The abundance we celebrate on Thanksgiving presents an interesting challenge to the family member in charge of wine for the feast. There is simply too much food on the table!
When we go to a restaurant and order a tasting menu with wine pairings, the sommelier can match a wine to a discrete course. The courses and wines follow a fairly standard progression: fish, meat, dessert; white, red and sweet. The common theme is actually light to heavy, but the point is that wine pairings can be targeted. The sommelier can focus on a particular ingredient or seasoning in the dish without worrying that the wine for the appetizer might be inadvisable for the entree.
At Thanksgiving, however, everything can appear on the table at the same time. So we want a wine that is versatile enough to play well with several dishes. Or wines, stressing the plural; as I’m fond of saying, “Open one of everything.”
This need for versatility favors wines that are light to medium bodied, fruity, and with enough acidity to leave our palates refreshed for the next bite or sip. That last point is especially important given the sheer heft of the typical Thanksgiving plate. Oaky wines, such as many New World chardonnays or cabernet sauvignons, can be impressive, but they are often one-dimensional and are best with a single partner. Cabernet and steak could win the food-wine equivalent of “Dancing With the Stars,” but Thanksgiving is more like a communal square dance.
Which wines are versatile enough? Among whites, look for Riesling, chenin blanc, pinot gris, unoaked or lightly oaked chardonnay and fruity white blends. Suitable reds include pinot noir, cabernet franc and just about any of the Italian red varieties, especially barbera, nebbiolo and sangiovese.
And as with any pairing, don’t think simply of the main protein. Often the seasoning and the sauce are equally important.
With the White House Thanksgiving menu, an all-U.S. wine list is appropriate. The White House serves only American wines at official functions, and many people favor those wines for an American holiday. We might focus on the thyme that seasons the turkey; here we are lucky, because thyme is a wine-friendly herb. So the challenge is not the turkey but the trimmings. Pinot gris and pinot noir from Oregon would match nicely with the earthiness and nutmeg of the chestnut stuffing. The Chehalem 2011 Three Vineyard Pinot Gris ($24) has a meditative Zen-like character to it; it is mouth-filling and floral, with flavors of peach, litchi and citrus. It has great bones without tasting structured. So does the Andrew Rich 2010 Prelude Pinot Noir ($25), also from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Its silky texture envelopes the flavors of food in a blanket of woodsy black fruit.
Riesling from New York’s Finger Lakes would make a terrific partner to a Thanksgiving buffet. We’re lucky to have several Rieslings available in the Washington area. The Ravines 2011 Dry Riesling ($17) is liquid gossamer with a spritz of lime. For a weightier white, the Stolpman Vineyards 2010 Golden Point ($23), an only-in-America blend of roussanne, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, is wild and fruity enough to be heard among the cacophony of flavors on the Thanksgiving table.
And don’t forget that bubbles go with anything. Artisan hard ciders would be an ideal match for Thanksgiving dinner.
Here are wines that will match well with your traditional turkey and stuffings. Most are American wines, though there is nothing wrong with celebrating our foreign heritage on Thanksgiving.
Chehalem Three Vineyards Pinot Gris 2011
Three stars, GREAT VALUE
Willamette Valley, Oregon, $24
Oregon pinot gris may not be as sexy as the state’s pinot noir, but it is often fantastic. This is the same grape found in the weighty, sometimes-sweet pinot gris in Alsace and the light pinot grigio of Italy. While Oregon’s version resembles that of Alsace (appropriate for the heft of the Thanksgiving meal), it strikes a uniquely American pose. Chehalem’s pinot gris combines intensity and dexterity with orchard and tropical-fruit flavors and a long finish. Your food might get cold while you wait for those flavors to fade.
Ravines Dry Riesling 2011
Three stars, GREAT VALUE
Finger Lakes, New York, $17
The wine industry east of the West Coast is exploding, and New York’s Finger Lakes have established a distinct character and style for Riesling. This lovely example caresses the palate with a limpid, mineral texture and flavors of apricot and peach, with a refreshing edge of talc and lime.
Andrew Rich Prelude Pinot Noir 2010
Two and a half stars, GREAT VALUE
Willamette Valley, Oregon, $25
The silky texture of this wine almost masks the lovely blackberry fruit with woodsy flavors that hint of autumn. Almost, but not quite.
E. Guigal Tavel 2011
Two and a half stars
Rhone Valley, France, $22
With the weather turning cold, we tend to put rosé in the closet with our summer whites. But rosé is a delightful partner with many foods, and the acidity of Tavel is deliciously refreshing. It may not wow you with its power, but it is likely to leave your palate ready for the next bite or sip.
Quivira Zinfandel 2010
Two and a half stars
Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma, California, $25
Zinfandel is a common recommendation for Thanksgiving if only because it tends to taste of cranberries. Quivira adds earthiness and richness, making it a good choice with stuffing and rich sweet potato dishes.
Daedelus Cellars Jezebel Blanc 2011
Willamette Valley, Oregon, $17
This wild and unusual blend of pinot gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, pinot blanc and muscat is exotic and flowery. It won’t appeal to everyone, but if you like a touch of sweetness in an extremely aromatic white, this wine’s for you.