3 Tips for Great Holiday Food and Wine Pairings – a sommelier shares his secrets

What are the best food and wine pairings for the holiday season? Whether you’re planning on visiting friends and family or nestling in at home this winter — here are a few rules of thumb and classic pairings to make sure your dinners don’t disappoint.

1.  In cold weather, go for the bold wines in your cellar.

Cold weather calls for a hearty meal — a creamy soup, a rich stew, or something roasted on the grill. It also makes warmer (that is, higher in alcohol) wines much more pleasant to drink. With typically intense, jammy, and spicy flavors that can stand up to flavorful fare — and alcohol levels topping 15% — Sonoma Zinfandels can be perfect picks for winter warmth. Try them with a pepper-crusted ribeye steak.

2. Traditional pairings are usually traditional for a reason.

Holiday dishes are often associated with specific wines — such as turkey and Pinot Noir, or roasted duck and Merlot. In these common pairings, the intensity or expressiveness of the food’s natural flavors matches the typical intensity of the wine.

Further, the more fat content there is in a meat, the more tannin can be tolerated on the palate. Turkey is among the leanest meats, while Pinot Noir is among the least tannic wines. But most important of all: the specific aromas, flavors, and textures of these foods simply fit with those of the wines. These are combinations resulting from centuries of dinnertime experimentation.

Why not take advantage of what our ancestors have learned and simply enjoy the results? To prove the principle to yourself, try a cool-weather Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir with roasted turkey breast.

3. When experimenting for yourself, match fundamentals — sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol — before aromas. 

A pairing novice might assume a cherry pie would go nicely with a wine featuring prominent cherry aromas. While it would be right to find complements among the dominant aromas in foods and wines, doing so would be overlooking more fundamental factors in a successful pairing. In this case, the terrible clash between a dry (that is, non-sweet) wine and a very sweet food.

Pairing is about matching sweetness, acidity, tannin, and alcohol levels properly before it is about matching aromas. Sweet wines go with sweet foods. To see what we mean, try that cherry pie with a nice Port-style dessert wine.

One last tip: This holiday season, remember not only to match your wines with your foods, but also to match your wines with the occasion. Holidays are special occasions for creating memories with the people you care about most. Spend a little extra if needed to make sure the wines show well.