The bird, the roast and the ham may reign at most American tables when the holidays come around, but every family has its own quirky traditions as well, even (especially?) those of sommeliers. We asked 15 wine pros from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners what less-conventional dishes and wines they break out during the holidays, and what specialties their restaurants put on the menu. From Friendsgiving with Sherry to Korean dumplings with Riesling to cinnamon rolls and Champagne, here's what they told us.
Want more suggestions for holiday pairings, including tips for Thanksgiving, roast beef feasts and party sparklers? Pick up a copy of our Nov. 30 issue, and check out "Sommeliers Pair the Holidays."
Wine Spectator: What's a holiday pairing your restaurant specializes in? What's a tradition in your family?
One of my biggest traditions is Friendsgiving. This started in about 2007. We would get together on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and make the most amazing food out of our crappy apartment kitchens. And there's no turkey—that's one part of the tradition.
I'm the one who's the wine contributor for that dinner, so if someone handed me a special bottle of Champagne or I just happen to have some old bottles I've held onto from my travels, Friendsgiving is when I open up those bottles. It could be anything—it could be a super-old bottle of Barolo; I opened up a bottle of 40-year-aged single-barrel Sherry from Bodegas Tradición that was super-rare and irreplaceable. That's my time to share those moments with people who are going to really appreciate it.
Jason Smith, wine director at Grand Award winner Wild Ginger in Seattle
One dish I recommend is red-cooked pork belly. Braised in soy, rock sugar and Shaoxing rice wine, it's rich and comforting. I prepare mine with whole green onions and star anise. It has deep, caramelly flavors, and the salty-sweet braising sauce is great mopped up by other dishes. Off-dry German Riesling, especially spätlese and auslese, is what I drink with it. Sugar in wine pairs perfectly with sweet and salty elements, while Riesling's powerful acidity contrasts with fatty richness. That same sugar also promotes greater versatility with any other dishes on the table, concealing sweetness. To me, the effect is like walking with snowshoes—soft, buoyant and agreeable.
We always do a version of the Noche Buena salad at Topolobampo. It's a salad representing the colors of Christmas; it usually includes beets or pomegranate seeds for red, jicama for white and greens for green, along with peanuts, orange segments, sugarcane or honey and sprinkles. Our version also has Ora King salmon.
Domaine Mosse Moussamoussettes Vin Mousseux Brut Nature Pétillant Naturel from the Loire Valley pairs because a pét-nat cuts through the rich texture of the salmon, and yeasty flavors highlight the peanut miso and fermented honey flavors; and Zorah Wines Karasì Areni Noir from Armenia also works—the deep, rich fruit is great with the sweetness of the beets and the sugarcane jus.
Elizabeth Kelso, beverage director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Craft Los Angeles
I love to be outdoors during the holidays, since the California weather is mild. Grilling heaps of green onions and dipping them in romesco sauce at a big communal outdoor table while sharing lighter Spanish red wines like Mencía and Garnacha is a fun Spanish tradition.
It’s also fun to cover a big outdoor picnic table with butcher paper and host a seafood boil with crab, prawns, clams, mussels, corn and potatoes. Dump it down the middle of the table with whole sticks of butter dispersed throughout, some torn baguettes and copious amounts of wine, and you’re in business.
Marcello Fiorentino, co-owner and wine director at Grand Award winner Marcello's La Sirena in West Palm Beach, Fla.
I know it's all about the [Feast of the Seven] Fishes on Christmas Eve, but we like a cold seafood salad with shrimp, calamari, crabmeat and fish. Celery and onions shaved very fine, with some baby arugula, lemons, garlic and olive oil. We like an island white—when I say island, I mean something like Sardinia or [the islands off] Campania. But we really love the Jankara Vermentino di Gallura 2017. I like fresh whites from Italy, young, and for me it pairs perfectly with the seafood salad.
Roasted lamb is quite traditional for holidays in Spain. I particularly love older Riojas with lamb; '01 or '04 Castillo Ygay would be tasty if anyone wants to buy some for me. That sweet, tart and sour note and bright acidity of great Riojas always makes me smile with lamb.
Another favorite is the traditional Christmastime sweet called turrón. It's basically a crunchy nougat with almonds. It's such a delightful treat on its own, but I really love drinking Cava with it, especially any of the wines from Raventós i Blanc.
Ryan Bailey, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner NoMad Los Angeles
My family bakes cinnamon rolls to have on Christmas morning. They are warm, decadent and the perfect way to start the day. I love to pop a bottle of Champagne because it’s a celebratory day, and you might as well embrace day-drinking right off the bat.
I like to go with tapas-style appetizers and end it with a locally grown free-range turkey stuffed with rice, ground lamb, spices, roasted chestnut, almond, walnut and pine nuts, served with a Riesling, mushrooms, white turnips and reduced sauce. A simple, fun, elegant way to carry the turkey tradition, but eliminate the heavy meals. I sometimes like to start the meal with a young Beaujolais or a chilled Tempranillo with my appetizer tapas or mezze—yes, chilled to 42˚ F.
Amy Mundwiler, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Maple & Ash in Chicago
I work most holidays. Thanksgiving dinner is usually around 11 p.m. and involves takeout Chinese barbecue and a bottle of Riesling. For Christmas, it's fettuccine Alfredo and white Burgundy.
Carrie Lyn Strong, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Casa Lever in New York
My family upholds our Greek traditions. Every year we make spanakopita from scratch, of course getting the feta cheese from the Greek market in Astoria, [N.Y.]. The perfect pairing for this creamy, savory vegetable dish has always been a spicy Syrah from Côte-Rôtie. Patrick Jasmin produces a spicy, lean Syrah that boldly wraps this dish in warmth.
Rebecca Kirhoffer, co-owner and wine director of Award of Excellence winner Rebeccas, in Greenwich, Conn.
My husband, chef Reza Khorshidi, makes the most delectable terrine of duck foie gras, and I remind him every year to cut me a big hunk of it to serve with our Thanksgiving celebration. Now I know many people like Sauternes with foie gras, but for the terrine I prefer to go to the greatest wines of Burgundy: Vosne-Romanée or Chambolle-Musigny are my two go-tos, preferably a single-vineyard bottling that has some age on it.
Lasagna with meatballs would not have been unusual. My father would make the sauce from scratch and sometimes the pasta as well. Usually Chianti was served, or some other red from Italy. We would suffer through the occasional bottle of Cold Duck for bubbles. Fortunately, that was eventually swapped out for Clicquot Yellow Label, but that was well after college.
Our most exciting tradition is frying a whole rib roast for Christmas. The crust you can achieve in combination with the perfectly pink interior just can’t be matched by normal roast beef preparations. Not to mention, it’s super fast! Usually we drink a few Texas beers like Live Oak Pils while the beef is frying and move into Cabernet or Syrah like Corison Napa Cabernet or Domaine Clape’s Cornas.
Turkey sandwich and an ice-cold beer after a long Thanksgiving Day service.
Joo Lee, wine director at Grand Award winner Saison in San Francisco
Although my family and I have traditional American Thanksgiving dinners, we still have Korean elements throughout the holidays. We love to sit down together and make dumplings by hand and talk about anything and everything. I always have a bottle of sweet Dönnhoff Riesling for my mother and sister, while my father and I just kick back some cold beers. I spent a considerable amount of time in my years of fine dining seeking the best pairing possible with a wide array of dishes. But I'm still a firm believer that having a memorable experience with meaningful people will make you remember what you drank forever, even if it's just a cold beer with some dumplings.
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