Friday, November 5, 2010

Thanksgiving - Food, Wine, Family

One of my top choices - old vintages of Olga 
Raffault Chinon
One of the things I have noticed over the years is that, at our house anyway, it seems to take a lot of wine to cook a turkey dinner. Not so much for the food, but for the chefs, helpers, and guests! The pre-dinner line-up generally includes a few bottles of bubbly to start, then moving on to a crisp racy white or two such as a Sancerre or Chablis. We have some German Riesling lovers too, (including me), a few of whom will stay with that through the dinner. A perfect match it turns out! We serve all kinds of appetizers: nuts, a cheese or two, crackers and crusty baguettes, cured meats, olives, cornichons, chilled shrimp, oysters on the half shell, and a pate or two - tough to save room for dinner though! A good Fino sherry sometimes makes its way into the cue - another great aperitif. (For a list of my favorite Thanksgiving wines click here to go to 56 Degree Wine - updated daily!) 

With us, cooking the feast is almost as big a part of the experience as the actual dinner itself. It starts the day before, when some of the prep work is done including starting the home made stock that cooks for hours, simmering and reducing to finally become the savory, rich, naturally thickened gravy that will find its way onto the mashed potatoes, stuffing and of course, the turkey. But it is in the latter part of the prep, after the obligatory kick-ball match on Thanksgiving Day, that the celebration really gets underway.

Traditional Turkey dinner is a fairly food friendly affair, with the bird itself a pretty neutral palette onto on to which many wine styles and flavors can be added. Matching the various sides can be more of a challenge than the main attraction of the turkey, but unless you have a special family dish way outside of the usual cast of characters, the wine choices are pretty broad. And let's face it, nothing goes with cranberry sauce - it's a palate cleanser to cut through all the mushy stuff on your plate, so let's all get over it and focus on the pairings that have a chance!

My only hard and fast rules take out wines on either end of the spectrum. For whites, wines that are too crisp and acidic just clash. The savory richer flavors need fuller wines with some body - and that being said a little acidity is a good thing, needed to cut through all of the richness of the meal. Good white Burgundy from the villages of Chassagne, Puligny or Meursault work well - even better with some bottle age please if it's not too much trouble! California Chardonnays, with their rich, buttery, Rubenesque body work fine here too, their heft and fruity/oaky components standing well with the meal, although the zip of the white Burgs' might give them the edge for my palate. Pinot Gris from Alsace is a good, eclectic option. German Rieslings, at Kabinett or Spatlese level, are an excellent choice. While this may seem to break rule number one, their acidity is tempered by fruit, and they work well with the turkey and the trimmings too - the sweeter styles may even be the best chance for the dreaded cranberries! Again, if you have some with a little bottle age, all the better. Many Rieslings, despite their innocent first blush can age incredibly well, taking on weight, richness and body and becoming broader, more complex, seeming a little less sweet as they fill out.

But after dabbling and tasting my way through the aforementioned, I almost always go with red. I prefer medium-bodied, less inky, less extracted, less tannic styles on this occasion. Young, full-bodied reds like Bordeaux and California Cabs, as well as Rhone reds (both Northern and southern), can definately overpower the meal, but as these wines age, their tannins and power become tempered by time. Dried fruits, earth tones, autumn leaves and elegance replacing their once youthful intensity, and in their more advanced age, these wines can all join the fray on our table. Zinfandel gets a lot of press as the "all American" choice, but since we all know it is really from Croatia and Italy, that story has run its course. It can work well despite it's Euro origins, especially the more elegant styles - not the 16.5 alcohol brutes. Brambly red and dark fruits, a suggestion of sweetness and spice all pair well.

Old Burgundy - Hard to beat if you have'em!
My first choice however are mid weight reds - Riojas, especially traditional styles like Lopez de Heredia, are perfect in weight and acidity, and are available in older vintages too. Some Cotes du Rhone, Beaujolais, especially from one of the Cru Villages, are very good options as well. But Pinot Noir, with its elegance, balance, sweet cherry tones and wide range of variations on that theme, is my #1 choice. New world versions from Oregon and cool parts of California are typically more forward, ripe and plush, softer and fuller especially in their youth, than their nervier and more reserved Burgundian relatives. If you have some access to older Burgundy, this is a great time to break them out, unless you don't want the relatives knocking out your DRC's! Their elegant, old school finesse and complexity hit the spot for me, but even younger Burgundies from good sites strike the right balance. A few other off the path options could include Austrian reds, or more familiar Tuscan reds, or even an older Nebbiolo from Piedmont, all of which can match the meal. After dinner a little something dolce is perfect with dessert, and Ports, Madeira, Sauternes and a host of sweeties are all in play. And apres the feast, perhaps a little Cognac or Armagnac in front of the fire?

The main thing at the end of it all is to drink what you like, have something on hand to please your guests, and most importantly, to share some time and good food and wine with family and friends, and celebrate a great American tradition of thanks for all we have. 

For a list of my favorite Thanksgiving wines click here to go to 56 Degree Wine - Happy Thanksgiving!

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