The Boston Phoenix November 23 - 30, 2000


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Drinks Giving

How to bring wine during the holidays

by David Marglin

Whether it's Thanksgiving or Chanukah or Christmas or any other celebration during late fall and early winter, when you are a guest at someone else's feast, you can never go wrong bringing a bottle or two of wine. Thanksgiving, for example, is about the bounty of the land, and wine speaks to that sentiment like no other beverage. Great wines are truly of the earth.

Conventional wisdom from wine columnists (including Frank Prial of the New York Times) has Thanksgiving diners drinking either "correct" wines, whose flavors will marry well with the turkey and the sides, or domestic wines like zinfandel, on the theory that we are celebrating America. But the holidays are also about a celebration of the new (and the unknown), and that weighs in favor of openness to other choices.

This is a time to turn people on to your taste in wine. You get a shot at telling your folks or your host, "Here are wines I like, wines that I would like to share with you." Don't forget, parties are all about the meal, and by now you know that with the occasional exception of some breakfasts, all great meals are improved by the accompaniment of wine. The holiday season is so focused on eating and drinking that you may need to bring more than one bottle to go around the table.

When you're picking a wine for Thanksgiving, I don't think you should concentrate on the turkey. The meat is so bland that wine usually overwhelms its taste (unless your bird is wild or free-range). So the name of the game is pairing the wine with the sides. If you can find out what sides will be served, you're two steps ahead. Otherwise, educated guesses should suffice. Most meats will come with some gravy, which will be salty and a bit nutty. There are going to be yams and turnips and other mashed tubers; around these parts, there is going to be something cranberry; and probably also some greens. The way you win is by zeroing in on the dishes your wine will combine with.

For the other holidays, go in with your guns (or muskets) blazing. Bring big wines if that is your bent -- something fruity, something fun. Subtle wines will have a harder time cutting through the noise, but you have to express yourself. Big Italian numbers put points on the board these days. Rather than Chiantis, try the Valpolicellas and other Veronese wines; or Piedmontese barberas, particularly the barbed Barbera D'Asti; or, if you can afford them, those big Brunello di Montalcinos (1995 was a fabulous sleeper year for brunellos -- they're really approachable right now). These powerhouses, with their grapey and earthy flavors and less predominant oak, make nice counterpoints to holiday meals.

Or pay homage to this year's Olympics and rock your host's world with an Aussie shiraz or Semillon. For the less daring, a fruity 1998 Oregon pinot noir should treat game birds (like turkey and goose) fairly well; it also accompanies salmon delightfully, and there are plenty of affordable ones out there; try the Bridgeview and the Benton Lane, or the Willakenzie and the Willamette Valley Vineyards.

Most tables always have room for a few more bottles. Folks are there to eat and drink. You have, to say the least, a captive audience. Pour it out, and then pour it on. If your fellow diners lean toward the whites, blow their minds with an Italian pinot bianco or an Oregon pinot gris. Zing them with a zesty chenin blanc (such as French Vouvray or South African Steen). If your heart is set on reds, go for grenache or shiraz, or a fruitier pinot noir. Make it sexy. Stay clear of merlots and cabs -- those are so obvious. Give them as gifts, because they are safe. But take chances with what you bring over for the holidays -- plenty of safe stuff will be served anyway (hey, at least you're going to like what's in your glass).

The key word this whole season is "giving." This is your chance to help create the moment and make the festivities. You may not have shot the turkey or goose, or spent all day stuffing it. But when game time rolls around, you'll be right there, ready to take the field, bottle in hand, saying, "Try a little of this, why don't you?" as you pour out your holiday cheer.

Here are a few bottles I will be bringing to various parties over the next few weeks:

Cantina Produttori Pinot Bianco Schulthauser Alto Adige San Michele ($11.99). Very vibrant. Pretty much blows away any US efforts at pinot blanc, and is an excellent exemplar of the swank Italian wines from the Alps region to the north. It's kicking with the roast birds, the chestnut stuffing, and the whole shootin' match.

1998 Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Gris ($13.99). Not as good as my personal favorite pinot gris from Willakenzie Estate, but a couple of bucks cheaper. Full and fruity, sprightly and zesty, with apples and dashes of honey on the finish. Great with the squashes and pumpkins, the cranberries, or the greens.

1997 Palazzo Della Torre Allegrini Veronese ($17.99). Full and chewy, really Valpolicella. I quaffed this watching the Yankees decimate the Mets in game five (Torre in the house!). It's hefty, with great fruit and a big bite. This is an enforcer, with a lovely velvet-glove finish.

1998 Elk Cove Vineyards Pinot Noir Willamette Valley ($20). Cherry and cola, really gushy. A word to the wise: 1998 Oregon pinots rock!!

1997 Sassoalloro Jacopo Biodi Santi Montalcino (about $27). A poor man's brunello, this is a superb sangiovese, very robust, with loads of wood, and good fruit up front. Kicks up all sorts of cedar nuances, and then some dried cherries. Great with cranberries and heavy gravies.

1998 J.L. Chave Offerus Saint-Joseph ($29.99). Steep southern Rhône, hard to find (Wine and Cheese Cask may have a bottle or two left). This is smooth wine, pruny and warm, with some paprika kick; but it's also opulent, if a touch pointy. With plenty of deep black fruit and chunky oak, it will work across the board for the bold and the pioneering.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

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