Go French for the Holidays

There is a saying that “the French can’t imagine food without wine” or more importantly, “wine without food.” Of course this statement is a generalization, but there is a reason why Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, for example, are among the first that come to mind when selecting wines to pair with fine cuisine. Simply put, the relatively mild growing conditions in France combined with the restraint practiced by French winemakers usually leads to wines that are more elegant and less likely to overwhelm the meals they are destined to complement.

Unfortunately, most people take one look at French wine labels, which are notorious for their lack of information, and move to the next section of the store (or wine list) when picking a wine for dinner. Remembering a few simple points, however, can help to demystify French wine, and the holiday dinners that are right around the corner represent an excellent opportunity for you and yours to discover a wide range of styles of wine from one of the most important winemaking countries in the world.

If your holiday meal features turkey (or chicken, Cornish game hen, etc.), consider serving a white wine from the regions of Burgundy or Alsace. Although the label will not usually say so, white Burgundies are always 100% Chardonnay, but with greater acidity and less oak influence than their counterparts in California. Alsatian wines are some of the most food-friendly in the world, thanks to their high levels of acidity. And if you thought all Rieslings were sweet, those from Alsace are almost always bone-dry!

White meat does not always require white wine. Some sauces or stuffing (those including mushrooms or berry fruits, for example) scream for a red wine pairing. Some family members might also scream for red wine! Look no further than Burgundy, whose red wines are made from 100% Pinot Noir. The lighter body and pleasant blend of cherry and earthy flavors in red Burgundies make them perfect companions for poultry (and many vegetarian) dishes. Beaujolais Nouveau, which is coincidentally released just before Thanksgiving every year, is a red alternative to Burgundy. Beaujolais Nouveau is a simple red wine bottled just weeks after it is harvested and fermented. Its freshness and zesty acidity make it a great celebration wine that has the same effect on turkey as cranberry sauce.

Red Burgundies are versatile enough to be paired with beef and lamb as well. To diversify your French wine experience, try a red wine from Bordeaux or the Rhone. The grape varieties from these regions are heartier than Pinot Noir and can stand up to stronger flavors often-found in red-meat dishes. Without many exceptions, red Bordeaux wines are blends comprised primarily of the beef- and lamb-loving Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot variety. But if your holiday fare includes game (e.g., wild boar, elk, venison), you simply must try a red from the Rhone for its smoky, peppery, earthy, and leathery qualities.

By the way, remember that wine will taste differently with food than it does on its own. A red wine that seems harsh when you first take a sip from the bottle will become tamer once you take a bite of cheese or meat. This evolution of flavors is a critical part of food and wine pairing fun.

Finally, do not assume that French wines are expensive. There are many great “value wines” from France available here in the Loudoun County area. You don’t need to pay more than $10 for a decent bottle of French wine.

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