Nov. 5 2008 12:00 AM

A low-pressure guide to complementing holiday feasts

A low-pressure guide to complementing holiday feasts

With the holiday season approaching, it’s time to start thinking about wines that complement festive dinners. I’m not a fan of rigid rules for matching wines and food; for the most part, if cuisine I really like is on the table along with wine I really like, that’s fine by me. But there are some matches that tend to work well with traditional holiday fare, such as turkey, dressing and cranberries; or baked ham and sweet potato casserole.

Sparkling wines are frequently overlooked as dinner accompaniments, but they tend to work well with a variety of foods (the acidity and crispness cut through fats nicely) and are always appropriate for any celebratory occasion. Consider sparklers from Michigan producers Bel Lago or L. Mawby; an Italian Prosecco, such as San Giovanni Brut; or even New Zealand’s Lindauer Brut, which is a fabulous value.

For white wine fans, a flavor packed semi-dry Riesling is a very diverse food wine. Again, there should be nice balancing acids in the wine, so I tend to avoid Rieslings from hot-weather growing areas and seek out Rieslings from cooler regions, such as Michigan, Ontario, New York and, of course, Germany. You won’t find the word “semi-dry” on a German label, so seek out German wines stating “Qualittswein mit Prdikat” on the label (a measure of quality) and also “Kabinett” or “Sptlese.” Sptlese Rieslings tend to be slightly sweeter than the Kabinetts. Reliable Michigan labels include Left Foot Charley, Forty Five North, Chateau Grand Traverse, Black Star Farms and Shady Lane.

Red wine fans should consider a lighter style, to complement the more straightforward flavors of poultry or ham, and a much bigger wine to stand up to highly spiced dressings, cranberry sauces and casseroles. Pinot noir is always a good companion with holiday meals. Michigan is a good source of flavorful pinot noir in a lighter style, but look to California, Oregon and New Zealand for bigger, juicier styles.

The central coast region of California, including the Monterey and Santa Barbara areas, produces nicely balanced wines. Dependable Michigan labels include Bel Lago, Forty Five North, Brys Estate, Black Star Farms, Bowers Harbor, Lemon Creek and Longview. Good value New Zealand choices include The Crossings and Kim Crawford.

Finally, my personal favorite holiday wine is always a big, jammy, opaque Zinfandel from California. It stands up beautifully to all the competing, powerful flavors and aromas and, although bone dry, a ripe Zinfandel has tremendous sweetness of fruit that balances well against the sweet components in the food. This may be a controversial choice, as some wine critics lobby against Zinfandel as a food wine due to its high alcohol content and typical ripeness, but wine is all about individual tastes. Try Zins from Bogle, Cline, Marietta, Rancho Zabaco, XYZin, Ravenswood, Rosenblum and Ridge.

Remember, there is no “wrong” when it comes to personal preferences. If you like it, it’s right! In vino veritas.

(Michael Brenton is president of the Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly)