Let’s Talk Turkey: Think Young, Food Friendly and Fruity When Choosing Wines for Thanksgiving

16 Nov

By Sharon Kapnick

Before Big Macs, Whoppers and Kentucky fried chicken, before hot dogs, corn dogs and chili dogs, there was Thanksgiving. Actually, Thanksgiving dinner, which dates back to the early 1600s, is America’s oldest food tradition. Today most families cherish their own traditions and serve the same dishes year after year. The menu is practically written in stone. You risk the wrath of Uncle Bill or Aunt Rose, not to mention cousin Sam or mother-in-law Miriam, if you remove any item from the repertoire. “Americans would no sooner change the menu for Thanksgiving dinner than paint the White House beige,” writes Diana Karter Appelbaum in her book Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American Tradition.

While the menu may require little planning, the food-and-wine pairing probably needs some attention. Although matching wine with turkey is a cinch–almost any wine, from a medium-bodied white to a fairly robust red, will work–matching wine with turkey, marshmallow-topped sweet-potato casserole, creamed onions, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, giblet gravy and—oh, yes!—stuffing that’s often laden with oysters, chestnuts, dried fruit, sausage, mushrooms, celery and/or seasonings—well, that’s another story entirely! Fortunately, there are several wines that can best handle all the diverse flavors.

And there are some general principles to keep in mind.

1) With a cornucopia of different flavors like these, simple, young, fruity wines are best. (Pairing simple wines with complex dishes is a basic food-and-wine-matching tenet.) It’s wise to stay away from heavily oaked and high-tannin wines. And it’s not the time to uncork your most expensive wines. It’s smarter to save them for occasions when fewer sweet dishes, which don’t really pair well with complex, sophisticated wines, are on the agenda.

2) Because Thanksgiving is usually a lengthy affair, it presents a perfect opportunity to pour several wines, at least a white and a red. After all, abundance is what Thanksgiving is all about.

3) Some think American wines are most appropriate for this particular holiday, but I don’t subscribe to that theory. Isn’t it American to welcome those from other countries to our own?

Now, on to the particulars. Since Thanksgiving is a celebratory day, why not get things rolling with a sparkling wine or Champagne? These bubblies are festive, invigorating and well loved. They make any day special—and a special day more so. Their fans will not be unhappy with them throughout this meal.

There are two excellent whites to move on to. Riesling is one. Many wine experts consider it to be the best and noblest variety of all. Rieslings are vibrant, with floral, fruity (apple, peach, pear, citrus, tropical) and mineral aromas and flavors. One of their great virtues is their versatility: No wine goes better with food. Their fruitiness, crisp acidity and low alcohol level (German Rieslings range from 7% to 11%) make them a great choice almost anytime, and especially for Thanksgiving. Wine importer Terry Theise says, “Once people try German Rieslings at Thanksgiving, they’ll never drink anything else.” I recommend off-dry (the German Spätlese) versions, because a touch of sweetness matches the sweetness in this meal. “The dry wine you think will be great with the turkey,” says Theise, “will be castrated by the candied yams.” German Kabinetts (dry to off-dry) are a viable, less expensive alternative. Many think that the best Rieslings in the U.S.—and they are very good indeed—are made in New York’s Finger Lakes region. They’re surprisingly similar to German Rieslings. Washington also often handles the varietal well. (See recommended producers below.)

If you are interested in something white yet different and exotic, you might try a Gewürztraminer. Gewürztraminers, which translates as “spicy grapes,” are distinctive, wildly aromatic wines with honeysuckle, rose petal, lichee, apricot and grapefruit aromas and flavors and a rich, luscious texture. They’re full bodied and complement heavier meals. Alsatians drink them with rich pâtés, foie gras and choucroute garni. In the U.S., they’re often considered one of the best wines to accompany spicy Asian dishes. Their spicy quality meshes with the Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, froufrou stuffings and other side dishes.

