wine. A well-chosen pairing will not match a light, simple dish with a heavy, complex wine.
Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein in his book, "Perfect Pairings" (University of California Press, 2006) sums it up well with the following advice:
TART, serve with a wine that is equally sharp or more so. Avoid red wines except those of a sharp nature (Pinot Noir, Gamay or Sangiovese). Don't overlook dry rose or sparkling wine options.
SLIGHTLY SWEET, choose a slightly sweet wine such as Chenin Blanc or Riesling.
SALTY, wines with low to moderate alcohol content. Think of using a wine with slight sweetness. Avoid wines with a high level of oak or tannin.
SPICY HOT, select young wines with low to moderate alcohol content, minimal (or no) oak and some residual sugar.
BITTER, select wines with bitter components, i.e., tannins and/or oak aging. High acidity is better than low.
The grape varieties with the best chance of working well with most traditional foods are Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Viognier or Pinot Gris (from California or Oregon) for white and Pinot Noir, Gamay, Merlot or a light and fruity Zinfandel for reds.
My personal choices are:
White Knight Riesling, 2010, California (PLCB No. 32936, $6.99). A semi-sweet style riesling.
Bonterra Organic Riesling, 2010, California (PLCB No. 3334 ,$10.99; on sale through 12/01) Off-dry style with some residual sugar.
Pacific Rim Dry Riesling, 2011, Washington (PLCB No. 8775, $9.99; on sale through Dec. 1)
Nimble Hill Vineyard Riesling, 2011, Pennsylvania (PLCB No. 46319, $11.99)
Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc Viognier, 2011, California (PLCB No. 8881, $14.99)
Hunterdon Pinot Noir, 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Calif. (PLCB No. 32852, $8.99)
Lamoreaux Landing Pinot Noir, 2009, Finger Lakes, N.Y. (PLCB No. 46300, $16.99)
Frei Brothers Pinot Noir, 2011, Russian River, Calif. (PLCB No. 8141, $18.99; on sale through Dec. 1)
Columbia Crest Armitage 2009, Washington (PLCB No. 32911, $7.99) Merlot-rich blend with good acidity and fruit.
Murray Cuvee, 2009, Washington (PLCB No. 32964, $12.99) Merlot-heavy blend which is not too complex for traditional Thanksgiving foods.
If you are invited out for the Thanksgiving and want to take your host a very special bottle of wine, I suggest a bottle of:
Heitz Cellar Trailside Vineyard, 2001, Napa, Calif. (PLCB No. 32888, $49.99) This is not an ideal wine to accompany Thanksgiving dinner but would be a most welcome addition to any wine collector's cellar.
Two sparkling wine bargains currently in our stores that I plan to serve at our house throughout the holidays are:
Michelle Brut, NV, Washington (PLCB No. 4550, $10.99)
Domaine Ste Michelle NV, Washington (PLCB No. 33156, $8.49)
I have been using both as house bubbly for many years and highly recommend them especially at this price. They seem like a PLCB holiday gift to all of us! Enjoy your holiday.
Elizabeth Downer: Elizabeth Downer: firstname.lastname@example.org.