Note. In honor of the upcoming holidays and all of their associated dinners, I’m revisiting a post I wrote last year for the Pittsburgh Observer (November 2009). Happy Thanksgiving!
I recently completed a six-week wine appreciation course through the Community College of Beaver County’s noncredit class program. My fellow classmates and I were fortunate to be taught by two wine experts, Alex Sebastian, owner of the Wooden Angel restaurant in Beaver, PA, and Belinda Alvarez, a sales consultant for Southern Wine and Spirits of Pennsylvania. In addition to putting together his restaurant’s award-winning, all-American wine list, Sebastian is also a member of the wine advisory council on the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PALCB).
To help you impress your friends and family with your ability to pair food and wine at your holiday meals, here are some tips I learned during the course.
- Food and wine pairings are more “guidelines” than rules. “The bottom line is to drink what you like,” Sebastian kept telling us throughout the course.
- That said, some wines go better with some foods than others. What you want to try for is to either match the robustness of the wine with the food or create an interesting contrast. For example, a spicy, full-bodied shiraz or zinfandel goes really well with something like peppered steak; on the other hand, a sweeter wine like Gewurztraminer pairs well with sour German dishes and spicy Indian foods.
- Stop thinking in terms of reds and whites. In the past, the rule of thumb was always to drink whites with lighter-colored foods like fish and chicken and to sip reds with darker foods like pork or beef. However, with a Thanksgiving turkey for example, either red or white wine would work. Again, it’s all about matching body or creating contrast.
- According to Sebastian, sparkling wine is appropriate for any occasion or dish.
For Thanksgiving specifically,
- Select white wines that are not aged in oak, such as sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio. Steer clear of chardonnay unless you can find an unoaked variety. The oakiness can be too much with the variety of dishes.
- Choose light- to medium-bodied reds with low tannins, such as pinot noir or merlot. Drink reds on the cooler side (about 60 degrees) for Thanksgiving to pair better with all of the dishes.
- If you want to try sparkling wine, stick with the drier varies such as brute (the driest) or extra dry. (Hint: If you’re going to be a dinner guest this Thanksgiving, a bottle of sparkling wine makes a great hostess gift that can either be enjoyed at the meal or saved for when the hostess can actually relax.)
Both Sebastian and Alvarez stressed that a great bottle of wine doesn’t have to be expensive. Nearly every wine we sampled during the six weeks was under $20, and a few of my favorites were even under $10.
They also praised a new PALCB program called Chairman’s Selection. Although I haven’t purchased any of those wines yet, it seems like a great deal. Like the Walmart of wines, PALCB uses its buying power to purchase a variety of vintages in bulk and then passes the savings along to customers. Current Chairman’s Selections include such deals as a $54.99 bottle of ice wine on sale for $12.99 and a $64 bottle of cabernet sauvignon (that received 94 out of 100 possible points from Wine Enthusiast) on sale for $19.99. The biggest savings I saw today was a $150 bottle of French wine for the whoppingly low price of $14.99. Of course, not all selections are available in all state stores, and really good deals sell out quickly. The PALCB site also lists upcoming Chairman’s Selections for your planning convenience.
Finally, Pittsburgh’s best-kept wine secret may be Dreadnought Wines in the Strip District. If you have a favorite wine you’ve sampled outside the state and would like to serve for the holidays but are having a hard time purchasing in PA, Dreadnought may be able to help. The store is one of the few in the state that are not owned by the PALCB and therefore may be able to special order the wine if the PALCB cannot. Another benefit is that Dreadnought can sometimes order single bottles, whereas PALCB often requires purchases by the case.