Kerry Norton, winemaker at Washington’s Columbia Winery, touts Gewürztraminer as the perfect Thanksgiving wine. “Gewürztraminer spices up the meal,” he says. “It stands out; it wants to be noticed. What better time is there to serve it than at Thanksgiving, where the food can be prosaic?”

Some years ago, wine guru Robert Parker wrote in Food & Wine magazine about the wines he features at his Thanksgiving table. “I believe that the stuffing [should] dictate the type of wine that should be served,” he said. “Our stuffing is … a spicy, boldly flavored bread, sausage and celery combination …. While the turkey itself has relatively straightforward flavors and could easily be matched with a multitude of medium- to full-bodied white wines (such as a California Chardonnay, an Oregon Pinot Gris or a French white Burgundy), the addition of the sausage and aromatic poultry seasoning in the stuffing requires a wine of considerable richness and unmistakable personality.” That wine, Parker wrote, is an Alsatian Gewürztraminer. Alsace is the region most associated with this particular grape and produces fantastic versions. Good ones are also made in the U.S.

Norton sees Gewürztraminer as a wine to jazz up a bland meal; Parker sees it as a wine that can handle a complex meal. Taste is subjective, but one thing’s for sure: Gewürztraminer is a wine to try on this particular holiday.

Francophile wine-shop owner, importer and author Kermit Lynch suggests both whites and reds for Thanksgiving. “I find that Alsatian wine [which is virtually all white] is in the right spirit for this holiday,” he writes. “Beaujolais, too. Both, in their perfumes, contain memories of the past harvest’s bounty, which is what we are giving thanks for, right?” You bet.

Beaujolais comes in several levels. All are made from the Gamay grape, with flavors of blackberries, raspberries and cherries. They’re low in alcohol, food friendly and should be served slightly chilled. Since Thanksgiving is a meal that celebrates the harvest, Beaujolais Nouveau is appropriate. It’s the first wine of the season, readied in just a few weeks; it becomes available on the third Thursday of November. It’s fresh, grapey and simple. If you want something a little more serious, which I recommend, Beaujolais-Villages wines are a couple of steps up, and are even better turkey-and-trimmings matches. Beaujolais-cru wines, from ten designated areas, have more character and complexity and are best of all. In fact, they are probably the ideal red wines for this holiday repast. Look for Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon.

For something trendier, you could try Pinot Noir. It’s the grape that on its own (it’s rarely blended, except in Champagne and other sparkling wines) makes the great reds of Burgundy. It has fewer tannins than Bordeaux’s Cabernet Sauvignon, the other superstar French red grape. When Pinot Noirs are at their height, they can be astounding—elegant, complex, silky, smooth, subtle, charming and seductive.

Pinot Noir is made in two styles: fruity or earthy. California Pinot Noirs usually fall in the first category, with flavors of cherries, strawberries, raspberries and plums, and thus are ideal for Thanksgiving. Their fruit complements the sweet food yet doesn’t overwhelm it. Pinot Noirs also shine in Oregon, where the climate is not unlike Burgundy’s. The wines tend to be closer to Burgundy’s in style.

If you like Cabernet Sauvignon, which is best with red meats and usually too powerful for this particular dinner, you might offer the more approachable Cabernet Franc, its lesser known, and often overlooked, relative. (Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc are thought to be Cabernet Sauvignon’s parents.) Cabernet Franc is one of the grapes used in Bordeaux blends and a mainstay in Loire Valley reds. Cabernet Franc is light- to medium-bodied, fruitier and more aromatic than the weightier Cabernet Sauvignon. Its refreshing acidity and low tannins make it notably versatile. Look for lighter-style French versions from Chinon, Bourgueil, Anjou and Saumur. New York State produces worthy Cabernet Francs, and those from Washington have received good reviews too.

