Our annual, national day of culinary angst quickly approaches. Yep, I’m talking about Thanksgiving.
Why the angst? Besides fretting over a very large bird that we only cook once a year (and which is nothing more than a glorified chicken), we have to contend with what wines to serve, not to mention what to do with Aunt Rita’s three-bean salad or Granny’s congealed salad.
Pairing wine with Thanksgiving dinner is tricky because of the different and, quite frankly, antagonistic flavors: savory turkey and gravy set against cranberry sauce and sweet potato casserole. The classic default setting is: white meat equals white wine. And while this holds true up to a point, don’t forget that the turkey will likely have gravy and cranberry sauce with it— again, sweet and savory.
This will sound very un-American, but I usually eschew American wines at Thanksgiving and instead go with Old World wines (or at least New World wines that are produced in an Old World style). American wines, especially Napa pinots and Cabs tend to be fruit bombs that, in my opinion, don’t pair well with food. Time to think outside the box there, Pilgrim!
So what does “Old World” style mean exactly. Wines from France, Spain, or Italy tend to be more “austere.” Well, what the heck does that mean you ask? It means they are generally lower in alcohol, have more tannins, and more acidity. The lower alcohol means your palate doesn’t get tired before the end of the meal and the higher tannins and acidity means that the wine is more likely to enhance the flavor of the food.
And what are my favorite wines for Thanksgiving? I wouldn’t say that I have favorite individual wines, as much as I have favorite wine regions for Thanksgiving dinner. Let’s start with the obvious: whites and then move on to reds.
This wine may be one of the most misunderstood wines in America because in the 70s , winemakers slapped the name on a whole host of cloyingly sweet wines that bore no resemblance to the real thing. True Chablis is wine made in the northern-most region of Burgundy and consists solely of the chardonnay grape. But don’t think that because it is made from the chardonnay grape, that you could save a few bucks and instead buy some Chardonnay from California. Chablis is aged in stainless steel or neutral wood, so it lacks that oaky, butter bomb taste you sometimes get from California chards. (Though more and more winemakers in California are going with stainless steel—Liocco being one of my favorites.) Aging Chablis in stainless steel or neutral oak gives it a crisp, fresh acidity that goes well with food. Domaine William Fèvre produces some of the best Chablis wines in terms of quality and value
Sancerre is a region on the eastern edge of the Loire Valley. This is Sauvignon Blanc country. Wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape are crisp, bright, herbal, and when done right, “zingy.” It is no wonder that the root for the word “sauvignon” is “sauvage,” which means “wild” in French. Sancerres from Domaine Laporte are always a good choice. And if you really want to geek out and get a great wine from a sub-region of the Loire valley, then go with a wine from Cheverny. The wines from this region are really good and reasonably priced. They are usually 60-80% Sauvignon Blanc, but will have 20-40% Aligote or Chardonnay grapes My favorite is Domaine du Salvard, which is not too hard to find.
When I tell folks to get a Beaujolais for Thanksgiving, I usually get this look like “I thought that guy had decent taste?” I can understand why they think that because when it comes to Beaujolais, most people think of that over-hyped plonk called Beaujolais Nouveau that comes out once a year. Beaujolais is so much more than that. Though Beaujolais is technically part of Burgundy (south), it should really be seen as its own region. The primary grape is Gamay, which is best described as having bright, cherry-fruit flavors with low tannins.
French law defines three categories of Beaujolais: Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages, and Beaujolais Cru. The fist category is the basic stuff, wine that can be made from grapes located anywhere in the Beaujolais region. The second is more site-specific and a notch better in quality (theoretically) and comes from thirty-nine villages in the hilly midsection of the region. The best is considered to be Beaujolais Cru. Unlike other wine regions in France, “cru” does’t refer to a particular vineyard but rather ten specific villages. They are: St.-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Réginé, and Côte de Brouilly.
In terms of Thanksgiving wines, your best Beaujolais are from Fleurie or Côte de Brouilly, with those from Brouilly being some of my favorites. I would go with Château Thivin or Château de Corcelles.
And what about Pnot Noir for Thanksgiving? Yes, it is a perennial favorite and one of mine too. And here’s where I deviate from Francophile tendencies. Wines from Burgundy are probably a tad expensive for Thanksgiving. As I mentioned earlier, Napa Pinot Noirs are too heavy. In my opinion, the best California Pinots are from the Central Coast, and one of my favorites is Kali-Hart. If you go to Oregon for pinot, which is never a bad idea, I like the Four Graces or The Eyrie Vineyards.
So, there you have it. The Insouciant Chef’s guide to wines for Thanksgiving. But you can also take everything I’ve said and flush it because wine is like art. Drink what you like and like what you drink. But if all else fails, go with Champagne. Champagne goes with everything!