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Liberation Libations

Liberation Libations

Wine suggestions for Chanukah fare

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Festive meals, heaving tables, and flowing wine are seemingly axiomatic parts of Jewish life.

Every Friday or festival night, every Shabbat or holiday lunch, and the feasting and blessing over wine begins again. So habitual is this religious gustatory behavior, we tend to carry on even when there is no particular obligation involved.

Chanukah is a good example.

In the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, first published in 1565, we find Rabbi Joseph Karo ruling: “Any additional feasting [on Chanukah] is [nothing more than] a voluntary meal, since [these days] were not designated for feasting and rejoicing.” For Rabbi Karo the holiday is strictly a festival of praise and thanksgiving to God, rather than the feasting and rejoicing mandated at other times, like Purim. Yet the presence of this ruling suggests that “additional feasting” was already prevalent on Chanukah.

Of course, as in most cases of Jewish thought, we can expect dissent.

Sure enough, in his inseparable gloss on the text (included in every published edition since 1578), Rabbi Moshe Isserless adds: “But some say that there is some obligation to feast, since during these days, the altar was dedicated. It is a custom to recite hymns and praises during these special feasts, and this makes the meal constitute a religious observance.” Rabbi Isserless goes on to note the custom of eating cheese and dairy foods on Chanukah as well.

So as long as we are feasting—whether voluntary, customary, or obligatory—let’s consider an appropriate adult beverage list. As always, don’t go crazy over trying to make the perfect wine pairing because such perfection is both fleeting and personal.

The prevalence of oily, greasy foods calls for, most classically, dry sparkling wine. A good dry bubbly, especially a Champagne or a Spanish Cava, will have plenty of acid to cut through the oil, vibrant bubbles to cleanse the palate, and typically complement the more savory fried foods at the textural level as well. The wine’s almost abrasive bubbles will usually satisfyingly echo the crispy edges of the food; the overall effect is invariably quite pleasing.

Many beers will actually work quite nicely as well for similar reasons. The bitterness in beer works against fried foods like acid in wine, especially when driven forward by the carbonation, and so will similarly refresh the palate between bites.

For sweet items, like jelly donuts, or for sweeter toppings on latkes, like applesauce, a different strategy is required. Sweet foods typically make dry wines taste sour and altogether assaulting. So wines with a bit more residual sugar, or natural sugar after fermentation has completed, tend to do much better. Prosecco, Italy’s most popular bubbly wine tends to have higher sugar levels than most sparkling wines, so makes for a reliable partner to Chanukah fair.

With donuts, one can certainly opt for a straightforward dessert wine too, though make sure it will complement, rather than compete with, the jam.

When having savory latkes, especially when topped or even made with deli meats or brisket, one can consider a good dry red option, like an earthy Pinot Noir from Burgundy.

I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Rabbi Isserless that Chanukah calls for feasting and rejoicing. However, cheese and dairy foods hold considerably less personal appeal here. So as a determined carnivore who prefers his latkes fried in schmaltz and cooked with chopped brisket, at least one of the wines I’ll be cracking open this Chanukah is:

Domaine Gachot-Monot, Bourgogne, 2010 ($35; imported by Rashbi Wines): This is a charming working man’s Burgundy, fairly vibrant with proper Bourgogne rouge characteristics of pungent farmyard on the nose, and a still rich mouthful of typical cherry and raspberry fruit. This has aged quite a bit already in bottle, and the now soft tannins have integrated nicely, giving this a light and refreshing quality that should pair well with savory, meaty latkes.

L’Chaim!

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