With all the holiday meals on the horizon, you may be in need of some expert advice on how to choose wines for those feasts. Peter Watson, who runs the wine programs at Biltmore Winery in Asheville, N.C., was happy to share his wisdom.
Watson, who is originally from England, said he and his wife fell in love with North Carolina after visiting their daughter in Wilmington in 2001. After the couple retired, they moved to Asheville for its mountains and quickly became annual passholders at Biltmore, which reminded them of a stately English home. Eventually his wife said: “Why don’t we work there?” That’s what they did and, five years later, both still work there. Watson, who has had an avid interest in wine since his 20s, started out in the tasting room, graduated to tours and last year was promoted to run the wine programs. He quipped: “I do say to people that my retirement isn’t working out very well.”
Watson had a lot of insightful wine advice. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: What styles of wine work with the classic holiday entrees: turkey, ham and beef? What particular recommendations do you have for Biltmore wines?
A: People will normally ask: What goes with fish? What goes with turkey? What goes with steak? I would regard the protein to be of secondary importance but it does dictate the weight of a meal. If you have a big hearty meal, like a beef bourguignon or a steak, you need a wine that has some weight, like Cabernet Sauvignons, Tempranillos, Syrahs — all are perfectly acceptable for a hearty meal. I really like the Biltmore Estate Limited Release Tempranillo. What wouldn’t pair as nicely is a light wine, like the Biltmore Estate Pinot Grigio or a Rosé, because you wouldn’t taste it. If you have scallops and a cream sauce, something like a Pinot Grigio will be fine; something delicate to go with the delicate meal.
Q: That seems an easy enough principle to understand. What other guidance do you have?
A: What matters probably more than any of that is the sauce that goes with the meal. If you like fish with a lemon sauce, never have a wine that has spent time in an oak barrel (that is all of your reds and an oaked Chardonnay). The reason is if you have something acidic like a lemon sauce, you desensitize your acid taste receptors and anything that you have after that seems less acidic. One of the reasons you put wine in an oak barrel is to reduce its acidity and make it softer. Pair an oaked wine with a lemon sauce, it’s like drinking flavored water. With a lemon sauce, a balsamic sauce, a vinegar, you should always choose a wine from a stainless steel tank, like Sauvignon Blanc, a dry Riesling, a Gewurztraminer. I would recommend the Biltmore Estate Sauvignon Blanc. However, if you have a cream sauce, a cheese sauce, a butter sauce, something from an oak barrel will be absolutely perfect, including an oaked Chardonnay, like the Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay North Carolina 2017.
Q: So where does that leave us with the Thanksgiving turkey since it is served with gravy or cranberry sauce?
A: Turkey is a medium-heavy protein along the lines of chicken or pork. So there you are looking for more of a medium red wine: a Merlot, a Sangiovese, even a good oaked Chardonnay has enough depth to work very well. I like the Biltmore Estate Merlot. Those are fine if you are serving turkey with gravy. If you have cranberry sauce, it changes everything. For a white wine, it would be Biltmore Estate Limited Release Gewurztraminer because that touch of sweetness in a Gewurztraminer will cut through the sweetness of the cranberry. If you want a red wine, you’re going to need a wine to compliment that fruitiness; the best one for me would be a Zinfandel, like our Biltmore Estate Limited Release Zinfandel.
Q: What about smoked ham? Does the smoke complicate a wine pairing?
A: I would rate ham — in weight terms — as medium; so with your pork, turkey, chicken. If you have something smoked, it does create some difficulty because the smoke is fairly powerful. The greatest food for wine is cheese but if you take a smoked Gouda and try to find a wine to go with it, you are going to struggle. If you get a wine that could deal with the smoke, you tend to overcome the protein. For a ham that is not too strongly smoked, it would be okay with something like our Vanderbilt Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley . The wines in the New World and that includes Biltmore wines are made to be quite fruit forward and readily drinkable. Our Vanderbilt Reserve Merlot Dry Creek Valley, for instance, of all the wines that we make, is like a cornucopia of red fruit pouring out of the glass. Drinkable New World wines, like those, go well with a Christmas ham.
Q: If you are serving beef for a holiday meal, it sounds like the heavier wines are what you need to gravitate towards, right?
A: Yes. There’s one wine at Biltmore that I think is the greatest for the boldest big steak: the Hunt. Most of our wines, and again, this is very typical in America, are single varietals; the variety of the grape is on the label, like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. Most people don’t realize that you only have to have 75 percent of that grape. But if you haven’t gotten a single grape varietal that reaches 75 percent, that is automatically a blend. The Hunt is a 43 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 29 percent Merlot and 28 percent Cabernet Franc. It’s all from Sonoma county. It is probably one of our biggest wines and goes really well with any of your big hearty meals, like steak or roast beef.
Q: Do you have guidance on sparkling wine for New Year’s Eve?
A: It is the drink of celebration. What people don’t realize is sparkling wine is the world’s greatest aperitif. Once you have some sparkling wine, your mouth becomes incredibly moist because the acidity stimulates saliva but also stimulates the appetite. It really gets you ready for food. So your new rule before every meal is to drink a glass of sparkling wine. Ninety plus percent of sparkling wines are dry. They are in the Brut range, like the Biltmore Estate Brut, which means people don’t detect any sweetness at all. People may not be as used to that and may want extra dry or even a moscato where you get a bit of sweetness. It depends on a person’s preference. From my perspective, you can’t go wrong.
Q: Any other advice you would like to share?
A: Don’t forget dessert wine. What you tend to find with dessert wines is that most people take a sip of it and they immediately say, ‘It’s too sweet.’ I would say 80 to 90 percent of people do that. And then that’s the end. But if only they had something sweet to go with it. Like I said before, how acidity desensitizes your acid receptors, something sweet desensitizes your sweet receptors. So you take a little sip of sweet wine and you say, ‘Well, it’s pretty sweet.’ You eat some dessert and then you drink the wine again. It’s half the sweetness it was before. And then 90 percent of those same people say, ‘Ah, now it’s nice.’ This is what dessert wine is all about and it’s become a bit of a lost art because people don’t get over the first step. And yet some of the most amazing wines in the world are dessert wines.
Peter Watson’s Biltmore wine recommendations for your holiday meals:
For turkey with gravy:
For turkey with cranberry sauce:
For smoked ham:
For sparkling wine:
Are you planning a visit to Biltmore estate in Asheville? Be sure to stop at the Biltmore winery for a tour or tasting. Here’s a rundown of what’s offered:
Behind-the-Scenes Winery Tour & Tasting
A 60-minute guided tour of the production facility and ends with a tasting of Biltmore wines. Offered several times a day every day. Cost: $10
Red Wine and Chocolate Tastings
Biltmore wines paired with French Broad Chocolate and Chocolate Gems; a 45-minute tasting offered daily at 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Cost: $25
Wine and Cheese Hour
Sample Biltmore wines and artisan cheeses; offered at 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Cost: $25