Thanksgiving has always been a big holiday, but this year, we feel a special need to take comfort in giving thanks with our families and friends. With the holiday including a meal ó and a celebratory one at that ó wine must, of course, play a big part.
When someone asks, " What should we drink with our meal? " , the real question is, " How do I pair wine and food? " But once you know the basics, finding wines to serve should be as easy as apple (or pumpkin) pie. First, recognize that pairing, like cooking, is as much art as science. Context is everything. And Thanksgiving provides plenty of context; I suggest using its history to your advantage.
Ultimately, the origin of the wine you select is less important than how it tastes and how the taste goes with the other tastes on tap. So the inquiry starts with a series of questions: is turkey your main course? Assuming it is, your next question is, " Which white and which red? " You have to serve both; too many people have strong preferences for one or the other, and this is a holiday of inclusion. You want to focus on all the other flavors on the table ó which may mean a phone call to your host to find out what else will be served. Stuffing? Gravy? Cranberry sauce? Yams or mashed potatoes? Whatís the vegetable? Will there be an oyster gravy, as there is in the South, or, as in my family, will there be fresh salmon with a lemon-dill sauce? Once you have a list of whatís being served, your task gets easier. You can rely on your retailer: hand him or her your list, offer your price range, and youíre home free. But like the pilgrims, you may want to go it alone. Here are some guiding principles:
Simple, lighter, fruity wines work best. Thanksgiving is not a serious meal. Itís simple fare, and you want a simple wine. Because itís a celebration of the harvest, the dinner features plenty of fruits and vegetables; these usually pair best with fruity wines, like Beaujolais (even Nouveau) or pinot gris. No chardonnays or cabernet sauvignons; these are too heavy.
Donít spend a lot. People have lots going on, and if they drink, they will drink quite a bit. This is about being value-conscious (like the pilgrims). Interesting but inexpensive wines are the order of the day.
Focus. What is the most important dish on the table (besides the turkey)? Maybe itís the gravy or grandmaís stuffing. Choose wines that accompany those dishes. My favorite reds are fruity shirazes from Australia, pinot noirs from New Zealand or Burgundy, and grenache from the Southern Rhône (and garnachas from Spain). For whites, I like Alsatian gewürztraminers, German rieslings, sauvignon blancs, and pinot gris or blancs. While American wines are fine, remember: Thanksgiving is about embracing the foreign ó in a spirit of peace and gratitude.
Sparkling wine makes for a good apéritif. My Thanksgiving meals have never started on time, and I always want a glass or two of something before the big meal. Sparkling wines (or real Champagne, if you can afford it) whet the appetite, pair well with most flavors, and get things off to a rousing start.
I would recommend buying an extra bottle of whatever you intend to serve and trying it before the Thursday. Form your own impressions, without pressure. Write íem down. When people compliment you on your choice of wine, you can talk about why you selected it, discuss which dishes it pairs with, and even offer a couple of tasting notes. Ask your guests what they think. Get the conversation rolling.
Here are my thoughts on a few wines fit for a Thanksgiving feast, along with the foods they complement.
2001 Ata Rangi Sauvignon Blanc Martinborough New Zealand. This has a lovely grapefruit-y zing and mingles well with non-Thanksgiving fare like Chilean sea bass, king salmon, or cioppino, but can hold its own against any green vegetables, a spicy squash dish, and of course your roast turkey.
1999 Iron Horse Cuvée R Alexander Valley. A blend of 80 percent sauvignon blanc and 20 percent viognier; the latter serves as an accent and makes for a delightful floral bouquet, which softens the grapefruit/citrus acidity of the sauvignon blanc. A fine accompaniment to oyster flavors, salmon, or other seafood.
2000 Borsao Campo de Borja Spain. This blends 75 percent garnacha with 25 percent tempranillo, the predominant grape of the Rioja region. The garnacha makes this a fruit-laden berry patch, unkempt and wild, with a touch of plum and wonderful dark notes such as chocolate or toffee. Superb with squash, salty gravies, or a ham hock.
2000 Louis Bernard Côtes-du-Rhone Villages. Big fruit, bursting with licorice-infused blackberry and overall lip-smackiní flavor, for a very good price (under $10). Good with turkey and cranberry sauce, yams, ham, you name it.
1999 Château Vannières Bandol. A good Bandol is worth all the effort required to find it. Earthy and rich, this is mostly mourvèdre, with the other usual Southern Rhône suspects blended in. The tumultuous dark fruit echoes the deep: itíll be scrumptious with dark turkey meat and sweet potatoes.
2000 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir Martinborough New Zealand. A bit of a splurge, this smooth strawberries-and-cream explosion is tart and tangy, bursting with pizzazz. Tuna is best, but turkey works, so long as you have a dab of fat or two. Big yum!
David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]phx.com