For most of us, Thanksgiving is the most ritualized of holidays. There are many ways to celebrate (or to make a point of not celebrating) Christmas or Easter or the Fourth of July, but on the fourth Thursday in November, most of us will sit down to a large meal that will probably be built around a roast turkey and the rest of the day will be structured around cooking the turkey, waiting for someone else to cook the turkey, or getting to and from where the turkey is being cooked. Although there is no evidence that the Puritans of Plymouth ate turkey at the first thanksgiving, it has become de rigueur. I have no great love of turkey but I will roast one and I’ll enjoy it. There is no question about it. In fact, in my family, there is very little question about anything pertaining to Thanksgiving dinner. It is a given that, in addition to the bird, there will be cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, string beans, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts roasted with chestnuts and bacon, and cranberry sauce. Fortunately, all of the above are quite good, even if I feel no temptation to make any of them more than once a year. I can say the same, by the way, about most of what I make for the Passover Seder, but we’ll talk about that in a few months.
The only elements of Thanksgiving dinner that are not written in stone are dessert and the wine. On one level, choosing wine for Thanksgiving is easy. Roast turkey is a neutral partner for almost any wine, so you can’t go too far wrong. The problem is everything else on the table. Sweet potatoes, especially with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg or if glazed with maple syrup, will make a dry wine taste especially acidic or bitter. Cranberries are so acidic that they can make many wines taste flat by comparison. And because Thanksgiving dinner is a rather heavy meal, one needs wine that that will refresh the palate, not further tax it. Finally, since this is the most American of holidays, there is the argument that the wine ought to be American. So, what to serve?
First , let’s get the red or white question out of the way. Serve both. OK, now what?
As I mentioned above, the wine ought to refresh your palate, not fatigue it. This generally means you want something with plenty of acidity and relatively light body. If we’re talking about white wine, it means little or no oak. If we’re talking about red, it means not too much alcohol, not too tannic and quite dry. And with those qualifications we have ruled out the vast majority – but not all – of American wine. So here’s the deal. I’ll talk about four wines. Two will be white and two will be red. Two will be bargains and two will be expensive. Two will be American but two will be French. After all, the French were our first allies and now, after eight difficult years, they are in love with America again. The French are ecstatic about the election of Barack Obama so I say give ‘em a place at the Thanksgiving table.
My white wine recommendation is Riesling. Riesling is THE greatest white grape. Period. No arguments, please. If you disagree, you have never tried good Riesling, and that’s not unlikely because for years most of the Riesling we saw in this country was pretty bad. But good Riesling is marvelous. It can be made totally dry or quite sweet but it should always have enough acidity that it is never cloying. I talk about aromas of jasmine, lime zest and whatever but that misses the point. Good Riesling tastes to me of autumn sunlight. Don’t know what I mean? Well, there’s only one way to find out. Here are two wines that will make the point.
For about $10.00 I recommend Pacific Rim Riesling from Washington State. This is a wine I represent professionally, but it has been a favorite for much longer than I’ve been paid to say so. Originally produced by Bonny Doon Vineyards, it is now an independent winery devoted almost entirely to Riesling. Don’t let the whimsical labeling fool you. This is remarkably good wine for the price and an excellent choice if you are going to be serving a large group.
At the other end of the price scale, at $35-$40 for a recent vintage (and more if aged), there is Cuvée Frederic Emile from the house of Trimbach in Alsace. This is about as good as Riesling gets. Fragrant yet dry, elegant but austere, this wine is taut and bracing in youth, becoming rich and almost oily as it ages and it can age for years. Don’t serve it if you are making sweet potatoes with browned marshmallows on top. But if you are celebrating Thanksgiving with a small group of serious foodies, they will appreciate it. Trimbach, by the way, also makes excellent standard issue Riesling for about $15.00. I would recommend almost any recent vintage except 2003, which was an exceptionally hot year. The result was wines that I find are too rich, lacking in acidity and generally unsatisfying.
On the red side, my less expensive choice (and the one I am more likely to serve) would be Beaujolais. As it happens, the Beaujolais Nouveau gets released exactly one week before Thanksgiving and logic would dictate that it would be an ideal wine. Logic is wrong. In fact Beaujolais Nouveau is wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. Most is wretched bilge that tastes as though someone had dissolved lifesavers in vinegar. It was invented as a marketing ploy, and it’s a good one, but it’s usually terrible wine and it does for real Beaujolais the same harm that all that bad Riesling did for the good stuff.
Beaujolais is a large area at the southern end of Burgundy. But unlike red Burgundy,
which is made entirely from Pinot Noir, Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape. Although Gamay is grown elsewhere (the Loire Valley in particular) Beaujolais is its real home. There is a great deal of Beaujolais and like all wines of which there is a great deal, not all of it is as good as one might like it to be. Avoid wines that are simply labeled Beaujolais unless recommended by someone you know you can trust. The wine may be fine, but you are taking your chances. You will find better quality with wines labeled Beaujolais Villages. This means the wine comes from better vineyards and is made to somewhat higher standards. Even at this exalted level you probably wont have to pay more than $10.00. The wine should have aromas of strawberries and other red fruit and very little tannin. It has the additional advantage that it benefits from being slightly chilled before serving, which makes it even more refreshing. This is not a wine for aging, so pick something else if the only option is more than two years old. But for a few dollars more…
Within the Beaujolais region, there are several villages that are recognized for making wine with distinctive characteristics and therefore use the name of the village rather than the generic name of the region. These Cru Beaujolais include Chiroubles, Brouilly, Fleury, Chenas, Moulin à Vent, Julienas, Regnié, etc., and they are worth getting to know. Some are lighter and some are richer, one will have more of a raspberry aroma, another may remind you of violets, but all are delicious. They cost between $12.00 and $15.00. Unlike other Beaujolais, they can last and even improve for several years.
For something a little fancier (in the $15-$25 range), you could choose a Loire Valley red wine made from Cabernet Franc (Chinon, Saumur-Champigny or the Bourgueil that I recommended a few weeks ago) or inexpensive Bordeaux, but I said I would include an American Red wine. Most American Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel are too sweet, too alcoholic and too tannic for my taste, and certainly to big and heavy to be sufficiently refreshing for Thanksgiving. That leaves us with Pinot Noir, a very tricky grape. Pinot Noir is very vintage variable. It can be beautiful one year and insipid the next. It will grow in any number of places but makes good wine in very few and great wine almost nowhere other than Burgundy.
Domaine Drouhin is an Oregon winery owned by the Drouhin family of Burgundy and is one of the leader in American Pinot Noir. They make a single vineyard wine from their Laurene Vineyard that is quite splendid. It is a beautifully balanced wine that combines luscious fruit, a slight earthiness, and acidity in a way that is almost…well…French and, more particularly, Burgundian. This wine retails for between $55.00 and $60.00 a bottle so, like the Cuvée Frederic Emile, it’s not for the crowd of cousins….maybe you want to open a bottle the night after Thanksgiving, to elevate an intimate dinner of leftovers.
Our Nepenth columnist, Ross Wasserman has had a house in Sharon Springs since his great grandfather purchased a summer home in the village in the 1890’s. He owned and ran a restaurant in the region that won a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year of his proprietorship. He now runs the New York office of Benson Marketing Group, a public relations and marketing agency specializing in wine. (Full disclosure will be offered whenever a wine with which he has a professional connection is recommended.)