Holiday Wine Pairing Advice: What to Drink With Ham, Lamb, Prime Rib, and More
If you're planning a Christmas dinner menu and making a list, you might have forgotten one important ingredient: the wine. It's worth picking up a few bottles now so you're not stuck with just the choices at your grocery store when you go to get that last-minute stick of butter. (Who are we kidding...more like that last-minute 10 sticks of butter.)
Here's our holiday wine pairing advice—our picks for what to drink with crab, porchetta, ham, lamb, beef, duck, and goose.
It's Dungeness crab season on the West Coast, so if you're celebrating the holidays in, say, San Francisco or the Pacific Northwest, it's likely that you'll put a crab-cracker to good use at Christmas dinner. (Unless, of course, someone's already done the work for you.) What to drink with this seasonal local delicacy? We ate our way through a couple of two-pounders to figure out the best pairings.
Arbe Garbe 2012 Russian River Valley ($28) is a dry blend of 45% Pinot Grigio, 40% Malvasia Bianca, 15% Gewurztraminer. It's all about exotic spice and a subtly musky floral side, with a lemon-drop acidity that curves around and leaves your mouth watering. The sexy skeins of nutmeg and anise are just right for crab served with fresh pasta and brown butter.
Grown at an elevation of 1400 feet, Enfield Heron Lake 2011 Chardonnay is a gorgeous, crush-worthy wine made in a pretty tiny batch: winemaker-on-the-rise John Lockwood produced only 80 cases. If you see a bottle, buy. (I just ordered three bottles and wish I'd sprung for more.) The wine sweeps in with oyster-shell minerality, a touch of smoke and soft vanilla surrounding a core of yellow pear and fennel with tangy acidity that makes this perfect for serving with rich Dungeness crab (or seared scallops.)
If you prefer your Chardonnay on the crisper side, you'll want to look for stainless steel-fermented examples to work like a squeeze of lemon on your seafood. Chateau de Béru 2011 Chablis is a lovely example from the stony fossilized seashell-studded soils of a historic estate (now biodynamically farmed), and bottled without filtration or fining. It's mineral, first and foremost, but pierced through with zingy citrus and green apple.
For the adventurous: Benjamin Zidarich has a small estate in Friuli, on the Slovenian border of Italy. He's one of the growers responsible for reviving the nearly-disappeared Vitovska grape. Many producers in the region make 'orange wines' macerating their white wine grapes on the skins, the way you would to make more tannic red wine. Zidarich's young-vine white, Zidarich 2011 Vitovksa Verde ($28) sit on the skins for around two weeks for a touch of texture, then ages in wooden barrels for a year, and is unfined and unfiltered. If your crowd is up for trying something new, this cloudy wine is a fun adventure: it's quite saline, as if filled with limestone, with acidity that is halfway between lemon and cider. It's really all about texture, though, the minerals and tannins finely woven but noticeable—it's like tea that you let rest on your tongue. And it's wonderful with crab cakes.
The key to success with a dish as rich as porchetta is finding a wine with enough tartness to cut through the fattiness of the dish and refresh you between bites, but enough body to keep from tasting thin against such rich food.
Bubbles add a third winning factor: the carbonation scrubs your tongue, lifting the pork's richness away. We recommend Raventós i Blanc 2011 De Nit Brut Rosé ($23), an astoundingly delicious Spanish sparkler made in the Champagne method from a mix of biodynamically farmed grapes. It's full of rich flavors of strawberry and cream and a touch of smoky almond, ready to cozy up to pork and its juices. But this wine also has the mouthwatering acidity (think lemon and orange marmalade) to refresh and reset the palate with each bite. It was a member of the Raventós family who made the first Cava in 1872. This bottle does the tradition proud.
If your crowd prefers white wine, we'd recommend choosing a well-made Chenin Blanc. Champalou Vouvray 2011 is a steal at $20, silky and polished with a voluptous texture that fits right in, but enough fruity tartness to cut through the dish and keep things bright. It's classy wine, helpful to have by the case for all your fancy holiday entertaining.
Want to offer a red wine option? Pinot noir—as long as it's not too big and ripe or too heavily oaked—is what you need. It has the bright fruit and acidity to cut through this intense dish, without overpowering the pork's more delicate flavors. Crowley 2011 Entre Nous Pinot Noir ($30) from Oregon brings together grapes from the Dundee Hills and the Chehalem Mountains. It's aged without any new oak, and the result is deliciously bright and tart, like cranberries and crushed raspberries with a touch of clove and earth. If your glass of wine is basically a condiment you enjoy with your meal, this is just the kind of relish you'll want between bites. Stuffing that porchetta with mushrooms and herbs? Then this wine will work even better.
Like porchetta, there's a richness factor to think about when you're pairing wine and ham. But there's also sometimes a little smokiness, plus there might be sweetness if you've glazed your ham before serving. But don't worry, wine can handle it. Especially sparkling wine.
