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From the Vine: Thanksgiving Tricks and Treats

by on October 25, 2012 1:25 PM

Our sense of Thanksgiving tradition is most certainly tied to the foods served at the Thanksgiving table. When we recall Thanksgivings past or plan Thanksgivings future, undoubtedly we are most excited to talk about the foods we prepare: Mom’s green-bean casserole with the fried onions on top, or the broccoli-cheddar-Ritz cracker casserole, or perhaps Grandma’s awesome mashed potatoes and Dad’s unbeatable gravy.

It is kind of interesting, however, that no particular beverage has ever been specifically tied to Thanksgiving dinner. Sure, there’s wine on the table and beer with football, but nothing seems to have captured this holiday in the way Champagne has taken hold of New Year’s Eve. When our panel gathered for a mock Thanksgiving dinner to explore wine pairings with a turkey and all the trimmings, we think we may have figured out why. With an embrace of so many different dishes on the table (often contributed by different guests attending the dinner) and American culinary trends always tweaking and twisting old favorites, it’s pretty hard to identify just one wine that will go with every dish on the table.

We assembled most of the traditional dishes one would find at almost any Thanksgiving table: creamy mashed potatoes, buttery corn scallop, salty rich gravy, moist savory stuffing, tart cranberry jelly, (semidry) herbed turkey, and green salad with roasted shallot vinaigrette. If you were to consider a wine pairing for each of these dishes individually, you would undoubtedly be led to as many wines as you had dishes. And we did have quite an assortment of wine: Prosecco, sparkling brut rosè, two still rosès (one Gamay based, the other Syrah/Grenache based), a Pinot Gris, an off-dry Riesling, a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir, a Sangiovese, a Zinfandel, and two red blends — a Zin-Cab-Syrah blend and the other a Cab-Merlot blend. And for history’s sake, we also included a hard apple cider, since it is most likely that the pilgrims were drinking cider at the first Thanksgiving.

For the most part, we found certain wines paired nicely with certain foods — even multiple foods. The right rosè could bring a nice element of fruit and acidity to turkey, Riesling worked well with salad, Chardonnay worked just fine with mashed potatoes and corn scallop, but it was hard to find one wine that worked well with every food. This was further complicated for those who were “mixed fork” eaters — those who always put a little taste of everything on their fork for every mouthful. Invariably for these folks, cranberry jelly became any wine’s nemesis, with its semi-sour-fruit-and-tart finish singlehandedly bringing every wine to its knees. That is, every wine save one: the sparkling wines. You may have heard me say it before, but it is no less true today as ever: sparkling wines are quite possibly the most versatile of wines with which to pair food. The carbonation helps cut through heavier dishes, as does their dose of acidity. If you choose a sparkler for Thanksgiving, look for something that isn’t quite bone dry (Bruts will probably be too dry for the meal) — choose an extra dry (ironically named) or a demi-sec. These wines will have enough fruit flavor to complement most of the dishes on the table, and are often lower in alcohol, which can be a nice bonus if you will be at the table for a while. An extra perk is that if you go with a rosè sparkler, they are celebrational, great on their own as an aperitif, and look lovely in the glass. One of my go-to favorites is Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs (PLCB code 8100, $16.99) from Napa Valley.

But maybe after a few glasses of sparkling prior to and at the beginning of the meal you want to move on to something else. Cranberry jelly aside, there were lots of interesting combinations that worked. For white wines, I thought the slightly off-dry Riesling worked well with salad, if you are doing a salad course, and would work with sweeter sides like sweet potatoes. The still rosès, if fruity enough, also work well with turkey and gravy, as will Pinot Gris and hard cider. In fact, I thought the Pinot Gris was the best white wine suited to the meal as a whole with lots of ripe fruit right up front, but with enough acid to not be cloying. A couple of Pinot Gris to look for are those from Trimbach (PLCB code 8494, $18.99), Anne Amis (PLCB code 38925, $15.99), and Lange Estate (PLCB code 45564, $18.99).

For reds, lighter fruit-forward wines made from grapes such as Gamay Beaujolais and new-world Pinot Noir can offer the same qualities that cranberry jelly can in terms of complementing turkey and all the trimmings — as long as you don’t have cranberry tucked on to that fork! Bigger reds such as our red blends and Zinfandels actually fared well with most of the dishes because they had a more jammy profile than a peppery or tannic one. In that regard, Francis Coppola’s Rosso (PLCB code 5383, $12.99) blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Syrah was a hit in terms of really complementing the meal rather than serving to distract from it.

And then, finally, there is dessert. If pumpkin pie is on the menu, a nicely chilled Gewurztraminer is a good match. Apple and peach pies would probably be best served with a nutty tawny port, or, better yet, an ice wine. The beauty of offering dessert wines is that those who simply can’t eat another bite can participate in dessert with a luscious glass of something a little sweet.

In the end, if you are committed to trying to please as many people as possible at your Thanksgiving table, have a few options on hand, and experiment. Start with a sparkling, move on to Pinot Gris, and then keep a nice rosè and a big red handy. You and your guests will have plenty to be thankful for!

Lucy Rogers teaches wine classes and offers private wine tastings through Wines by the Class. She also is the event coordinator for Zola Catering.
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