Wines of the Month

November, 2000

Talkin' Turkey?

When people find out that I have a wine website, one of the most common questions they ask is "What wine should I serve with (fill in the blank)?" People who are new to wine, or who just don't obsess about it the way some of us do, often feel insecure about pairing wines with food. And with the multitude of bottles on the shelves of many wine stores, it's easy to see how people can feel overwhelmed. The stereotypes (perpetuated by books, movies, television shows and sometimes even the news media) of wine snobs ridiculing other peoples' wine selections for arcane reasons, can produce a paralyzing fear of appearing "unsophisticated" by making a "wrong" choice. What the media often ignores, and as a result, what people often don't realize, is that wine and food matching is one of the great discussion topics in wine for beginners and experts alike; there often isn't one "right" answer, and everyone is entitled to their own opinions.

However, the lack of a "right" answer doesn't necessarily make the question any easier to answer. Why? Let's take a look at the question as it often appears around this time of year: "What wine should I serve with turkey?" On its face, the question appears to be fairly simple to answer. Turkey has relatively innocuous flavors, and, like other roast birds, would seem to pair well with a number of wines. Easy, right? Not really, because the question people are actually asking is a little different than the one originally posed. What most people really want to know is: "What wine goes with Thanksgiving Dinner?"

"So what's so different about that?", you may ask. "Everyone has turkey for Thanksgiving dinner." True, but even though turkey may be the sentimental and visual centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, as far as wine is concerned, the turkey generally fades into the background. As with any wine and food pairing, the wine match needs to take into account the preparation of the ingredients, paying particular attention to dominant flavors, and as I noted above, turkey really doesn't have assertive flavors, especially in the context of a typical Thanksgiving dinner, which may include cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, stuffing (sometimes made with sausage or oysters), and a wide variety of other flavorful dishes. Many of these foods can be difficult to pair with wines. For example, cranberry sauce, with its combination of sugar and acidity, can kill many wines that would perform beautifully with turkey alone. And a combination of several difficult foods can turn a simple question into a major headache.

Obviously, no one needs a headache when they are supposed to be celebrating (and holiday dinners can be stressful enough without extra worries), so how should you pick wines for Thanksgiving? My advice is to lighten up, keep it simple and enjoy yourself.

Lighten up by choosing a wine that is on the lighter side. When you're facing a plate laden with mounds of protein and carbs, you probably won't want to pile on more weight with a huge wine. So leave those big, bruising Cabernets in the rack, and look for something a little less massive. Don't get carried away, though. A really light wine, like a Muscadet, would just get bludgeoned into submission by the heavy food. Here, as in many aspects of life, moderation is the key.

Keep it simple by choosing a wine that is forward, food-friendly and easily appreciated. A big Thanksgiving dinner with dozens of different dishes, some of them notorious wine-killers, is probably not the time to pull out the subtle, cerebral First Growth that you've been carefully storing for years. The subtlties will likely be lost, either in the food or in the boistrous atmosphere of the day, and you may end up wondering why you bothered cellaring it. Save that extra-special bottle for a time when you can plan a dinner that allows it to shine, instead of squeezing it into a poorly-matched menu. Yes, I know it's a holiday, and we all like to celebrate with good food and drink, but I'm not advocating drinking Mad Dog 20-20, either; there is a middle ground. Look for wines with fairly assertive flavors (you don't want the wine to get lost in the meal). You also may want to stay away from the really odd or idiosyncratic wines, and head for the crowd-pleasers (after all, at a large dinner, you'll be pleasing a crowd...). And don't count out wines with a little residual sugar or strong acidity, because they can stand up to some of the less wine-friendly elements of the meal.

Finally, enjoy yourself by picking a wine that you think is fun to drink. That way you're sure that at least one person will applaud your choice! Don't worry too much about picking the perfect wine, and don't get carried away by "expert" advice. I've heard people say things like, "I really don't like this wine, but [insert expert's name here] says that it's the best match with what I'm serving." I'll bet that at dinnertime, most of those people are disappointed. If you don't like it, don't buy it, no matter what the experts say (by the way, this is good advice for general wine purchases, too). Good food and good wine will often add up to a good meal. And if the wine and food match turns out to be less than you expected, you can always enjoy the wine on its own after you're finished eating.

So what kinds of wines do I like with Thanksgiving dinners? Although I usually don't cover much Chardonnay on this site, Thanksgiving may be one of the perfect times to pull out a rich, buttery California Chardonnay, as long as you stay away from the really oak-laden examples (and in the same vein, a village Burgundy would be good). However, personally, I'd look for something a bit different. Gewurztraminer from Alsace has bold, spicy flavors and can pair well with a number of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes. Looking for something with more mainstream flavors? Try a Pinot Gris from Alsace or Oregon. Condrieu might be nice, or if you want to stay American, one of the California Rhône-style whites would also work well.

Looking for a red? I'd stay on the lighter, fruitier side. Many people recommend Pinot Noir, but I don't think that it's usually assertive enough to stand up to some of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes. I'd lean more toward a fruity Zinfandel (and if you want to drink a V. vinifera wine, you can't get much more American than Zin), a California Syrah or a Southern Rhône blend. If you like Spanish wines, a younger, modern-style Rioja or Ribera del Duero might also work well. A good Beaujolais-Villages, or one of the more forward Beaujolais Crus, like Brouilly or Fleurie, might provide a light, fruit-driven match. And if you like Beaujolais Nouveau (I don't), this would at least be the best time of year to drink it. As you can see, I think a number of wines (including quite a few that I haven't listed) will perform reasonably well, so you should have plenty of choices.

In case you haven't noticed, the subtext of all of this advice is: relax. Choosing a wine shouldn't be painful; it should be fun. If you follow my advice, you may not end up with a wine and food match that has people talking for the next 10 years, but you'll probably have a wonderful holiday dinner. And isn't that what's really important?

Here's a few (mostly American) wines I've tasted recently that I think would do nicely at Thanksgiving:

Charles Schleret Gewürztraminer Herrenweg Turckheim '98 -- Starts out very well, with vibrant aromas of lychee and rose petals. Follows up with lush lychee flavors, along with soft peach and a hint of apple. Finishes with more fruit flavors, and a very slight warmth (not even enough to call heat). Fairly viscous mouthfeel, but could use a bit more acid backbone, so I'd drink this fairly soon. A good example of Alsace Gewürztraminer, especially at $17 (purchased on sale).

Alban Vineyards Viognier Central Coast '98 -- Good varietal floral and peach aromas, which are followed by soft flavors of peach and pear, with some vanilla and floral nuances. Finishes smoothly with more floral and peach notes. One of the few California Viogniers I've found that has used appropriate restraint with oak. One minor quibble is that the alcohol is fairly high, at 14%, and there is a slight touch of heat in the end. However, this is still a very nice bottle of wine that should retail for about $18.

Edmunds St. John Les Côtes Sauvages California '93 -- I originally reviewed a bottle of this wine in October, 1999, and this one was just as good. A blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Carignan, this wine is one of my favorite affordable California Rhône-style blends. This one is similar to the previous bottle, but possibly with a bit more Rhônish complexity and less boistrous California fruit. Complex aromas of plum, black cherry, leather, meat and some spice. All of those appear in the mouth, along with some blackberry and earthy flavors. The finish blends the best of the black fruit and earthy flavors, along with a good dose of smooth tannin. Probably peaking, so I'd drink this fairly soon. An excellent value at $13.99 (on sale).

As always, your comments are welcome.

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Copyright 2000 by Marcel Lachenmann.