Making a traditional Thanksgiving dinner is a handful. Pairing wine to the meal is close to impossible. So we thought we'd pose this challenge to one of the top wine experts in Boston — and the world, for that matter. Brahm Callahan is one of about 230 certified master sommeliers in the world. It's a distinction that takes years of study and testing to achieve. He's also the beverage director at Himmel Hospitality Group, which owns a number of restaurants around Boston including Grill 23 & Bar in the Back Bay, where WGBH's Morning Edition anchor Joe Mathieu met him for an early Thanksgiving dinner and a lesson in pairing from a true master. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Brahm Callahan: In Thanksgiving, the real difficulty of the meal is you have so many flavor profiles and sugar levels and sweetness levels and tartness levels. Think about tart cranberry, but then you have sweet roasted squash. So how do you play off of all those things?
For a lot of wines, the basic fundamentals are acid, alcohol and tannin — tannin is what makes wine dry, or makes your mouth dry — and all need something to bond to. Tannin needs protein and fat, so that's why people think of a steak and a big Cabernet. But in reality, there's all sorts of ways that you can trick the wine or those tannins into playing nicely with something like turkey. And for me, the kind of get out of jail free card is that if you don't know what to pair with a meal, my fallback or cheat is always Riesling. One hundred percent. It goes with pretty much anything and everything. They have amazing acidity so it'll cut through the richness of stuffing or gravy or anything like that, but then also have lower alcohol. That lower alcohol is going to help make it even more food-friendly. For me, that's my magic bullet. It's not going to maybe be the perfect pairing for the whole meal, but it's going to go with everything.
Joe Mathieu: So how should we go about this? Do you want to go by course?
Callahan: I think the best way is kind of like a round robin. We're going to put food in the middle and try a bunch of different wines and maybe talk about the way that they work with each plate. I'll grab some some share plates and then we can start to divvy stuff out.
The butternut squash soup is gonna go with some champagne. Champagne is like one of these amazing pairings again that actually goes with a lot of stuff, largely because it's got acid. It's lower alcohol, and there's actually always a little bit of sugar in champagne. But the acid is going to really kind of act like little scrubbing bubbles on your palate with the soups, wiping it away. You have it on its own and it's going to have a really lasting flavor profile on your palate. You try it with a little bit of champagne, and it changes the whole game. It just refreshes your palate. All of a sudden you want to have more of that soup.
In a meal like this, the key is longevity with Thanksgiving. You're just trying to make it through all the stuff that's on the table. Anything that can give your palate an extra opportunity to make it a little further is a great pairing to throw on the table.
Mathieu: Absolutely. Beautiful.
Callahan: If you try the Riesling with this, it's again, barely noticeably sweet. This is Kabinett from Urziger Wurzgarten. Riesling is hard because of the language — German is not a particularly easy language if you're not comfortable with it. "Er" at the end of a word in German essentially means "from." It's like, You're a New Yorker, right? So "Urziger" means it's from the town of Urzig. "Wurzgarten" is the vineyard site. It means literally spice garden because the wines that have come out of here are very reminiscent of a spice box or a spice garden. And then they're telling you the varietal, Riesling, and Kabinett, which is the sweetness level.
Mathieu: Now we're going to have this different wine with the same soup, right? Will it change the experience? Will it change the way the soup tastes?
Callahan: Yes, so the sugar here is going make this a little bit sweeter. The sweetness of the bisque is going to come out, but you still have lots of acid behind it. You can taste a lot more of that sweet spice in there than you could before. There's cloves, there's definitely some allspice. Urziger Wurzgarten is literally like a 50 degree slope. You have to rope in to pick these grapes.
Mathieu: Wow, yeah.
Callahan: I look at it, and there's no way you can pay me money to go up there put a basket on my back, climb up this shale slate slope that is all crumbling and falling underneath your feet, and then pick grapes — load myself up with 50 kilos of grapes — and lower myself down. And then somehow you end up with a $15 to $20 bottle of wine.
Mathieu: It's impossible.
Callahan: It's crazy. The economics of it don't make any sense.
We have a traditional autumnal salad with some root vegetables and cheese. Something that you could very easily throw together at home, this is essentially a mixed green salad that's gussied up. Bitter greens are the hardest things — like asparagus, they're pretty hard to pair with wine because they have a very loud flavor profile. They have an herbaceous note that will make other wines taste more herbaceous.
Mathieu: We're going to do a Sauvignon Blanc with the salad here.
Callahan: Correct. So this is from a producer called Pascal Jolivet. This is their "Attitude" Sauvignon Blanc.
Mathieu: Root vegetables, cheese, and now magically this wine is refreshing. There's even a little bit of fruit in there after you eat some food.
Callahan: It completely changes the profile of the wine. But, this is not going to be as great with the soup. It'll work. It won't be as great with the turkey, but it can kind of play ball. For salads, Sauvignon Blanc or Gruner Veltliner are always my go-tos.
Mathieu: This cranberry sauce is the confounding thing on the table, right?
Callahan: Yes. So if your cranberry comes with ridges, or if you're making it scratch, they're all gonna do different things. The one with ridges has some sugar in it, though it's that sweet, tangy, unique flavor profile that we really like once a year. Then there's the more homemade style that's probably a little bit more tart. Cranberries are an aggressive flavor anyway. It's so sharp, and it's there to cut through the richness of the gravy, right? That's why cranberry is on the plate. So we have some red wines that are driven by red fruits and driven by acid that are going to do different things to the cranberries and really elevate the turkey, too. So this is Chateau Des Jacques Bourgogne Gamay 2015. On its own, a lovely bottle of wine. When you have it with food, it does some cool stuff. So you have that little bit of cranberry.
Mathieu: Wow, I didn't think you were allowed to do that! Cranberry with red wine. That's fascinating.
Callahan: Totally works. Totally cool. You got to find the right one. At the end of the day, the protein is certainly important, but the other stuff here is is messing more with the flavor profile of the wines. The tannin levels in the Beaujolais are very low.
All our palates are designed for what we like and don't like. Wine is no different. The idea that you should like a wine because it's expensive or because it comes from a certain place? Life's too short to drink wine you don't like. For me, wine has always been part of the meal. I think that's a huge part of why I like wine so much, because a great bottle of wine in a vacuum is just a really expensive glass of grape juice, right? But the best bottles of wine I've ever had have been in company that have made it unique.
The human element is important to remember.
Mathieu: Thanks for animating Thanksgiving dinner for us.