Skol! Salud! Cheers! Con’t

(Originally published December, 2010)

A toast to holiday spirits

By Andrew Hind

Wine is an important part of holiday festivities. We toast with it for good health, savour its taste while curled up in the warmth of fireplace, give bottles of fine vintages as thoughtful gifts, and wash down the turkey dinner with a glass or two. Wine adds a festive touch to any celebration.

But as any wine connoisseur will tell you, there’s a different wine for every occasion. How do you know what type to serve over dessert, or which best compliments the main course of your Christmas feast? With the dizzying array of wines available on the market today, picking the right one can be a confusing task. And with so much fuss over holiday details, who needs to stress about wine?

So, with the help of local wine experts, we’ll simplify things for you.

The classic Christmas dinner consists of turkey and time-honored side dishes and pudding. Thankfully, poultry is one of the easiest foods to pair with wine. Look at the back of any label – red or white – and if food-matching suggestions are offered, they’re bound to include chicken. We all know that turkey isn’t chicken, but such suggestions offer a good, basic guideline when in doubt.

“What to serve with turkey is one of the most frequently asked question at the LCBO during the holiday season, and the answer is: whatever you like,” explains Carolynne Nigro, Product Consultant at the Gravenhurst LCBO. “It’s a very versatile dish, so a lot of wines can blend well with turkey. Good matches for the red wine drinker include Pinot Noir or Gamay Noir, light reds. If you want a white wine, perhaps consider Chardonnay or Riesling.”

Ham is another festive dish, and is a bit more demanding to match wines with because of its sweetness. Nigro suggests a light red or a rosé, which has its own sweetness.

Of course, indulging in wine generally begins well before the turkey appears. Starter wines should have a lower level of alcohol, since most guests will have empty stomachs. Starter wines can be as gentle as Chablis, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Riesling. Red Ports match with cheese, walnut, and dried apricots. “You can also add some sparkle to the occasion by serving Prosecco, a delicious sparkling wine from Italy,” says Nigro

Every guest likes to delight family and guests with sinfully delicious holiday desserts. But the wine you enjoy while indulging in pumpkin pie or trifle should be different than the one had while eating dinner. The flavours just won’t be complementary, otherwise. Dessert wines are usually sweet: ice wines are popular, as are late harvest wines and port.

When it comes to picking a wine to serve at for your holiday event, why not opt for one made locally? Muskoka may not have a wealth of wineries, but it does boast the award-winning Muskoka Lakes Winery at Johnson’s Cranberry Marsh. Among their varieties of cranberry wine, three in particular stand out as great options for a festive gathering.

“Our Wild Blueberry wine, a light bodied wine, is great with turkey or pork. The Cranberry Blueberry wine is richer, but the acidity of the cranberry is balanced by the sweetness of the blueberry, and has a light fruity taste that pairs well with turkey,” says Matthew French, the youthful wine-maker at Muskoka Lakes Winery. “If you’re serving anything chocolate for dessert, try the Framberge Dessert Wine, which is a blend of cranberry and raspberry.”

Of course, there’s more to successfully serving wine than merely picking the right variety to complement a dish. To get the most out of its flavour and texture, you have to also know how best to present it. Most critical is the decision whether to chill a wine. A lot of casual wine drinkers simply don’t know which wines should be chilled, and the wine presentation suffers as a result.

“Temperature has an effect on the taste of wines,” says French. “Whites wines tend to be overpowering when warm and are best served chilled. About 30 minutes in a fridge should be enough. Don’t over chill, however, or it will mask the taste. Red wines have complex flavours that only emerge when served at room temperature.”

It’s important to note that the term ‘room temperature’ is a bit of a misnomer. In wine terms, room temperature is 14-18 degrees Celsius, more like a cellar temperature than a house temperature. As a result, even red wines should be slightly chilled.

“I recommend decanting wine. It brings out the flavour and aromatic features,” explains French. “This is a particularly good idea for young wines, home-made wines, or wine of only so-so quality. Contact with the air oxygenates the wine and smoothes it out.”

When buying wine, a general rule of thumb is half a bottle-per guest for a typical party of three-hour duration.

Nigro adds that it’s important to stress the social responsibility of drinking during the holiday season. “As host, it’s your responsibility to make sure people are smart and don’t drink and drive. Serving mocktails to designated drivers is a great idea, because you want to make them feel a part of the festivity. Serve them in a martini glass, add some fruit – make it look authentic.”

Wine helps make spirits bright at Christmas, and is a part of any holiday get-together. Knowing which wines to serve and how best to serve them, will enhance your festivities and your enjoyment of the wine itself. The stockings are hung with care, ornaments sparkle on fragrant branches, and big bows finish off bushy wreaths. The stress is over. Pour yourself a glass and enjoy.

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