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Bubbly or Pinot Noir? What to pair with turkey, fruitcake or a gourmet food gift

12/19/2014 04:31 EST | Updated 02/18/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - The holiday countdown is on and Canadians are scrambling for last-minute gifts for their hosts and loved ones. Wine and food seem like a natural option at this time of year, but with thousands of bottles lining the shelves at liquor outlets, where does one begin?

"I'd start with pairing the wine that you're going to bring to go with the dinner. Wild guess, might be turkey," says sommelier Natalie MacLean, editor of the wine review site nataliemaclean.com.

She suggests a sparkling wine like Cava from Spain, a Pinot Noir from New Zealand, a dry rose from France or a Sauvignon Blanc.

"Those are all great wines to go with turkey because they really whet the appetite. But if you're having something more full-bodied or robust like brisket for Hanukkah or you're going to have lamb or ham or some other sort of festive meal, then maybe you want to go with full-bodied reds. They're really robust, they're holiday favourites, they'll go well with anything."

Or consider offering a wine to complement an accompaniment to the gobbler. "If I think about cranberry sauce, I think about Pinot Noir, liquid cranberry sauce in a glass," says MacLean.

A festive Framboise from Ontario's Southbrook Vineyards is ideal sipped with a sweet, like gingerbread, fruitcake or chocolate.

Jane Rodmell, owner of All the Best Fine Foods, says customers annually clamour for the Toronto store's plum pudding, which can be served with brandy butter or bourbon custard. "It's moist and it's filled with raisins and currants and almonds. It's a very British thing," she says.

MacLean notes that brandy or port are a good pairing with this traditional festive dessert.

Rodmell says people ask for advice on what cheeses to take for a gift. A "totally decadent" one to try is a seasonal treat from France — Vacherin Mont-d'Or — a soft rich cheese that "is my idea of heaven," she says. It's only available from September to April. Delice de Bourgogne, a French triple cream finished with creme fraiche, is popular any time of year.

A sparkling Pinot Noir or a dry white wine pair with cheeses and crackers, says MacLean. But with the rich soft cheeses a slightly more acidic wine, such as rose or Sauvignon Blanc, is best to "cut through the fat."

It's important to match cheese to the right cracker or bread, Rodmell says. "You don't want to overwhelm the cheese with very strong crackers or flavoured crackers. I see sometimes people putting crackers out which are full of all kinds of garlic, too many seeds and you can't taste the cheese then."

Opt for a plain baguette or a simple cracker with texture and firmness so it doesn't break or mask the flavour of the cheese. "It's just a basis for the cheese."

For a charcuterie platter, choices range from pate and ham to little sausages from Spain and Niagara and duck prosciutto. "They could add Marcona almonds, the Spanish almonds that are really full of flavour and really wonderful," Rodmell says. Other additions are chutney with cranberry, port wine jelly, red pepper jelly and quince paste. Fresh figs are really festive and some people enjoy dried or fresh fruits.

Chef and Food Network Canada personality Lynn Crawford suggests visiting local markets and vendors to shop for edible gifts or the ingredients to make them, whether it's barbecue or tomato sauce, chocolate truffles, vinaigrette or shortbread cookies.

A local honey and an aged Canadian cheddar with some charcuterie or a bottle of olive oil make lovely gifts.

"It's white truffle season right now. If somebody gave me a white truffle, then I'd be very happy right now," says Crawford, who owns Ruby Watchco restaurant in Toronto.

"The other night I made up a batch of vanilla honey and I made up a homemade granola, so that's ready to go. I have 12 jars here. I made fiery peppers, oh my gosh, with some garlic and bay leaves and thyme, so that's a little hostess gift and I sealed it in mason jars. ...

"I remember my friend Albert made some bolognese sauce, and that was the best bolognese sauce I'd ever had and, like, what a gift. It's perfect with the homemade pastas that I'm going to make," adds Crawford. "Sometimes it doesn't have to be this outrageous over-the-top thing. Our lives are filled with so many things that maybe we don't necessarily need and it's more of those pleasures and it goes back to sharing."

If the wine you're presenting is not being paired with a meal or you're seeking a bottle to tote to a New Year's Eve bash, the most universal choice is sparkling wine. But you don't have to pay the big bucks for Champagne, which comes from the region of the same name in France.

The name Champagne is trademarked, MacLean points out. "Even Burgundy which is just underneath Champagne, makes sparkling wine, the same method, the same grapes, everything. They have to call it Cremant de Bourgogne or sparkling wine, just not Champagne. They've done a good job of protecting their brand."

With Champagne, you're going to pay a minimum of about $60 a bottle depending on the brand and vintage.

"We make excellent sparkling wines (in Canada)," says MacLean, who is based in Ottawa. "For the most part we use the Champagne method so that means there's a double fermentation, the second fermentation happens in the bottle, that's where the bubbles get trapped. That's what they do in Champagne. We also use a lot of the same grapes. Sometimes they're identical. It's usually a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. ...

"Another option is a sparkling wine from New Zealand. Again, the method is the same. The grapes may differ, but the quality is superb. And when you're looking at sparkling wines from Canada, New Zealand, the U.S., you're probably looking at the $25 to $35 price range, so you've come down quite a bit and yet you're not sacrificing taste.

"If you really want a budget bubbly but don't want to give up good taste, go for either Spain or Italy."

Spain produces Cava (meaning cave or cellar) using the same method as in Champagne but is much less expensive. Prosecco, which has its two fermentations in a stainless-steel vat, is a fraction of the cost at about $15 a bottle.

"But don't worry it still tastes great. It's a great way to ring in the new year," says MacLean.

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