December 6 2016

By the Glass by Larry Sterner

santafrog-on-corkEvery year around holiday time the question arises: What are the best wines to serve with special dinners? These meals now go well beyond the usual roast, stuffing and mashed potatoes.  Dedicated home cooks are producing flavorful and creative side dishes with hints of Asian and European flavors. This can make for a fabulous and varied flavor-fest but it also presents a bit of a challenge when it comes to matching these dishes with complementary wines. Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays are not, in my opinion, good matches.

Roast turkey and pork in and of themselves are flexible and work well with many types of wine. What you want is a wine that goes equally well with “Asian” Brussels sprouts, “Portuguese” sausage stuffing, green beans with Harissa, “Turkish” creamed onions and any other accompaniments. This means a wine that not only manages to have great flavor but must be balanced as well—neither too tannic nor too acidic, neither too alcoholic nor too light. It needs the zip to cut through cream sauces, the delicacy to enhance subtle, seasonings, and the flavor to stand up to a host of other assertive, not always complementary flavors. You can see the conundrum!

In the pantheon of red wines, I believe that Beaujolais—real Beaujolais; not Beaujolais Nouveau—works particularly well at the holiday table. They are fruity, not very tannic, refreshing and essentially easy drinking, so the wine won’t get in the way of conversation nor compete with the food. It suits most everyone’s taste and most importantly, a limited holiday entertaining budget.

Every year around this time you’ll see and hear a lot about Beaujolais “Nouveau.” The overblown marketing of this wine started back in the ’60s as a race to see which wine maker could get his or her wine to Paris first. In other words, a total publicity stunt courtesy of George Duboeuf and the giant wine shippers. What resulted were bottles of Beaujolais that hit the bistros and wine bars of Paris a scant six weeks after the grapes were harvested. This marketing effort garnered a lot of attention and the craze spread throughout Europe and eventually to the States and Asia. This was a bit of genius that essentially breathed new life into what had become a moribund wine category. What it didn’t do was make very good wine. So every year many people pick up these bottles for their holiday tables, drink them because they think that’s what you’re supposed to do and then never drink real Beaujolais the rest of the year, because, at the end of the day, they don’t actually enjoy Beaujolais Nouveau and assume that if they don’t like Beaujolais Nouveau then they won’t enjoy Beaujolais. That is unfortunate, because, as I have already mentioned, the real Beaujolais is worth savoring.

While one can do quite well selecting a simple Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Village to serve with your feast, I am here to introduce you to the wonderful world of “Cru” Beaujolais.  Cru Beaujolais are wines from the top 10 village/vineyard sites within the Beaujolais region.  They are universally viewed as the highest expression of the Gamay grape and of Beaujolais wine and their names are:

  • Brouilly
  • Cote de Brouilly
  • Chiroubles
  • Chenas
  • Fleurie
  • Julienas
  • Morgon
  • Moulin-a-Vent
  • Regnie
  • Saint-Amour

These wines are expertly crafted natural wines that are frequently made with biodynamically grown grapes. For years they have flown under the radar of the wine drinking public. As a result, in the recent past, one could pick these wines up at tremendously low prices ($10-$15). Then a 2015 documentary titled “Somm: Into the Bottle” highlighted these wines, and the Cru Beaujolais profile has increased considerably, along with their cost. With that being said, you can still find these fantastic wines in the $18 to $30 range and they are worth every penny.

I recently stopped in to my local Wine and Spirits Store and found only two selections:

  • Louis Blanc Cote de Broilly 2012 La Ferrage $21.99. This is a medium-bodied, medium quality wine that happens to be kosher as well.  It’s a bit on the pricey side.
  • Jean Foillard Morgon “Cote du Py” 2014. This is a fantastic wine from one of the famous “gang of four” as Kermit Lynch, the legendary California wine merchant, christened them. They called for a return to the old practices of viticulture and vinification. The end result allows this Morgon to express, naturally, its rustic structure, spicy notes, and mineral-laden backbone. This kind of dedication to quality and perfection doesn’t come cheaply—a bottle costs $42.99, but it’s worth it.

I also visited my most favorite wine store in the region, Moore Brothers in Pennsauken, NJ, and found three selections of Beaujolais Village, ranging from $13 to $16, including the truly fantastic Cru Beaujolais (Fleurie & Moulin-a-Vent) from excellent winemakers Patrick Brunet, Gilles Gelin, and Louis Boillot.

Some guests and family members simply do not drink red wine. However, given the above stated challenges in holiday wine selection, I recommend thinking beyond the popular whites you see nowadays, such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc. If you’re ready for a white wine adventure, consider the following:

  • Real French Chablis. Although these wines are actually made from the Chardonnay grape, they are absolutely nothing like the Chardonnay you may know from California. They exhibit a chalky, steely minerality, and a racy crispness like Granny Smith apples.
  • Torrontes. The premier white grape of Argentina is a cross between Sauvignon blanc and Gewürztraminer. Fruity and floral with a crisp acidity and very quaffable.
  • Riesling. Originally a German grape and wine, Riesling is now made all over the world. Although it’s thought to be a sweet wine, that is not strictly the case. There are hundreds of tremendous dry Rieslings that have only the slightest hint of residual sugar. This quality, along with their acidity, makes them excellent partners for many types of food.
  • Viognier. Originally from France, Viognier can be found in the very expensive Condrieu. The grape has exploded in popularity in the U.S. with excellent Viognier being produced from California to Virginia and upstate NY. The wine is extremely floral and fruity (but not sweet) with a hint of spiciness (as in baking spices, not heat). It is generally a full-bodied, lush wine that will match the holiday dinner menu taste for taste.

Read other Winter 2016 Newsletter articles

Fresh from the Oven
Seasonal Musings
Party in Focus
The Dish
The Equipped Kitchen
At Home
Local Shopping
The Franklin Institute
By the Glass