Wines of the Month

November, 2001

Spicy Turkey?

Yes, it's November again, and in the United States, that means Thanksgiving (apologies to our friends from the north for being a month late with this article...). And to many Americans, Thanksgiving means turkey with all the trimmings. As a result, at this time of year, I get a lot of questions along the lines of "What wine goes well with turkey?"

It's a seemingly simple question, yet it also outlines the pitfalls that can be encountered when suggesting wine and food pairings. One of the biggest challenges in making matches is not in finding the right answer to this kind of question; the truth is that for most foods, many wines will pair reasonably well. The real challenge is in asking the correct question in the first place.

Turkey is a fairly neutral food. It doesn't have a lot of strong flavors, and, as a result, many wines will be satisfactory foils for a nice, juicy bird. However, what you need to remember when choosing a wine for Thanksgiving, or for any meal, is that you don't try to match the main ingredient. Instead you should try to match the main flavor(s) of the meal. At a typical American Thanksgiving dinner, the flavor of the turkey often fades into the background behind more dominant tastes of stuffing, cranberry sauce, yams, and other hearty dishes.

So now you're thinking, "No problem. Just tell me how to match the side dishes, and I'll run out to the liquor store..." Unfortunately, it's not that easy (sensing a theme here?). Take, for example, stuffing. Some people make a plain stuffing which is mostly bread and herbs. Some people use oysters. Others add sausage, or cornbread, or various combinations of these ingredients. Indeed, there are probably as many recipes for stuffing as there are cooks who enjoy making it. And the other side dishes can vary as well (e.g. baked yams vs. carmelized). A second, just as serious, problem, is that many of the holiday dishes have a notable level of sweetness. Both yams and cranberry sauce can be pretty sweet (and cranberry sauce also has plenty of acidity). Unfortunately these characteristics, pleasant as they may be by themselves, can kill wines. A bold, dry red, which would pair nicely with a simple roast turkey, might taste tart and flat after a mouthful of cranberry sauce.

Fortunately, even with all these problems, there are some reasonable solutions (and, no, I'm not suggesting picking up a six-pack). One way to handle the problem is to tone down the flavors of the side dishes; however, many people (of which I am one) don't approve of too much tinkering with traditional recipes on Thanksgiving. I want my cranberry sauce to taste right, not all gussied up just to match a wine. The other way is to find a wine that will stand up to the wide variety of foods on the Thanksgiving table.

The sugar in many of the foods suggests that a wine with some residual sugar will fare better than a completly dry bottle. The variety of foods makes me think of a wine with a bold flavor of its own, so that it won't get lost; another way to go would be a wine that blends nicely with many types of flavors. Finally, Thanksgiving isn't about light foods, so the wine should have a reasonable amount of body. Riesling, of course, is typically one of my first answers to any wine question, and though it can fit some of the criteria, in my opinion, it tends to be a little on the light side, and sometimes more delicately flavored than I would want. More fitting, in my mind, would be an Alsace Pinot Gris (see the August Wines of the Month for a couple of inexpensive examples). Even better, though, is Gewürztraminer. This "spicy" grape typically has sweet floral, lychee and spice aromas, with a similar flavor profile. Typically vinified with a small amount of residual sugar, Gewürztraminer should easily be able to hold its own at any holiday feast.

Of course, some people like to "drink American" on Thanksgiving. Fortunately for them, even though the best examples of Gewürztraminer come from Alsace, you can find some perfectly acceptable bottles from the United States, especially from cooler areas of California. You can even find a good one made in New England (see the first tasting note) -- and what could be more appropriate than a Thanksgiving wine from the region of the US where the tradition started?

Sakonnet Vineyards Gewürztraminer Estate Grown and Bottled Southeastern New England '99 -- This Rhode Island winery has been making good wine for a number of years, but it is largely unkown outside of the region (and not too well-known inside New England, either). This bottling was my favorite of the wines I tasted when I visited the winery this past summer. Aromas of roses, lychees, and oranges. Flavors of orange peel, lychee, and flowers, along with a bit of spice. Some sweetness on the long finish, blending nicely with the orange, lemon, and lychee flavors. A good acid backbone suggests that this wine will hold for a couple of years. $14.99 at the winery.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Herrenweg de Turckheim Alsace '97 -- Big nose of lychee and peach, along with some pepperiness. Very sweet for a regular bottling from Alsace, almost like Vendage Tardive (with 14% alcohol, the grapes must have been very ripe). Lychee, peach, pepper, and honey flavors. Thick and viscous. A decent dose of acidity is apparent on the long finish, along with lots of fruit and some honey. A good value at $19.99.

Trimbach Gewürztraminer Cuvée des Signeurs de Ribeaupierre Alsace '93 -- A step up in elegance and complexity from the first two wines, this bottle was shy at first, then yielded aromas of pepper, melon, pear, flowers, and lychee. Lush, weighty mouthfeel, with pear, lychee, golden delicious apple, melon, and a hint of orange. Long, mouth-filling finish of lychee, spice, rose petal, pear, melon, and that hint of orange. Very nice, and very good quality for the price ($23.99).

As always, your comments are welcome.

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Copyright 2001 by Marcel Lachenmann.