Fear. Agony. Indecision. Those are just some words that may describe your state upon entering a liquor store. But according to the authors of a new book on wine appreciation, selecting the right wine for your holiday entertaining is as simple as popping the cork.
The goal of Kenji Hodgson and James Nevison, both certified by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust of London, is to demystify wine, and introduce the old world libation to the modern mainstream. Their message, as offered in their book Have a Glass (Whitecap Books, 2003), through their company HALFAGLASS (halfaglass.com), and in their attitude is completely unpretentious: “Wine is a beverage that's meant to be enjoyed with food and company,” says James. “Good wine, good food, good people,” adds Kenji.
If your knowledge of wine is limited to "red" and "white", learning may seem a mite intimidating. “It takes a bit of reading,” says James. “Effort,” says Kenji. “A bit of tasting,” adds James.
So why not turn your holiday affair into a wine-tasting? Invite guests to bring a different bottle from a specific region or country, Burgundy or Argentina, for example. Cover the labels and number the bottles. Don't worry about the sensory experience -- the smell of raspberries, flowers, chocolate and the like. Just ask yourself whether you would care to have a full glass. Have a reference book handy so you can read aloud about the various grapes, from Cabernet Franc to Zinfandel. “That's the essence of tasting wine,” says Kenji.
Don't worry about whether red goes with chicken or your bottle has aged appropriately. Many of the "rules" we try so hard to follow are actually myths.
- White wine goes with white meat and fish. As new foods and flavours are introduced, the wine-to-food rule becomes harder to follow. “That serves as a guide, but it's not a hard fact,” says James. “Salmon with Pinot Noir works well. If I'm preparing tofu like a steak, I'd get a red.”
- It is best to let wines age. Newer vintages have a livelier, fruitier taste, unlike their older counterparts, which have a more mellow flavour. That said, “Ninety per cent of wines these days are not meant to age,” explains Kenji. “It's harder and harder to find older vintages because we go through wines so quickly.”
- Good wine has to be expensive. Wine prices rise as the producer gains a greater reputation. But that doesn't mean cheaper wines aren't just as tasty. “You want to go after brands that are not so well-known,” says James. “Southern Italy, for example, offers good value because it's not a known region.”
If the ‘red wine to red meat' rule isn't necessary to follow, how do you decide on the right wine for your holiday meal? Consider the taste, texture, flavour and intensity of the wine and food, then match or contrast. James and Kenji suggest the following:
Turkey: While white meat tends to be on the drier side – an off-dry Riesling can counteract that – it is also of neutral flavour, so it's best to match your wine to the tastier side dishes.
Cranberry sauce: Riesling also goes well with the ruby-red dish, but be sure to add some of the wine to the recipe to cut the cranberry's tartness.
Mashed potatoes and gravy: In the whites, go for the versatile Chardonnay. In the reds, try a fruity wine such as Grenache, Gamay or Pinot Noir.
Potato latkes: A slightly more acidic wine, like a Sauvignon Blanc, works well with greasier foods.
Hors d'oeuvres: These appetizers are meant to be consumed slowly and so should your beverage. Opt for a sipper like sherry, meant to cleanse the palate.
Cheeses: For creamy cheeses like Brie, try a lightly oaked Chardonnay. Camembert goes well with Merlot, blue cheese with Sémillon, and hard cheeses deserve a heavier wine, like Merlot or Shiraz.
Still can't decide? There's no shame in asking the staff at your local liquor store -- just give them a rundown of your menu. Then all you have to do is calculate how many bottles to have on hand (allocate half a bottle per guest, which equals about two glasses per person). If all else fails -- reach for the bubbly. “Champagne pairs really nicely with anything you make,” says Kenji. “You can pair it with scrambled eggs!” So, if you can't cook well, at least you can drink well.
James and Kenji's suggestions (prices are from Ontario's LCBO):
Fazi-Battaglia Verdicchio, Italy, $10.65
Sumac Ridge Gewuürztraminer, BC, /B.C./ $12.95
Nino Franco Prosecco Brut, Italy, $16.95
Segura Viudas Aria Estate Brut Cava, Spain, $14.95
Lanthieri Sauvignon Zemono, Slovenia, $12.80
Chateau St. Germain Bordeaux, France, $14.95
Wynns Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, Australia, $18.95
La Vieille Ferme Côtes du Ventoux, organic wine, France, $9.95
Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, Chile $11.95
Henry Pelham Gamay, Ontario, $12.95
Campo Viejo Rioja Reserva, Spain, $16.95