• Bill McMahon

Holiday Wine Pairing – With a Seasoned Oenophile



When I first thought of blogging about choosing wines for the upcoming onslaught of holiday meals, my friend Peter Button immediately came to mind as my go-to source. Peter has been drinking wince and talking about it professionally for fifteen years. A fan of terroir-driven, food-friendly wines, he loves to share his pairings with the world. He has worked in both retail and wholesale wine companies. He is also, I’m happy to say, most definitely not a wine snob; he does not subscribe to the notion that only the most expensive wines are worth drinking. In fact, he and I concur that a good bottle of wine can be had for as little as $10, if you have a little native discernment and know your own taste. I met Peter at his home in the apartment he shares with his wife Stella and their two young children, Isaiah and Sofia. I’ve known them for years; Peter and I both share an interest in creative writing. I write mostly plays and screenplays; he writes novels. We proceeded to a local wine bar in his upper Manhattan neighborhood, Inwood to talk serious wine. For our interview, I laid out some sample menus for each of the upcoming holidays, and Peter had interesting, insightful and sometimes even innovative ideas for pairings for each course. First up, the holiday that’s nearly upon us.


Christmas Menu


I went fairly traditional on this one, but with a few twists, and a lot more items on the menu. Appetizers: Foie Gras with truffles; spinach bacon and onion dip; sausage cheddar balls This time, Peter suggests going all-out and getting a Sauterne. I mean, it’s Christmas, right? “A Guiraud would be a good choice for this; it’s a bit more affordable but has great balance and acidity, with a taste of honey and honeysuckle and that great note of celery seed.” Champagne is another way to go on this. “A Blanc de Noir from Jean Josselin would do well.” Main course: Bone-in smoked ham; scalloped potatoes; asparagus with hollandaise; glazed carrots; green beans almondine; buttermilk biscuits Peter smiles and makes a little sound of pleasure at the mention of ham. “A French red Syrah, for instance Domaine Faury St-Joseph would be excellent here. The notes of red cherry black cherry and pepper would compliment the meat well. You could also go for a domestic Cabernet or Bordeaux, like Robert Senskey’s POV. It’s Merlot based, with a mixture of softer dark fruit and again that peppery spice.” Is there a recommendation for white here? “No,” he replies decisively. “I honestly can’t think of a white that works as well with the smoked ham.” Dessert: Flourless chocolate cake; apple strudel; assorted Christmas cookie (we know everyone will bring some) Peter suggests a Tawny Port, such as Kopke’s Ten-Year Tawny Port. “It will work well with the chocolate. For a white, you could go with a German Riesling, like an Auslese. The grapes are left on the vine until they’re almost raisins, which yields the highest sweetness. It’s almost like Ice Wine, but not nearly as expensive.” Now let’s move on to another holiday that’s a foodie’s dream come true.


Hanukkah Menu


Again, I went with some traditional dishes but with a few unexpected choices. Appetizer Pepper cheese and sugared pecan salad; spinach feta mushroom pie “For the pie, I’d suggest Assyrtiko, a Greek wine from Santorini. Karamolegos is a good label. It has a smoky, almost ashy flavor, owing to the volcanic history of Santorini. It will pair well with the feta.” To pair with the salad, an Italian Prosecco is in order. “Terre de San Venanzio Fortunato – yes, I know that’s a long name for a label, but it will work beautifully with the pepper cheese and pecans. It’s rich but dry, with enough fruit to take on the pecans.” Main Course Braised Brisket with carrots and onions; potato latkes; roasted sweet potatoes; haricot verts with almonds “Ah yes. Brisket, of course. I’d go with either a Médoc Bordeaux or California Cabernet. For the Médoc, you could do a Saint Estephe; for the California Cabernet, I’d say White Rock, which is a small but well-regarded producer; it has a heartier, darker fruit.” Again, no white choices for the brisket. Dessert New York Style Cheesecake; honey cake; Hanukkah sugar cookies “I’d do a Ruby Port, such as Niepoort. It’s grapey and bright, with a good sweetness to stand up to the richness of the cheesecake and honey cake.” Did you think I’d leave Kwanzaa out? Of course I wouldn’t!


Kwanzaa Menu


Okay, I had to do some web searching on this, l plead guilty to being more than a little out-of-the-loop on this holiday. It seems most Kwanzaa menus combine some traditional African dishes with Southern American cuisine, as well as a touch of Jamaican. Appetizers Salmon croquettes, fried plantain with spicy tomato relish “I’d suggest something rich – a Pinot Noir Rose would work well here. The Marsannay district in France produces some of the best. Regis Bouvier is a good label to look for. It has freshness, with a trace of bright cherry, high acidity and a light body.” Main Course Jerk Chicken; curried sweet potato puree; collard greens; grits and roasted vegetables with hazelnut butter; corn bread “Here my first choice would be Chateauneuf du Pape. Its roots go back to the Great Schism at the end of the 14th Century, when the Pope and the Vatican actually left Rome for Avignon in France. It was during this time that winemaking began to truly flourish in the area near the Rhone River. The Vatican went back to Italy eventually, but Avignon continued to produce some of the greatest wines of Southern France. The Chateauneuf has great richness, with dark fruit flavors of blueberry, black currant and black raspberry. It’s rich, smooth and will stand up well to the spice. If you want something domestic, I’d suggest a Zinfandel, the Bedrock label is a good choice. It’s a soft wine, good with spice.” Dessert Sweet Potato Pie; Glazed Mango Pound Cake Peter pronounces a word that I need him to repeat – and spell. “Zibibbo! It’s a Sicilian white wine, with a darker color and a hint of apple and caramel. It’s rich and will pair nicely with the pie. Pellegrino produces a good one. You could also pick a Moscato d’Asti, like the one produced by Villa Santero. It’s sparkling with flavors of almond, almond cream, marzipan and orange, great with the mango cake.” Well, with that, we finished our beers and left the wine bar. Yes, I have to confess we were talking wine but drinking beer. In the wine bar. The holidays should have a little irony, right?

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