We wouldn't pair glazed ham with a super-dry bubbly, but we'd definitely recommend popping open a bottle of Domaine Brazilier Methode Trad Brut ($15), which is made with a blend of Chenin Blanc and Pineau d'Aunis, using the Champagne method. This is a luscious sparkler that's rich enough to handle the ham's fattiness, and the bubbles will help cleanse the palate between bites. The fruity flavors (think spiced apples and quince) are just right for matching up with whatever glaze you've chosen.
For the adventurous: If your guests are up for trying something different (and a little nerdy), it's also fun to pair pink glazed ham with an unusual pink bubbly: NV Frantz Saumon Petillant Naturel 'La cave se rebiffe' ($22). Made mostly from gamay, and sealed with a beer cap, it's fruity and yeasty and fun, a bit like a biscuit with both strawberry jam and bitter orange marmalade on it. If you're going with smoked country ham, this wine can definitely handle it. (This bottle would work well as a refreshing counterpoint to rich porchetta, too. If you're serving both, you're set—and I want an invitation.)
Whether you're serving a roasted rack of lamb or making a leg of lamb stuffed with garlic and mint and cooking it on the grill, we approve of your holiday plan. Just one thing: you'll need wine that brings out the earthy flavors of the meat and amps up the herbs you've used in your prep. Look for these, and you can't go wrong.
I recommend this wine constantly because it's such a great value: Produttori del Barbaresco Nebbiolo Langhe 2011 ($20) is made with 100% Nebbiolo from a cooperative with 52 members—mostly using the young vines they've decided not to include in their upmarket Barbaresco. The result is herbal and pretty, with dried cherry flavors and a lovely eucalyptus side once it gets enough air. (Pour it in a decanter or pitcher 30 minutes before dinner for best results.) Rub your rack of lamb with rosemary, mint, or herbs de provence, and this wine will work its magic. You can serve this with prime rib
Up for splurging a little, since it's a holiday? Napa Cabernet can get into the hundred dollar zone really fast, but you can find some values if you look to Washington state. Buty 2009 Columbia Rediviva ($50) from Buty's Phinny Hill Vineyard estate vineyard in Washington's Horse Heaven Hills is a luxurious blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah that offers a lovely silky texture brightened with juniper berry and cracked pepper flavors. These spice notes, mingling with rich purple fruit, make this just the wine to serve with a juicy rack of lamb.
Roast beef and prime rib are Christmas classics, and it's hard to go wrong with whatever red wine you're craving, especially if you whip up a red wine sauce with the pan juices.
Made with half Zweigelt and half Blaufrankisch, Claus Preisinger Basic 2011 ($18) from the Burgenland area of Austria is a crowd pleaser, all crushed blueberries and black cherries with just a touch of iron that'll complement your meat. The grapes might be hard to spell, but this supple wine is as easy drinking as can be. If you regularly drink Shiraz, you'll like this, too.
Scarborough 2010 Royale ($35) is a nice blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot from Washington's Columbia Valley. It comes together with luscious, savory results, the Cab Franc helping boost an herbal side, bringing out bay leaf and rosemary, plus a touch of black olive and mint, all in support of bright, juicy fruit. Bring out the juicy prime rib, and be sure to crack on some freshly ground pepper.
Turley 2011 'Old Vines' Zinfandel ($35) is made from a collection of 15 different vineyards, with vines age 50 to 120 years old. All the Turley wines have a rich silky texture and impressive acidity (especially given the soaring alcohol levels). This wine is remarkably bright, full of tart dark cherry flavor, spiced with black pepper, clove, and rosemary. Season your roast beef accordingly. (If you're looking for a gift that'll really wow your Christmas host, the Turley 2011 Ueberroth Vineyard Zinfandel and their 2011 Hayne Valley Vineyard are stunners, the Ueberroth earthy and figgy, the Hayne broader, with more generous blueberry fruit.)
Roast Duck or Goose
Kellerei St. Magdalena 2011 'Perl' Lagrein ($19) comes to us by way of Alto Adige in Northeastern Italy, where wines are labeled in both Italian and German. The fruit is silky, soft and lush (think ripe plums, roasted together with citrus wheels), but this wine also has a meaty edge and hint of titillating smoke which is right at home with game birds.
Le Volte dell'Ornellaia 2010 ($30) is a blend of Merlot, Sangiovese, and Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 10 months in barriques that were used for the ageing of the pricier Ornellaia flagship. This Tuscan wine is juicy (think brandied cocktail cherries) and silky, luxurious in a way that'll impress your relatives. The touch of clove-like spice makes it a good match for roast duck or goose—rub a little pepper on the skin.
One other reminder: just because Thanksgiving's over doesn't mean we should stop drinking gamay. Quite the opposite is true. Keep on pounding that Cru Beaujolais especially with dishes like duck and goose. Or, if you're feeling a little adventurous, look to the northern Rhone for Hervé Souhaut Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet 2012 La Souteronne ($28), a funky little semi-carbonic gamay grown on 60 to 80 year old vines. Let it get a little air and you'll get gobs of black pepper and sappy juniper berries, with a background of juicy cherries and cranberries.
Tasting samples provided for review consideration for all wines except the Souhaut and Frantz Saumon.