Make the Perfect Pair this Thanksgiving: A Q&A with Sommelier Allison Lamb
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to sit with my colleague, Allison Lamb. Allie has an awesome background in hospitality, including being a Level 1 Sommelier (wine pro) and having a degree in the field. With Thanksgiving around the corner, I had to take advantage of her knowledge of a beverage that many will surely indulge on during this holiday season. Allie is also a Project Coordinator at elite|studio e and I’m so excited to give some her advice a try! And on Black Friday, when you're done with your holiday shopping, I’d love to hear what pairings were on your dinner table!
On that note, have a wonderful and relaxing Thanksgiving! Cheers!
Q: What are your wine recommendations for Thanksgiving?
A: The average main dish at an American Thanksgiving meal is turkey and this is certainly something that should be strongly considered when selecting wine. Though turkey has white and dark meat which both serve their purposes, it is quite light in the grand scheme of possible proteins for an entrée. Because of this, I would lean more towards lighter bodied wines.
You typically want to have your food and wine pairing be able to stand up to each other. I’d stick with a Sancerre, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, and for a red option, a French Pinot Noir or a California Syrah. Although typically lighter bodied, these varietals are artfully crafted and packed with a multitude of different characteristics. After you decide on the varietal to match the protein, I would look at your side dishes to focus on the blend of flavors you want to introduce within the wine. This complements the various dishes that will atop your table. Although I don’t advise on trying to focus much attention on pairing with the sweet potato casserole.
In my opinion, a great wine pairing balances the tastes and level of flavor of both the food and the wine together.
Q: Would you serve a different wine with dessert? Would that answer vary if it was a pumpkin or apple dessert versus a decadent chocolate?
A: Personally, dessert wines are not my thing. I’m a savory girl through and through, and don’t typically have a desire for dessert at any time, let alone after the feast I most likely ate for Thanksgiving dinner! However, dessert wine certainly does have its place and when paired perfectly, it’s a knockout! So, if you know you have the crowd for it I would definitely offer different wines for dessert.
For a pumpkin or apple dessert, I’d offer something like a German Spatlese Riesling or Gewürztraminer. For someone who thinks they like sweet wine, Gewuiztraminer is sure to fool them as it is actually dry but extremely floral. These wines are bright and can pick up the cinnamon notes, and usually pair nicely with a dessert that can be served warm or cold (which sometimes makes wine pairing tricky). For a decadent chocolate dessert, you want a wine that has some residual sugar, so that the chocolate does not become too bitter once combined. Something like a sparkling red option or a Moscato work nicely here. A 20-year Aged Tawny Port is a go-to dessert wine no matter the season.
Q: What is your favorite wine to enjoy on Thanksgiving? Why?
A: Generally speaking, I prefer red wine over white, and I prefer aged wines as the nuances become soft, the tannins drop off, and the oak and fruit seem to chill out. However lately, I’ve been on a California Zinfandel kick, so for Thanksgiving I will most likely end up continuing that streak. I’ve grown a deep fondness for the complexities and ultimately incredible balance this varietal has grown to take on within the state of California.
However, as something different, Sangria is a good option for Thanksgiving. There are many flavors, fruits and Autumnal spices that can be introduced to your wine to make a lovely seasonal cocktail to help celebrate the holiday. Something that is typically looked at as a fruity summer option, can be easily transformed into something cozy, festive and delicious. One of my colleagues, serves this recipe every Thanksgiving.
Q: How did you get started as a Sommelier and how did you learn?
A: I majored in Hospitality Business Management at the University of Delaware. UD is well known for its hospitality program, as they own a Courtyard Marriott on campus and a fine dining restaurant, both operated by the students with this major. I always worked in and was more interested in restaurants, but during my semester in the hotel I was first deeply introduced to the world of wine and spirits. We had a beverage class twice a week. Learning, tasting and being tested on wine and spirits eventually brought me to my Level 1 Certified Sommelier Exam.
I do think it is important to mention I am only Level 1 out of 4, and don’t pretend to be anything more! But I’m excited to be working toward my Level 2.
Q: How do you analyze something like a wine which is a very subjective experience?
A: Wine and the “guidelines” of the wine world are like a weird convoluted circle that isn’t perfectly round and clear ... sort of like everyone’s weird Uncle who’s a bit wacky, has a lot to say, but you love to see him come around during the holidays anyway!
Analyzing wine is funny because there are always exceptions to the rules. There are the people who swear by ‘same flavors/depth/weight’ as a better and more cohesive food and wine pairing. Whereas some think the opposite. A light crisp and sweet Chardonnay with white bright fruit works perfectly with a rich and fatty duck breast.
Personally, I like to find myself somewhere in the middle to balance as best I can. Either keep the weight in tannins and depth like the meal but provide variation within the flavor profile, or look for similar flavors and notes, but vary the intensity of the pairing. Such as a peppery Pinot Noir with notes of chocolate and bramble fruit, paired with a black peppercorn crusted NY Strip. Pinot Noir is a lighter bodied red wine, whereas the choice of steak is thick, dense and meaty. I contrasted the two via the varied fullness of each but blended them nicely within the similar flavor profiles.
Like you said, it’s a subjective experience but the cost to value perception is crucial and typical drives the sale. I think you need to try different combinations and find what you personally like better. However, some wines are simply just head and heels better than others, and in these scenarios opinions don’t much matter!
Q: What are the qualities to look for when purchasing wine?
A: Purchasing wine is still something where I would certainly not label myself a professional by any means. There is a lot that goes into a wine label and there are different rules for different parts of the world. Old World wine versus New World wine labels vary tremendously. However, there are a few things I was taught and have learned that help me when purchasing wine.
One is to study and know which varietal grows best in which terroir (environment) and start by choosing varietals that come from these places of the world. If the label gives you a large region, (I.e. California) this is going to be perhaps a good table wine option. If you are given a specific vineyard site or regional area (I.e. Russian River Valley) this is going to be a higher quality wine.
Something else to look for is the Vintage, or year it was harvested. A specific year labeled means this wine was harvested strictly within that Vintage, and “NV” or multi-vintage typically will be of lower value as they were able to take wine harvested from multiple different years to control the product they sell in the bottle.
And then there are some days, where I just go for it and see what happens when I open it at home!
Q: Anything else you want to add?
A: There is so much more to the word of wine than we discussed. But there are two more things I’d like to touch on.
First, you can almost never go wrong with bubbles. Champagne is a great option in many many cases.
Second, at the end of the day, it's always best to try new flavors, wines and combinations. Don‘t be afraid of the imperiousness that the wine world can sometimes portray or show itself as. It’s truly an art and something to be revered for those who have mastered it, but it is also just a beverage you should enjoy with great food and better company. Though there seem to be many ‘laws,’ so to speak within the world of wine, it is always worth it to perhaps do something a little funky and just see for yourself. I like to follow these ‘laws’ as if it’s a highway and not a one-way street – couple lanes to swerve in and out until you find what you like, but I wouldn’t suggest you start off-roading. Tequila is probably better for that kind of trip.