This is the sound of me caving in to popular demand.
Here at Vinography, I specifically try to avoid the clichés and tropes of the mainstream media. You won’t find me writing articles here about how crisp, bracing rosés are perfect for warm summer weather, or end-of-the-year recaps of my top 25 wines. The way I figure it, you get way too much of that crap from the glossy mags and newspapers for me to need to do it. Or even if you don’t, that’s the most boring kind of wine writing from my perspective, so I’d just as well skip it.
However, I have been getting e-mails asking for my particular individual point of view on wine for the American Thanksgiving meal, and while I may look down my nose at the banality of writing wine recommendations for major public holiday’s, I’m not about to disappoint some readers who really want to know what I think.
For those of you who don’t, feel free to shut down the browser now and come back tomorrow.
For those of you who are still fretting about what to serve with the turkey and stuffing, and are trying desperately to avoid the trap of some California Chardonnay and some Oh-So-Popular Pinot Noir, read on.
Thanksgiving is a tough meal to pair wines with because of the wide variety of flavors and foods on offer, and the fact that they are all consumed together. You’ve got turkey breast, which like chicken will basically go with any wine, but then you’ve got dark meat and salty gravy, potatoes, and stuffing which can be rich and heavily spiced and more suited to red wines. Not to mention the deadly sweet and tannic flavors of cranberry relish which is a really tough pairing with just about anything, as it tends to be more tannic than almost any red wine.
Despite some foods presenting individual challenges, there are a couple of main guidelines I tend to follow when picking wines for this dinner.
Because a lot of this food is rich and buttery I tend to lean towards wines that have high acidity, whether red or white, as they cut through these thick flavors and serve as counterpoint to their often heavy nature.
For much the same reason I believe acidity is important, I also believe wines with some body to them are important. Delicate flavors such as those from Sauvignon Blanc (which certainly meets the acidity requirement) will quickly be overwhelmed. On the other hand, the big blockbuster Cabernets which are tempting to break out at special occasions like big, once-a-year family dinners are too much and will tend to clash with the food. That is, unless you are serving prime rib for Thanksgiving (in which case I want an invite).
With those basic guidelines in mind, here are my favorite types of wines for Thanksgiving dinner.
If there is a single wine that works great with absolutely everything on the table, from stuffing to pumpkin pie to dark meat dripping with gravy, it’s a nice brut vintage Champagne. Great acidity, lively bubbles, and a touch of earthiness make for a very nice contrast to most parts of the meal. The trick with Champagne is to not skimp. Go for a nice bottle of 02 (or earlier) bubbly, whose age will give it qualities better suited to the meal than a fruity, inexpensive non-vintage wine would have.
A good example might be a 1997 Nicolas Feuillatte “Cuvée 225” ChampagneWhich you can pick up for about $50 a bottle.
Grenache From the Southern Rhone
The nice red fruit and herbal characteristics of these medium-bodied wines are perfect for poultry, and will carry off a decent conversation with some of the heavier spices on the table such as cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the best known (and most expensive) of these wines, but nearly as good and often less expensive are the neighboring wines from Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and the village wines of the Cote-du-Rhone.
One of my favorites is the 2003 Domaine Pallieres Gigondas, made by importer Kermit Lynch, and available for around $24.
When made to my liking, Gewurztraminer has a lovely, complex, and rich core of fruit flavors, and a bit of minerality, all the while still retaining an acidity that makes it work with food. Often accompanied by just a touch of residual sugar, it can pair nicely with some of the sweeter components of a traditional dinner.
The best Gewurztraminers are made in Alsace, in my opinion, though there are some excellent ones being produced on the West Coast of the US, and elsewhere. If you are buying blind (without knowledge of the producer) I recommend sticking with Alsace, simply because you’re much more likely to avoid a flabby, overly sweet wine, which unfortunately still characterizes some American interpretations of this fabulous grape.
One of my favorite everyday Gewurztraminers is the 2004 Trimbach Gewurztraminer Alsace, which is available for less than $16 per bottle.
The most important advice I can give you about Thanksgiving wine pairings, however, is not to sweat it, and certainly don’t go out of your way to try to find the perfect wine. Save that for romantic candle lit dinners with someone special, or a quiet evening of conversation with your best friends. Thanksgiving dinner is a smorgasbord of flavors that tend to thwart even the most enlightened wine choices, if only because it’s damn hard to keep the mashed potatoes from moving in on your candied yams which are resting on the edge of your corn which is brushing up against your stuffing, if you get my drift.
So don’t worry. Even if you do happen to break out a Zinfandel or a Cabernet, it hardly matters. Unless you’ve invited all the wine snobs (in which case they should have brought their own damn wine) everyone will drink and have a good time no matter what wine you serve.