Picking THE holiday wines from memory

A lineup of sauternes wines.
When I was growing up, wine was something served in our house only on holidays. Cocktails were the order of the day, and to this moment they remain my preference. But, when it comes to mealtimes, I delight in pairing wines and foods. I find the variety available in these days of global cuisine makes it less of a chore than it had been long ago.

The first "holiday wine" I recall being poured at our dinner table was a chilled sauternes, a French sweet wine from the Sauternais region of Bordeaux. I didn't know it was a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea -- also known as "noble rot" -- that causes the grapes to contract and concentrate their juice to raise the flavor level. I did know it tasted great with turkey.

As I grew older, my tastes ran toward drier wines, a fairly natural progression that has led me to regularly imbibe Rieslings, the Alsatian style white that has become a huge seller in the U.S. There are several varieties of Riesling, from dry to semi-dry to sweet to ice wine. Its vintage-after-vintage improvement has helped it reach elite status at domestic and international wine competitions in a comparatively short time.

The strong consumer acceptance of Rieslings has come as Finger Lakes Rieslings have taken the lead in quality and consistency. Australia's Canberra International Riesling Challenge is arguably the top such competition in the world. Sheldrake Point, a Finger Lakes stalwart, in October saw its 2010 Riesling Ice Wine win the "USA Perpetual Trophy for Best American Riesling," just a year after its 2008 Late Harvest Riesling was named "Best Sweet Wine in the World" at the same event.

Another Finger Lakes winemaker, Dr. Konstantin Frank, took home "Best Varietal" honors in the prestigious International Eastern Wine Competition with its 2008 Riesling, Bunch Select Late Harvest.

But, lest we think Rieslings are the only good picks to go with such a mish-mash of flavors and textures for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals as turkey or ham, root vegetables or green beans, roasted yams or mashed potatoes, apple sauce or cranberry sauce, pumpkin or lemon meringue pies ... Think again.

There are several other wines that trace their heritage to the same Alsace region that over the years has belonged first to France, then to Germany, then back to France, and so on, and have become standards in U.S. vineyards, particularly in New York, Oregon, Washington, Virginia and Texas. They all share a clean bite, can range from sweet to bone dry, and work well with a variety of foods so common to our holiday tables. A few examples:

Gewurtztraminer --
Very Riesling-like, but spicier and something that will stand up to herb-infused birds, stuffing and the like.

Pinot Gris -- Especially good as a first-course wine with citrusy or even creamy salad dressings, or with cheese platters.

Zinfandel -- This is a key building block in California's wine industry and has been for more than a century and a half. It originally appeared in Croatia but has become a New World darling. It is available in every shade from pure white to golden yellow to pink to reddish hues. Goes great with virtually any kind of meat and isn't so robust it overpowers lighter side dishes.

When it comes to the after-dinner drink, here we get into the realm of individual preference. There are no wrongs or rights. Everything from a syrupy Frangelico liqueur to a less viscous port wine will work, often depending upon the ethnicity of the imbiber and what customs the household observes.

And, of course, there always is sauternes. Really? Yes, the more mature vintages that tend toward a heavier viscosity make excellent postprandial treats. Ah yes, I remember it well.

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