TCS Daily

What (American) Wine Shall We Have for Thanksgiving?

By Stephen Bainbridge - November 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Assuming a gathering of friends but not of wine snobs, you want good wines that will complement the food but not be the star attraction. Anyway, star attraction wines -- well aged clarets, cabernets, or burgundies -- don't mesh well with Thanksgiving Day.

Granted, roast turkey would go well with most wines. Turkey is not quite as much of a blank canvas as roast chicken, as it has stronger flavors and a firmer texture, but it still will work well with most wines.

Instead, the problem children at the table are all the other things we eat at Thanksgiving. You have a lot of strong and diverse flavors with which to deal. Worse yet, you've got both sweet and savory items, sometimes in the very same dish: herbed stuffing, yams with those little marshmallows, cranberry in some form, and (lord help us) Jello molds. No fine claret or burgundy should have to compete with little marshmallows.

That still leaves us with, quite literally, a world of wines from which to choose.

Some wine and food mavens who make a strong case for certain foreign wines. Many, for example, are convinced that Beaujolais nouveaux is the perfect Thanksgiving wine. And they make a good case: It's a fun, fruity, easy to drink wine and the annual release is perfectly timed for Thanksgiving. Others will argue for Australian Shiraz as another wine that offers tons of forward fruit in a slightly bigger style. (I'm speaking here of low- and moderately-priced Shiraz. The expensive stuff is much bigger and darker.)

Truth be told, from a purely gastronomic perspective, either Beaujolais nouveaux or a light Shiraz probably would be a better choice than any of the wines I'm going to recommend. Both have more than enough fruit and good acidity to stand up to the intense flavors of the Thanksgiving meal, while having soft and round tannins that make them easy to drink with just about anything.

Food and wine matching isn't just about flavor, however. One must also have a sense of occasion.

While lots of countries have some sort of thanksgiving holiday, Thanksgiving -- with a capital T -- is a quintessentially American holiday. So I start narrowing down the field with a basic proposition: Only American wines on the Thanksgiving table.

This still leaves us with a huge array of choices. There are wineries in all 50 states and if you live near one there's a strong case to be made for supporting your local industry. If you go that route, I would recommend avoiding wines made from native American grapes or the so-called Franco-American hybrids. Many of these wines have a foxy flavor that I find off-putting.

So we're looking for US versions of the classic vinifera varietals. Excellent wines are being made from these grapes in many places, although Washington, Oregon, and, of course, California remain the places where the standards of American winemaking are set. But Texas, New York, and Virginia wines are gaining ground all the time. Having said that, however, being something of a California chauvinist, my recommendations will have a definite West Coast bias.

So let's get started. I'm going to recommend 5 categories of wine. In each, I'll suggest both an inexpensive and an expensive choice (the break point between the two is around $15).

Nothing says festive like sparkling wine, so have some domestic sparklers on hand to serve ahead of time and through the meal.

  • Inexpensive: Korbel Natural, Ballatore Gran Spumante, Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut 
  • Expensive: Schramsberg (the 2000 Blanc de Blancs should still be in stores and is drinking quite nicely right now), Roederer Estate Brut, Domaine Carneros Brut, Iron Horse Wedding Cuvee

No vinifera wine is more quintessentially American than Zinfandel (I heartily recommend Charles Sullivan's Zinfandel as the authoritative history of the grape), besides which the berry and brambly flavors of good Zinfandel will stand up quite nicely to the strong flavors of the Thanksgiving table. (I'm speaking here of the red wine, not the white swill.)

California is Zinfandel's heartland. There are lots of producers, but by happy coincidence you can't do much worse than simply remembering to pick one from a winery whose name starts with R. Specifically, however, you really want a wine from one of the famous "four R's": Raffanelli, Ravenswood, Ridge, or Rosenblum.

Be sure to check the label for the wine's alcohol content before buying it. There's been a trend lately towards blockbuster Zinfandels, many of which have alcohol levels of 15 or even 16%. You'll notice a distinctly "hot" sensation in these wines, especially on the finish, which comes from having too much alcohol. For a more food friendly wine, look for something around 13-14% (yes, those couple of percentage points really do matter).

