Food-Friendly Washington Wines

Our wine experts helps you highlight a carefully chosen holiday menu with great local wines.

When people talk about “food-friendly” wines, what do they mean? Wine and food just naturally go together, right? Well, yes. And no. Sometimes you just want a glass of wine—when you’re on a boat or in front of the fire, say—and at those times, you want a wine that will stand alone. But when you think of a meal—especially one with multiple courses—a different mindset will help you highlight a carefully chosen menu, rather than just emphasize the wine. In a good pairing, the wine’s fruitiness, acidity or tannin won’t overwhelm the food.

The way we eat today is vastly different than dinner parties of yore—or even 10 years ago. The influence of world cuisines on our menus along with the attention to individual diets—vegetarian, gluten-free, vegan—make a dinner party or holiday meal a more fascinating, albeit sometimes confusing, proposition. Today, sometimes the easiest way to go is to have a potluck, allowing people to choose what they wish.

So how does Washington wine play into all this? It’s amusing to look at turn-of-the-century etiquette maven Emily Post’s set-in-stone menu lineups—hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, entrée, roast (yes, separate courses), salad, dessert, coffee—just for giggles. But even she was flummoxed by the whole operation at times: “Aspics and desserts are, it must be said, occasionally Chinese puzzles, but if you do help yourself to part of the decoration, no great harm is done.” Aspic? Now, we put the cheese and salad first, rather than at the end of the meal to aid digestion. Now, we accommodate individual diets and don’t feel we have to serve white wine with fish and red with meat. People eat what they like, and people drink what they like. But if you’d like to do a multiple-course meal, or just make a potluck seem less chaotic, carefully chosen wines can help build on flavors and make the whole endeavor seem more cohesive.

To begin, bubbles are always appropriate. Washington is producing more and more sparkling wine, and a special sparkling wine, such as Bellingham’s Masquerade Wine Company’s Effervescing Elephant (not only is it tasty, but part of the proceeds from its sale are donated to African elephants at risk), can go from a welcoming glass to an accompaniment for appetizers or cheeses. In the winter, Northwest oysters are incredibly good, so I like to have a very crisp, dry white available to highlight these lovely, ice-cold gems that taste of the sea. A bright, crisp Chenin Blanc, such as the 2010 from Kirkland’s Cedergreen Cellars, is a great pairing, but there are many good choices. Stay away from oaky wines or Sauvignon Blancs that have too much grassiness or are too herbaceous. The wine should be clean and “friendly” to the oyster, not overshadow it.

Light reds go wonderfully with many a main course, and this is usually because they aren’t too oaky, too fruity or too tannic. Washington Sangioveses (such as Tulpen Cellars’) or Tempranillos (try one from Seven Hills Winery), Rosés (see page 59), or even Merlots (I like Northstar Winery’s)—are all good choices to go with Thanksgiving turkey, or with chicken, duck, pork or tomato-based pastas. For meat, whether grilled, braised or roasted, a smoky Syrah or savory Cabernet is a good option. For spicy foods, an off-dry (slightly sweet) Riesling or softer, fruity Merlot works. Tannic wines feel more tannic with spicy foods.

For the last course, a dessert wine such as a late-harvest Riesling works with both light cheeses or fruit pies—as long as they’re not too sweet. I actually find that a white dessert wine with citrus and honey notes works better with dark chocolate than does Port. If the dessert is sweet or has milk chocolate, stick with coffee.

In the end, you should drink what you like, but keeping simple options available at holiday meals makes it easier for everyone to do what’s most important: Enjoy the season.

Shannon’s Picks

Cedergreen 2007 Thuja, Columbia Valley, $25
A blend of Merlot (80 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon (20 percent), this wine is lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than many Cab/Merlot blends, which makes it a great wine to have on the table. Pairs with: Beef tenderloin with cherry and red wine demi-glace.

Maison Bleue 2011 “La Famille” Rosé of Mourvèdre, Yakima Valley, $20
This lovely dry rosé is mostly Mourvèdre (90 percent) for structure and complexity, and a bit of Grenache (10 percent) for fruit and spice. Pairs with: Duck prosciutto with cantaloupe.

Airfield Estates 2009 Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, Yakima Valley, $20
The aromatic Gewürztraminer grape makes an amazing dessert wine, and this one is an excellent value as well. Lush and silky, with aromas of honey and lychee fruit, this may be too good to drink with food. Pairs with: Panna cotta with orange peel.

Cedergreen Cellars 2010 Chenin Blanc, Columbia Valley, $17
Cedergreen’s Chenin Blanc is a Top 10 choices in Jon Rowley’s Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. This wine has intense citrus and ginger notes, and a fresh acidity that cleanses the palate. Pairs with: A naked Buck Bay or Judd Cove Pacific oyster from Orcas Island.

Masquerade Wine Company 2007 Effervescing Elephant, Columbia Valley, $35 (not shown)
One of the few sparkling wines that incorporate the classic Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, this wine is both dry and luscious, with the aroma of brioche and pear skin, along with a beautiful pale straw gold color and fine bubble. Pairs with: Those delicious tiny Costco quiches!