Zinfandel is often recommended for this holiday in part because it’s thought of as an all-American wine (even though its ancestry has been traced back to Croatia, where its called Crljenak Kastelanski!). Its spicy-peppery, fruity flavor goes well with the meal, but it tends to be high in tannins and very high in alcohol (as high as 17%), which would accentuate the heaviness of the food. Since the Thanksgiving feast is often the most elaborate meal of the year and the turkey is laced with sleep-inducing tryptophan, heavy, highly alcoholic wines may be overwhelming. They may even put your guests to sleep! In general, it’s a good idea to stick with lighter, low-alcohol wines. I’d look elsewhere for my Thanksgiving wine.

If you and your guests are still vertical after dinner and you would like to serve a dessert wine, I suggest a Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont or a similar slightly sparkling Muscat wine. Moscato d’Asti is sweet, white, light, low in alcohol, with heady fruit and floral aromas—think peaches, apricots, orange blossoms. It’s delicate, elegant, charming and never overpowering. Non-sparkling Muscat wines are also a fine option, although they tend to be heavier and higher in alcohol. There are good ones made in the U.S. as well as lovely Muscats de Beaumes-de-Venise from the southern Rhône.

It’s important to remember that while there are rules and guidelines for matching food and wine, drinking what you like is always a good choice. You won’t go wrong if you go with your favorites. But remember too that your favorites may not be your guests’ favorites. And because Thanksgiving is such a large meal and you’ll probably need more than one bottle, it’s a perfect time to experiment and try something new. Who knows? You just might discover something wonderful—something else to give thanks for.

Recommended Producers

Sparkling wine:
Spanish Cavas: Aria, Cristalino, Freixenet, Segura Viudas, Sumarroca; U.S.: Korbel, Chandon, Gruet, Roederer, Schramsberg; New Zealand: Lindauer; France: St. Hilaire; Champagne: That’s another story

Riesling:
Germany: Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler, Kurt Darting, Dr. Loosen, J.J. Prum, J.u.H.A. Strub, Selbach and Selbach-Oster, St.-Urbans-Hof; New York: Dr. Konstantin Frank, Hermann J. Wiemer,  Salmon Run; Washington: Pacific Rim, Hogue, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Covey Run

Gewürztraminer:
California: Handley; New York: Lenz; Washington: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Covey Run, Hogue; France: Léon Beyer, Lucien Albrecht, Pierre Sparr, Hugel, Trimbach, Weinbach, Zind-Humbrecht

Beaujolais:
Georges Duboeuf, Joseph Drouhin, Durdilly, Louis Jadot, Jacky Janodet, Louis Latour, Marcel Lapierre, Trenel Fils, Vissoux

Pinot Noir:
California: Acacia, Beringer, Cambria, Camelot, Cartlidge & Browne, Castle Rock, Clos du Bois, Estancia, Gallo of Sonoma, Kendall-Jackson, Meridian, Montpellier, Napa Ridge, Redwood Creek, Robert Mondavi, Saintsbury, Sebastiani; Oregon: Argyle, Cooper Mountain, Firesteed, Lemelson, Ponzi, Wine by Joe

Cabernet Franc:
France: Catherine & Pierre Bréton, Bernard Baudry, Cave de Saumur, Caves des Vignerons, Charles Joguet, Joel Taluau, Olga Raffault, Saint Vincent, Sauvion, Thierry Germain; New York: Lamoreaux Landing

Muscat dessert wines: California: Bonny Doon, Novella, Quady, Robert Pecota; Italy (Moscato d’Asti): Ceretto, Chiarlo, Contratto, Vietti; France (Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise): Coyeux, Durban, Paul Jaboulet Aîné; Israel: Golan

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One Response to “Let’s Talk Turkey: Think Young, Food Friendly and Fruity When Choosing Wines for Thanksgiving”

  1. Brad Johnson November 18, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    Excellent advice for Thanksgiving wines. Couldn’t have written it better myself. In fact, couldn’t have come close. But I agree with all points and wines mentioned. Might have added a verdejo, but the list is already plenty long.

    In fact, we had the DeBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau with a turkey breast and sweet potatoes just last night, and it worked fine. It is not as overwhelmingly fruity as some BN’s are some years.

    Keep up the good work, Sharon.

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