Ask a Somm: What are the best wines to pair with a feast?

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Holiday feast Holiday feast

The colder months of the year come hand-in-hand with seasonal festivities, holidays, and great, big feasts. We asked Damon Ornowski, a Master Sommelier working as Key Account Specialist with SWS of Colorado in the Vail Corridor who also continues to assist as instructor with the Court of Master Sommeliers, what are the best wines to pair with a feast?

Serving the right wine elevates your dinner. A perfect pairing creates new taste sensations and exalts the flavors of a dish beyond its original recipe. Remember that one meal maybe from vacation where everything was perfect: the setting, the wine, the food, who you dined with? We want your holiday feast to become one of these long-lasting memories, and wine is an integral part to that. Whether you have just 24 hours to prepare a spread or you’ve been planning for the entire month, a thoughtful wine selection will make your dinner stand out.

Damon responded with a Piemontese wine selection that goes well beyond Barbera and Barolo for a feast to remember.

Gathering the guests

Guests and family are just starting to arrive or mill into the kitchen. Some come early, others late (but never on time), and they begin to stray and get underfoot of final preparations. As chef and host/hostess, what are your objectives? Put the finishing touches to the feast, whet everyone’s appetite, and get the conversation going. For this, you need a wine that is light, easy to drink, and lends its own sense of festivity. “Bubbles are always a great aperitif, good for gathering people and acting as a wonderful segue to dinner.” Sparkling wine always hits the spot. Damon suggests Asti Spumante, Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante, and Chardonnay or Pinot Noir Spumante. Don’t be too surprised at those last international varieties; Chardonnay has been planted in Piemonte since the early 1800s, and Pinot Noir arrived in Alto Adige in the second half of the 1800s, eventually making its way to Piemonte.

 Sparkling winePhoto by Emma Danielsson, Creative Commons


A variety of vegetables, cheeses, and charcuterie is the classic appetizer. “Grignolino d’Asti is a terrific starter red that goes well with charcuterie as well as certain grilled vegetables, like eggplant. The cherry and unripe cranberry notes are refreshing and clean. Ruchè di Castagnolo Monferrato is also wonderful—bright and with a bit more body and color than Grignolino. This earthy wine will be exceptional with the charcuterie and hard cheeses that may be served.” Neither of these reds demand too much of your palate, but what about something even lighter? The feast is just beginning, after all. For a white wine, Damon suggests Roero Arneis. “This tasty white will pair very well with all the vegetables as well as the cheeses—especially soft cheese—and will accompany the charcuterie, cutting through the fat.”


Dinner is served: First course

We might be biased, but is there really a better primo than pasta? The following wine suggestions are also fitting for other starches, such as rice or a creamy potato gratin. Just keep in mind the sauce or flavors added. “Dolcetto di Dogliani, not aged in oak, has a rustic flavor of dark berry, fruit, and a bit of rustic tannin. The juicy profile and low tannin will lend very well with a pasta dish, especially a Bolognese sauce or any type of meat-based sauce, particularly game. Pelaverga is ideal with mushrooms, truffles, and even certain vegetables because of its wonderful, bright, “sweet-sour” profile.” He also has suggestions for a white wine: Gavi di Gavi. “Cortese, the grape that Gavi is made of, can achieve a wonderful balance of fruit and acid. This sophisticated grape really develops a wonderful richness. It plays beautifully with the starch of semolina pasta and will parallel delightfully with just about any sauce—other than a red-based sauce reduction.”



Many people consider the second course to be the most important. We asked Damon to consider a variety of meats, from poultry to heartier roasts. For pork, turkey, and other poultry, he suggests Gattinara, Barbera d’Alba, and Nebbiolo Langhe. “All these grapes allow great crossover with what I call the white meats. Barbera d’Alba has the acidity but is a bit more round and lush compared to Barbera d’Asti. The grape can also work with some meaty fish (such as salmon), but it is ideal for white meats. Gattinara, which is made with Nebbiolo grapes and often blended with Vespolina and/or Uva Rara, is a bit more rustic than Nebbiolo from the Langhe. But again, it’s not heavy, and the Nebbiolo-focused fruit will pair with and not overwhelm the subtle texture of these meats. Langhe Nebbiolo is the same clone of Nebbiolo as Barbaresco and Barolo. The grape here is always more refined. Again, it can really can be a surprisingly wonderful partner.”

Langhe NebbioloLanghe Nebbiolo.
Photo from Rachel Black, Creative Commons (modified).

As for heartier roasts, such as beef tenderloin or lamb, “Barolo and Barbaresco will do well with these tasty dark meats. Lamb, typically a bit more gamey, will fare well with a bit lighter wine, so Barbaresco gets a slight edge here. But Barolo can handle the beef easily.” This holds true especially, of course, if you’re serving beef braised in Barolo.



The holidays and colder months of the year are always full of a smorgasbord of sweets: cakes, pies, cookies, ice cream or whipped cream on the side, chocolates, tarts, tortes, and more. Damon says, “Everyone loves Moscato d’Asti with its gentle fizz and sweet, soft flavors of vanilla-orange seduction. It will pair well with a caramel flan, custard, cakes made with hazelnut, and even a lighter torte; and it is fantastic with vanilla or pistachio gelato or ice cream, or simply a mascarpone dessert with berries.” You really can’t go wrong with Moscato d’Asti. But when the dark chocolate comes out, this opens up the wine menu for some exquisite pairings. “Brachetto d’Acqui with a sweet chocolate dessert or a flourless chocolate cake with berry compote: this pairing is about as good as it gets. The Brachetto grape has black cherry aromas and rich texture as well as a good amount of acidity that balances its sweetness. It will toy with the diner’s taste buds and is a wonderful way to head home. That, or finish the whole meal with a nice 1.5 oz. of grappa.” We suggest both.

Cover photo from Steve McFarland, Creative Commons (modified)


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