What Rebekah Mahru, wine director at Chicago's City Winery, finds fascinating about traditional Jewish cuisine is that it's not, well, traditional. "Most of these recipes are an amalgamation of dishes brought over from Eastern Europe and the Ashkenazi Jews that have survived, adapted, and modernized," she says. Due to the symbolism of cooking with oil around Hanukkah, rich fried foods are de rigeur. And to a sommelier's ears, that's a cue for breaking out wines with vibrant acidity.
To find out which bottles industry insiders crave around the holiday, Food & Wine caught up with a handful of sommeliers around the country – including Mahru, Doug Kahn of Sixteen Restaurant in Chicago, Andrea Morris of NYC's Nix, and Peter Weltman of Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco. Here, they share their ideal matches for four time-honored classic dishes.
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Fried potatoes are among the world's most wine-friendly foods, notes Morris, but pairings "get trickier once you start playing around with the toppings." For versions with apple sauce and sour cream, she suggests an off-dry German Riesling such as the 2015 Karthäuserhof Karthäuserhofberg Kabinett ($27). "The green apple and lemon character of Kabinett Rieslings from the Mosel complement the flavors perfectly while the bright acidity cuts through the richness of the sour cream and potato," she says.
If lox is on the agenda, latkes almost serve as a stand-in for caviar and blinis, says Kahn. His go-to pairing is grower Champagne – notably, the NV George Laval Brut Nature ($86). "Laval is a great producer right outside of Epernay that makes very dry styles of Champagne that are a little oxidative," he says. That makes for a wine rich enough to handle the oiliness of the salmon, while both bubbles and acidity keep it refreshing.
For a twist, try Mahru's favorite combo: curried sweet potato pancakes paired with a bone-dry Riesling. Her pick? 2015 Alzinger Durnsteiner Federspiel from Austria ($35).
"Brisket tends to be a fatty cut of meat, requiring a savory red with tannins and pronounced acidity," says Kahn. One wine that delivers on all fronts is the 2014 Pierre Gonon Saint-Joseph ($63), a Syrah from the northern Rhône Valley. "Gonon makes some of the most remarkable expressions of this grape: intense aromatics of braised meat, olive brine and char," he says.
For any brisket preparation involving a tomato-based sauce, Mahru loves Sangiovese. "There are a few producers in the North and Central Coasts of California that are making wines with Italian grape varieties, and a great example is the 2013 Giornata Luna Matta Vineyard bottling ($27)," she says.
Or try Weltman's offbeat pairing, the 2014 Orgo Saperavi from Georgia ($27): "The Saperavi grape, which translates to 'black', usually produces wines of intensity. But Orgo's is more elegant, like juicy Beaujolais-meets-peppery Syrah from Crozes-Hermitage. It's structured and savory enough for brisket's slow-cooked richness but floral in a way that makes it a glass to keep tippling."
For Noodle Kugel
"Kugel, which tends to be slightly sweet at my family gatherings, can work with a sweet or dry wine," says Kahn. "I don't really love a lot of sweet wines, so I tend to 'cheat' by finding a wine that aromatically gives the impression of sweetness but is completely dry on the palate." His pick, the 2015 Domaine Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko ($24), is fruit-forward on the nose, finishing salty and dry.
Mahru likes to highlight the rich, buttery quality of Kugel by pairing it with a white blend from the southern Rhône Valley. "The 2014 Domaine Le Sang des Cailloux Vacqueyras Blanc ($50) is a fun one," she says. "It has this toasty, golden orchard fruit character, which balances the creamy texture of the dish."
"By the time you get to the sufganiyot, you've probably already overindulged," says Morris. Her advice is to keep it light with a sparkling Bugey-Cerdon. "My favorite is the NV Patrick Bottex 'La Cueille' bottling ($23). It tastes like strawberry soda without being syrupy. And since I'm always impatient and scald my tongue on the hot jelly, a chilled dessert wine is just what I need."
Mahru is a purist when it comes to her doughnuts: no filling and rolled lightly in cinnamon and sugar. For this style of sufganiyot, she steers towards Demi-Sec Champagne such as the NV A. Margaine ($50). "It's a lovely Demi-Sec that's super expressive and balanced, and it plays up the cinnamon in the dessert," she says.