Toasting the Great Pumpkin: Pairing Wine with Pumpkin and Squash

November 2004

Pumpkin and the various winter squash that come into season with the changing of the leaves are great bridges: they can be used in sweet or savory dishes, with hearty meats or lighter cheeses. This means they can also match with a variety of wines, which is a mixed blessing: there is no “go-to” wine for pumpkin as there is for asparagus (Sancerre) or foie gras (Sauternes). How the squash relates to other items on the plate will determine what wine will bring out its own flavors. Here are some wine suggestions from around the world to pair with pumpkin and squash recipes from some of our featured chefs.

Cranberry Bean and Pumpkin Stew
Chef Peter Hoffman of Savoy – New York, NY

The stew’s texture makes a nice contrast to the more usual pumpkin bisque, and the cilantro and the nuttiness of the cranberry beans add depth and interest to the dish. With a smooth bisque the first pick would be a sparkling wine to create a textural contrast, but the stew has enough textural interest by itself, so go for a something that will manage the pungency of the cilantro with its own spicy character.

A rich Pinot Gris fits the bill. Alsace or Oregon spring to mind first, but the some parts of the Southern Hemisphere have recently taken a shine to this grape, notably New Zealand and Tasmania. So far the latter tends toward a richer style. Track down the Grey Sands Pinot Gris 2000; it’s a full-bodied wine with an aromatic, spicy nose, touched off by subtle floral notes. The palate is denser, with notes of quince, butter, and almond. This is a white wine that holds up to drinking during the cooler seasons.

Pumpkin Risotto
Chef Michael Romano of Union Square Café – New York, NY

Squash or pumpkin with risotto is a seasonal fave with chefs across the country, and Michael Romano hits all the points that make it a pleasure: sweetness countered by spice, richness cut by pepper, sage, and arugula. It’s still a rich dish, though, and needs a high acidity wine to clean and freshen the mouth between bites.

Or bubbles. Sparkling wines are typically high in acid already, and the bubbles reinforce that refreshing character. To keep with the Italian roots of risotto try the Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Satèn 1998 from Lombardy, in the north of Italy. A “Satèn” is bottled at a lower pressure than most sparkling wines; it typically has a smoother texture that is creamier and less overtly festive. The Ca’ Del Bosco is made from 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Blanc, and its nose and palate are very much in agreement, both showing notes of hazelnut, apple, pear, vanilla, and banana. The finish emphasizes the fruity flavors, which lighten the earthiness of the risotto.

Roast Acorn Squash, Pears, and Potatoes with Bucheron Cheese
Chef Jody Denton of Merenda – Bend, OR

This recipe combines a number of diverse flavors and merits a wine that can do the same. Normally the Bucheron calls for a Loire Valley white such as a Sancerre; I think something with a richer texture and less overt acidity balances better with the other ingredients in the dish.

White Burgundy makes a good like-with-like match here. The Olivier Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Champs Gains 2002 takes it on blow-for-blow: Pear fruit? Check. A note of hazelnut? Check. Minerally flavors and a medium body to balance the squash? Check. Refreshing acidity, perfect for goat cheese? It’s in there. Leflaive is a relative newcomer to Burgundy, but from the get-go has been making excellent whites and reds with an excellent eye for the virtues of individual appellations.

Butternut Squash Bread Pudding with Italian Sausage and Roasted Quince
Chef Todd Gray of Equinox – Washington, D.C.

This recipe really exploits the sweet/savory dichotomy of butternut squash, which mediates between the fruit and meat elements and brings the whole thing together. A dish which points in so many directions needs a wine with versatility; this is Pinot Noir’s chance to shine.

Old World Pinot Noir – i.e. red Burgundy – will most likely emphasize the rosemary and sausage. To bring out the squash, try a fruitier California wine. Chuck Wagner, the man behind the Caymus Cabernets, also has a new Pinot Noir project down in the Santa Maria Valley near Santa Barbera. He named the brand Belle Glos after his mother, Lorna Belle Glos-Wagner. The Belle-Glos “Santa Maria” Pinot Noir 2001 has a fruit-forward nose that highlights the squash, quince, and cream. Lots of red berries – cherry, strawberry, raspberry – jump out the glass, wrapped in a swath of vanilla.

Seared Venison with Roasted Acorn Squash and Thyme Juslee
Chef James Clark of Palette Restaurant - Washington, DC

The squash in this dish is prepared very simply, and the three elements on the plate – venison, squash, and thyme – provide straightforward counterpoint to each other. A wine that touches each of those aspects helps unite everything and keeps the relationships in order. A red blend is most likely to able to bring together such disparate flavors.

Venison plays a large part in traditional Austrian cooking, and Austria’s up-and-coming red wines offer great versatility at the table. In Burgenland, the heart of Austrian red country, Leo Hillinger makes a number of outstanding wines; his Hill 1 2002 is a blend of the Austrian native varietals Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch together with Cabernet Sauvignon. The nose touches on blackberry, earth, vanilla, and spice; the palate counters the dark berries and earth with a roasted meat finish. Hill 1 has two sister wines: a Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend (Hill 2) and a botrytis-influenced Chardonnay dessert wine (Hill 3); the series represents the premium end of Hillinger’s wines.

Pumpkin Ginger Crème Caramel
From The Olives Dessert Table by Todd English (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

Ginger adds a bright note to this dessert and elevates it over the usual run of pumpkin cheesecakes and pies that appear each autumn. Accent this side of the dessert with a similarly spicy wine. Some Sauternes or SGN wines from Alsace might go well, but Tokaji from Hungary hits the exotic bullseye.

Tokaji was known as Hungary’s greatest wine until it fell on hard times during Communism; fortunately, a combination of dedicated locals and in some cases foreign investment is reviving interest in this spectacular dessert wine. Disznòkö is an old estate of 247acres, operating since 1992 under the direction of Bordeaux’s J.M. Cazes. They concentrate on integrating modern technology with recovered traditional techniques to produce the classical dessert “Aszú” wines as well as dry wines from the indigenous grapes Furmint and Szamorodni.

The Disznòkö Aszú 6 Puttonyos 1997 has a complex nose of apricot, quince, honey, and spice touched by a streak of orange zest from botrytis. Despite its sweetness, the wine is not too thick on the palate; prominent acidity keeps it from getting cloying and extends the flavors into a long finish.