  • Inexpensive: Bogle, Cline, Ravenswood Vintner's Blend, Rancho Zabaco
  • Expensive: Ridge Geyserville, Ravenswood Old Vines, Renwood, Rafanelli

Other red wines. Ever since Sideways, everybody and their brother is drinking Pinot Noir. I commend the trend highly, as there is nothing quite like a great Pinot Noir. Unfortunately, great Pinot Noir tends to be as rare as hen's teeth. I have several friends who pauperized themselves chasing the elusive great red Burgundy after experiencing that one sublime bottle.

Here in the USA, there are some decent Pinots coming out a few golden spots; most notably, Oregon's Willamette Valley and California's Santa Rita Hills. I'll offer some suggestions, but I do so reluctantly. For my palate, good Pinot Noir is a finesse wine that lacks the stuffing, if you will, to stand up to the intensity of Thanksgiving flavors. But your mileage may vary.

Also, ever since Sideways, nobody's drinking Merlot (sales actually are down about 15%). In some ways, this is a good thing. The runaway popularity of Merlot during the 1990s led to a lot of over-planting and over-cropping, which in turn led to a vast lake of industrial plonk. Yet, few wines are as food friendly as a good Merlot, so I'll offer a few possibilities.

Finally, there is the king of grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon. If I had a life time supply of antihistamines and a cast-iron liver, I would drink nothing else. A good Cabernet will offer an intensity of flavor that will stand right in there with the Thanksgiving meal throwing punch after punch. Of course, unless you laid down a few bottles from a good year and properly cellared them for a decade or so, your Cabernet likely will also offer industrial-strength tannins and acids that will make your mouth pucker. It likely wouldn't my first choice, unless I was opting for duck rather than the traditional turkey-based meal (which is what I'm doing this year), but I would never criticize my host for offering one either.

  • Inexpensive Pinot Noir: Beringer Founder's Estate, Erath, Sebastiani
  • Inexpensive Merlot: Columbia Crest (first choice), Chateau Ste. Michelle (the 2001 is quite good), Estancia, Hogue
  • Inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon: There really is no such beast anymore, but you might try Kendall-Jackson's Cabernet-Shiraz blend. Also, Columbia Crest and Gallo of Sonoma
  • Expensive Pinot Noir: Argyle, Beaux Freres, Golden Eye, Williams-Selym
  • Expensive Merlot: Duckhorn (the 2002 is good now but really needs a few years in the cellar to show at its best), Shafer, Behrens & Hitchcock, Provenance
  • Expensive Cabernet: Silver Oak (the recently released 2001 Alexander Valley is spectacularly good), Ridge Monte Bello, Robert Mondavi Reserve, Pina (the 2001)

White wine. Personally, I don't think white wines have what it takes to deal with the complexity of flavors at play on Thanksgiving. In particular, the oaky chardonnays that long dominated California white winemaking will not show well. Go for a more lightly oaked wine, with a lot of herbal flavors. The increasingly popular Pinot Gris (a.k.a. Pinot Grigio) would make a splendid alternative to Chardonnay.

  • Inexpensive: Ca'del Solo Big House White, Hogue Pinot Grigio, Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling, Rodney Strong Charlotte's Home Sauvignon Blanc
  • Expensive: Robert Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc Stags Leap District, King Estate Pinot Grigio, Conundrum

Dessert wines. I must confess to having never found a dessert wine that would work well with such Thanksgiving stalwarts as pumpkin or pecan pie. If I'm going to serve a dessert wine at Thanksgiving, I usually make it the centerpiece of the dessert course by pairing it with a plate of sliced apples, pears, and assorted cheeses. In this category, I'm not offering an inexpensive option. Good dessert wines are expensive to vinify and I'm afraid their prices reflect that basic fact.

  • Heitz Ink Grade Port, Bonny Doon Muscat Vin de Glaciere, St. Supery Moscato, Jospeh Phelps Eisrebe

In closing, my best advice is to consider your audience. If your guests include a lot of serious wine geeks, push the boat out as far as your wallet allows. If your guests are fun loving beer drinkers who are planning on spending the day watching football, anything that's not in a box will impress them (but leave one bottle of really good stuff next to your plate setting).

And remember one last piece of advice: Don't cook with anything you wouldn't drink.


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