“You don’t like cranberry sauce?” my mother-in-law asks every time we have turkey. Oh, she’s not judging. She’s just observing, and is genuinely dedicated to ensuring I have the best possible experience.
“I do!” I answer. “I just find it really kills the wine, which kinda tastes like cranberry, so I avoid the sauce and use the wine. You should try some!”
She’s a teetotaller, so she would never, but her sense of humour allows her to grin at my teasing counter-offer of some sauce for the sauce.
Cranberry sauce is just one of the compromising accoutrements to classic meals. When it comes to pairing, a food element too intensely sweet, hot, sour, bitter, or salty can, at best, challenge, and at worst, destroy your wine. In very rare cases, they can harmonize and elevate. Below are some preparations to beware, and some suggestions to cope.
Turkey and Cranberry Sauce
Just thinking about savoury, crisp turkey skin, creamy, buttery potatoes and rich, salty gravy sets your tummy rumbling. But it’s too much, better call cranberry sauce to the rescue. But while the fruit acids and sugar freshen up the flavours, unfortunately, they also foil any wine you might serve, so serve wine instead.
Even though pinot noir is classic, this harvest-type meal will welcome Cru Beaujolais or other gamay noir wines. If you must keep the cranberry sauce, experiment with pink wine – something on the crisper side, like a cool climate pinot noir rosé.
Ham and Pineapple
You know you’ve made it if you’re on a pizza. Sweet, tropical, moist pineapple chunks or glaze lifts ham’s relentless saltiness. Unfortunately, the fruit’s high sugar will sour wine while the acid will emphasize the alcohol. Finally, pineapple’s intense fruitiness will suppress the actual fruit flavour of any wine you serve. Meet the high sweet acid- fruit components of the dish with a similarly scaled-up wine. Serve an Auslese riesling, or eliminate the pineapple altogether and go with a Kabinett-level riesling, or a fruity, soft red like zinfandel or grenache, or pinot noir.
Maple Glazed Salmon
Salmon can pair perfectly with lighter reds and weightier whites. Dill, butter, asparagus, lemon – any of these in moderation works with wine. While a maple glaze will add a sweet counterpoint to the distinctly fleshy fillet and savoury skin, its sweetness can waylay your wine. Since acidity isn’t your worry in this case, try an off-dry Alsatian gewürztraminer as the lychee and jasmine flavours will complement the maple.
Roast Beef Dinner
The boiled green beans, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and jus could be your Sunday evening tradition, a wedding meal option, or on the restaurant menu as a meal to share. But hold your horse…radish. The combination makes a formidable enemy of any wine on the planet. Fortunately, we typically only dab small amounts on our plate, and the other rich textures and flavours from the beef, jus, and potatoes easily override it, so no need to cancel your claret. Before sipping your wine, have a mouthful of meat without the horseradish, or neutralize with a bit of roast potato.
Lamb and Mint Sauce or Jelly
This distinctly British condiment is believed to have carried over from the Middle Ages. When mint leaves sprouted they were mixed with other seasonal roots, shoots, nuts, berries and herbs. Then a sheep was chosen for the chopping block, and the mint mixture would tame its intensely gamey flavour. But when isolated and amplified as part of a spicy sauce with vinegar and sugar, or as a sweet jelly, it becomes wine’s worst nightmare. Go ahead – brush your teeth before decanting a Chateauneufdu- Pape or Pomerol – I dare you. Simply avoid mint sauces and jellies, or find subtler ways to integrate the flavour, such as yoghurt with cucumber, as in Greek and Middle Eastern dishes.
Duck and Cherry
This one is a little trickier, as duck is so fatty and meaty that a little tang lifts the whole thing. If using cherries (or orange, or blackberries) as a glaze or reduction, less is more. It plays back to the pineapple problem – fruit acids and sugars will massacre your wine. Pinot noir counts as a classic pairing for duck because of its already cherry-like flavour and fat-cutting acidity. If you have too much of a too-strong sauce, your wine willwhimper.
Pork and Applesauce
The further down the list we go, the more apparent one principle becomes: wine IS, or at least should be, the sauce. Savoury yet light-protein pork dances with the tart tang and mild sweetness of applesauce. Here’s the thing, though: riesling tastes like the grown-up liquid form of a Granny Smith. If you “don’t like white wine”, but do like applesauce on your pork chop, think of the wine as the sauce. Chefs and home chefs alike strive to execute a dish that harmonizes the flavour relationships – balancing salt with sweet, savoury with sour – yet still incorporating wine to great effect. Most of the difficulties stem from fruit served with savoury dishes. The trick is not to eliminate these elements entirely, but rather to tame them. Use less, and work your glaze or reduction to suggest and enhance rather than flavour your dish. And chuck your mint sauce.