Sunday, November 20, 2011

Turkey Time or Thanksgiving Wine Pairing Myths Debunked

Greetings, wine-lovers!

It’s Thanksgiving this week, and more wine will be sold in the United States than in any other week of the year. This also makes it the most important week of the year for people in my line of work … not because of the sales to be made, but because of the vast number of people who need our help. For many, Thanksgiving is the only meal of the year where wine is served. Even for those of us for whom a glass of wine next to the dinner plate is as ubiqutious as flatware, pairing wines can still be daunting. It’s a tricky meal, with a lot of different kinds of flavors, many of them quite rich. Not to mention there’s your mother-in-law’s palate to worry about, or cousin Barney who only drinks Franzia.

But never fear. Your Wine Wench is here to help – not with specific tasting notes this time, but some sound theory to help you make the choices that suit your family best, and debunk the myths that make wine-pairing with Thanksgiving harder than it needs to be.

The most notorious of these myths is: “You can’t serve red wine at Thanksgiving.”

This is just plain and simply NOT TRUE.

Thanksgiving tables have a lot of big, rich flavors, and a big, rich wine can be just what the doctor ordered. You just have to be careful about tannin, but that isn’t an issue with many red wines, including one of my all-time favorites for Thanksgiving ….

Beaujolais Nouveau. Beaujolais is a small region of Burgundy, in France. While Burgundy is known primarily for Chardonnay (White Burgundy) and Pinot Noir (Red Burgundy), in Beaujolais they grow a fruity little cousin of Pinot Noir called Gamay Noir. This they use to make Beaujolais Villages, a light red wine with almost no tannins and a lively fruity character that I find positively delightful.  That would be wonderful on a Thanksgiving table as well. But Beaujolais Nouveau is just plain FUN. It’s the first wine of the harvest, a very very young wine released traditionally on the third Thursday of November as a sort of preview of the vintage. Since Thanksgiving in the US is the fourth Thursday of November, this just seems like perfect timing – especially since this young, fresh wine is so perfectly suited to Thanksgiving. For starters, it has almost zero tannins to interfere with your flavors, but it does have a nice lively acidity that will help you carry each bite from turkey to stuffing to mash to what-have-you. Its light body makes it suitable for any palate – even those accustomed to white should be able to enjoy this red. Not to mention the lovely fruit flavors are approachable for almost every palate. It’s not sweet by any means, but it certianly isn’t bone dry. Every winery in Beaujolais makes one, but the most widely avaailable is the one produced by Georges Duboeuf. For my money, I go with Maison Joseph Drouhin – a bit pricier ($15 instead of $10) but well worth it for the perfect level of harmony achieved by every Drouhin wine.

Maybe you like the idea of a nice light red with your meal, but your discriminating palate  requires a bit more complexity to keep it interested. No problem. My next choice is Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir may be the perfect food wine, because it’s just so darn versatile. It can be made light and fruity, dark and earthy, or a perfect blend of both. It can be sweet, dry, or (more often) balanced. If you’re willing to spend, you can even find some with big chewy tannins and heavy flavors … but those ones aren’t for this meal. If light, fruity, and elegant is your speed, I recommend La Crema from California. ($18) It may be the ideal Pinot Noir, with delicate flavors of cherry, raspberry, cola, caramel, and violet blossom. The best part for me, though, is the vibrant acidity that leaves your mouth fairly singing through the finish. Winemaker Melissa Stackhouse is just a stone cold pro, period. For an earthy Pinot, check out Bearboat’s Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – NOT the Russian River available under the same label. It’s delicious too, but it’s fruity. Now, the Sonoma Coast Pinot, on the other hand … dry as a bone, with a cascading symphony of sauvage flavors – forest floor, pine cone, dried leaf, rosemary, cedar. I love it. And it’s only $15, which is kind of a ridiculous deal.           Can’t decide between fruity and earthy? Want to have your cake and eat it too? Or maybe you just need to make peace between the War Of Different Palates within your family? Have no fear, because the following two recommendations toe the line perfectly without sacrificing quality from either component. Primarius Pinot Noir out of Oregon ($15) has an unassuming label which belies the quality juice inside. The price and the flavor make it my “go to” Pinot. But if you wanna fancy things up just a tad, you can go with the Vero Pinot Noir, by Maison Joseph Drouhin (France, $20). In its fourth generation, this family winery is currently operated by three brothers – who annually craft this Pinot Noir as a tribute to their prodigal sister, Veronique. It’s stunning. Of course, if you want to fancy things up MORE than a tad, you could always see what Veronique Drouhin has up to since she left France for Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and shell out the very reasonable $40 for her flawless Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir – which is, without question, the finest Pinot Noir I’ve ever experienced and to this day my absolute favorite. Conversely, if you want Pinot Noir for under $10 …. I beg you to serve Beaujolais Nouveau instead. But if you insist, some decent examples can be found by Mirassou, BV Coastal, and Smoking Loon.

