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Wine of the Week

Old World or New World: Holiday Wines for Everyone From Carnivores to Vegans

By Wes Marshall, Fri., Nov. 26, 2010

Wine of the Week

  Here's the dilemma: People overeat during the holidays. The question is, do you want your wine to perform its traditional task – to cleanse the palate with its acidity and please the taste buds and nose with its fruitiness – or do you want something bold enough to be a dominant part of the meal? Is your wine's most important role at the table with the meal or as an aperitif before the meal? Or maybe both?

Making this decision (known among som­meliers as the Old World or New World question) can help you determine the best wine for your get-together. Old World wines – those from Europe – are meant for the dining table. By themselves, Old World wines are often considered too acidic and dry for standing around chatting at a party. New World wines are usually more generous in their fruitiness and restrained in their acidity.

The other conundrum is which wines to serve with what food. Carni­vores have it easy, with a huge range of wines for every taste. Vege­tar­i­ans can be tougher to accommodate, because many cooks try to amp up the flavors with additional spices or sweeteners, both of which play havoc with the more delicate Old World wines. But vegans have it worst, because most wines use egg whites to remove colloids from the wine so it doesn't look cloudy. Some wines use a vegan-friendly clay called bentonite for fining the wines, but they don't always let retailers know. Here are some recommendations.

One type of wine works for everyone: Champagne. It's a great aperitif and the single best matchup with food in the whole wine world. While these two Old World versions are a bit expensive, both Bollinger Special Cuvée ($55) and Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Brut ($32) are vegan-friendly. For everyone else, Gruet Blanc de Noirs ($14) could easily be mistaken for a $35 bottle of champagne. Ditto for the J Vineyards & Winery Cuvée 20 ($19), a very delicate and elegant wine.

The old saying about white wine with white meats has some limited use, but not during the holidays, when meals are heavy and deserve the extra oomph of a red wine. My favorite Old World red grape for the holidays is the Gamay, the grape that makes Beaujolais in the Burgundy area. Most people with any knowledge at all of Beaujolais came to it through the wretched Nouveau wines released the third Thursday of each November. Historically, these wines allowed people to get a barrel sample and make an educated guess at how the vintage was going to be. In the last two decades, Beaujolais marketers have hyped the release as a celebration of a wonderful taste experience, but the plan has backfired because Nou­veau is generally awful, and now consumers think all Beau­jo­lais tastes similarly bad.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There are 10 areas in Beau­jolais, called "cru," producing stunning wines at ridiculously low prices. Three of them – Fleurie, Morgon, and Moulin-à-Vent – are even better than some of their big-brother Burgun­dies and a fraction of the cost. Try one of each from such renowned makers as Louis Jadot, Georges Duboeuf, or Joseph Drou­hin, from the same location, and see how different they taste. Expect prices in the $15 to $25 range. These wines make absolute magic with a roasted turkey and a tart cranberry sauce. Remem­ber, all Beau­jolais should be drank cool, at about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any vegan Beaujolais.

The other great red wine for the holidays is Merlot from the New World. Pay no attention to those silly rants in Sideways. Merlot is now and always has been a wonderful wine. The side benefit to Sideways is that Merlot prices have dropped nicely. At the lower price range, vegans will love Peter Lehmann Clancy's ($15, some­times much less), which is a blend of Shiraz, Cabernet, and Merlot. The folks at Lehmann are sticklers about being vegan-friendly, they make a whole range of wines, and there's not a bad one in the bunch. At the high end, Newton Unfil­tered Merlot ($45) is prime wine for vegans. For the rest of us, Columbia Crest makes three delicious versions. Two Vines ($7) is a light, easy sipping wine, while the Grand Estates ($12) is a quantum leap up. The H3 Merlot ($17) is an elegant bottle of wine easily worth twice its price.

All of these wines are available from better wine shops all over town. Happy holidays!

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