We come now to my final red wine choice for Thanksgiving … an “emergency measure,” if you will, for those of you serving Brussels sprouts. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Brussels sprouts, but their pungent, earthy flavors makes pairing them with wine an absolute nightmare, especially with whites. For these guys, you DO need a wine big enough not to be bullied around by them, with enough earthy flavors to complement them … but not so big, and so earthy, that it overwhelms the rest of the meal. What to do? Where to turn?

Back to France, I’m afraid (are you sensing a theme, yet?) – to the Cotes du Rhone. Cotes du Rhone blends are fruity up front, but with enough peppery earth on the finish to be a lovely compliment to our pungent friends the Brussels sprout. And the best part is, the cheap ones tend to be rather medium-bodied, which means they’ll be delicious with turkey, lacking the harsh tannins found in their more expensive brothers. Perrin et Fils makes a good one ($11) as does Saint Esprit du Delas ($12) and Guigal ($15).

But just because you CAN have red wine with Thanksgiving … doesn’t mean you have to. Plenty of people out there love white wine, and I happen to be one of them. So let’s discuss some whites.

I know everybody says it’s Chardonnay or bust for Thanksgiving. While I strongly disagree, I’m not going to argue that a good Chardonnay at Thanksgiving isn’t still a brilliant plan for those of you who enjoy it. For a creamy California style … I’ll once again recommend La Crema ($18). Their Chardonnay is every bit as good as their Pinot, with both oak and buttery, secondary malolactic fermentation in perfect harmony with the fruit. Chardonnay may be my least favorite grape in the world to drink varietally, so the fact that I love theirs so much says quite a bit, I think. For those of you who want the oakiness without all the cream, and a nice strong acidity to cleanse your palate between bites, there’s nothing better than Napa Cellars Chardonnay ($18). This is one of my all-time faves, and a real glugger. I even think it would be alright with Brussels sprouts …. As would South Africa’s Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc ($20), which has a delicious but bizarre mushroomy finish I’ve never experienced in another Savvy. Some Chablis also have a nice earthy, minerally character that should do well with the sprouts, as well as the rest of the meal, but not all of them. Your wine merchant can help you find the right one. If you don’t have a reliable wine merchant … you should. It’s every bit as important as having a good, trustworthy mechanic.

Another one of my favorite whites for Thanksgiving is Gewurztraminer. It’s a very spicy white grape, with lots of cinnamon, clove, and allspice behind the peach, rose, and lychee flavors. It also comes in both sweet and dry versions, so it’s easy to please multiple palates – you can even get some bottles of each, so everyone has something to compliment their sweetness level of choice, but the flavors will still be similar enough to go with the meal the same way. One of my favorite sweet Gewurztraminers is by Pacific Rim, from Washington State ($10). Sweet enough to satisfy even the pickiest drinkers, yet with a gorgeous acidity to make it a great food wine. For dry Gewurtraminer my pick is Maryhill, also from Washington State, also $10. Dry as a bone with perfect acidity, it may be my favorite Gewurtraminer of all time.

You can accomplish the same thing with Riesling, another great food wine that also comes in sweet and dry versions, just with a more fruit-focused flavor profile of apple and apricot that lacks the spicy, floral character of Gewurztraminer. For sweet or dry, I still recommend Pacific Rim. Their dry riesling (red label) is absolutely outstanding, but for sweet – get their REGULAR Riesling (yellow label) or ORGANIC Riesling (tan label with vines) – not their SWEET Riesling (purple label). The sweet is delicious but it’s VERY sweet – 7% residual sugar, compared to 1.7% in Chateau Ste. Michelle’s popular Riesling. Wonderful to be sure, but too sweet for many, so I did want to warn you, just in case you’re one of those many. If not, and you like your wines quite sweet, then go for it, you’ll love it. Another great dry Riesling comes from Woodhouse Family Cellars under their Hudson Shah label. At 14.1% alcohol by volume it’s one of the driest Rieslings I’ve ever had and it’s incredible. 100% Rattlesnake Hills fruit from Washington State, but it tastes Australian! Bright, citrusy lime character with driftwood, seashells, and beach pebbles. All of the previously mentioned Rieslings are $10, except the Chateau Ste. Michelle which is $7, and the Pacific Rim Organic at $12.

I think that’s enough to get you started. I hope I was able to help … and with luck, I’ll be over this cold soon enough to taste some 2011 Beaujolais Nouveaus and give you some notes on those – after all, they should still be fresh enough to drink for Christmas, too, and would be delightful with a nice honey-baked ham. Cheers!

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