Glenn Reynolds links to a column by Slate wine critic Mike Steinberger on what wine to drink at Thanksgiving. I'm a big fan of Steinberger's work; indeed, he's pretty much the only reason to read the otherwise execrable Slate (IMHO). But his recommendation to quaff American Cabernet Sauvignon is off the mark (again, IMHO).
Cabernet sauvignon—and particularly the cabernet produced in California's Napa Valley—is the signature American wine. When a Napa cab, the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, beat out some leading French wines in the Judgment of Paris, it heralded the coming-of-age of American viticulture and gave the phrase Napa cabernet international cachet. Nowadays, however, that phrase is more apt to elicit snickers than praise; in the minds of many consumers, it has become synonymous with overwrought, overhyped, and overpriced wines. Indeed, scorning Napa cabernets is almost as fashionable as dumping on California chardonnays. Plenty of Napa cabs deserve the derision, but even as the valley suffers through a richly deserved reversal of fortune, there are still producers turning out honest, delicious wines that demonstrate why people got excited about the valley in the first place. And if you are currently in the market for something homegrown and fowl-friendly to drink on Thanksgiving, these attitude-free Napa cabs will make fine choices.
I do recommend that you go read Steinberger's article. It's an excellent summation of the state of Napa Cabernet, which is not what it should be.
As far as Thanksgiving wine drinking advice, however, I must say, with all due deference, "piffle."
On second thought, that's much too strong. As I explain below, if I were a guest at someone's house and our host poured one of the wines Steinberger recommends, I would certainly not be heard to complain. Cabernet emphatically would not be my own first (or even second or third) choice, however, even though it is my favorite variety.
On Thanksgiving, my heart belongs to another grape; namely, Zinfandel. As Frank Prial wrote:
When it comes to American reds, zinfandel is by far the most intelligent choice. First of all, it is the most American of the top varietals, even though, like most of us, it came from somewhere else. We are deluged with dull cabernets and merlots, one virtually indistinguishable from another, but somehow, zinfandel seems to cling to its individuality. What's more, its bright spicy flavors make any meal taste good.
Last year, BTW, Steinberger got it right with a great column on Zins.
I tackled this issue back in 2003 for my very first Thanksgiving as a blogger, writing that:
Fareed Zakaria is a very serious guy - you know him as the author of books like The Future of Freedom and his Newsweek column. Back in 1998, however, he took up a topic near and dear to my heart - zinfandel for Thanksgiving - in a Slate column:Red zinfandel is a fantastic wine--rich, fruity, and with a distinctive taste. Unfortunately, it is not well suited to turkey, a mild--dare one say, bland--bird. Unless you are serving a spicy turkey gumbo, the zinfandel will overpower the bird. This does not make it a terrible choice, but it isn't an inspired one either.What? In the first place, the turkey is not what determines the choice of wine for Thanksgiving dinner. All those powerful sweet flavors (yams with little marshmallows) competing with equally potent savory flavors (herbed stuffing) are what has to drive your choice. Zinfandel's spicy berry flavors and mellow tannins are going to match up to the classic Thanksgiving fare than would, say, the steely tannins and currant and cedar flavors of a good Cabernet Sauvignon. In the second place, the dark meat of a good free range turkey has plenty of flavor to stand up to a zinfandel. In the third place, if you want to show off the wine, roast turkey - like roast chicken - is an great blank canvas against which the wine will show brilliantly (this is something I do not recommend for Thanksgiving, when I think the wine should be a condiment rather than the star, due to the presence of all those other dishes with their complicated flavors, but its worth keeping in mind). Anyway, he goes on:Nevertheless, if you do want to make that toast about American exceptionalism in political ideas and wine alike, there are two further choices before you - Ridge or Ravenswood. Hundreds of wineries now make zinfandel, but these two remain a class apart. Ridge is in some ways the original zinfandel producer, being the most famous early exponent of the wine in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ravenswood is a relative newcomer, having started in the late 1970s, but its wines are probably the most sought after zinfandels in the world and regularly score sky-high marks in wine tastings.As much as I love Ridge, I have to agree that Ravenswood is a worthy competitor. Indeed, in my more expansive moments, I will freely admit that any of the "four Rs" - Raffanelli, Ravenswood, Ridge, or Rosenblum - would make a fine choice. (If you're ever standing in front of the zinfandel rack at your wine merchant wondering what to get, just remember - the "four Rs.")
Zakaria then goes on to deplore the trend towards blockbuster zins, a view with which I am in firm agreement. In my view, however, Zakaria errs in blaming Joel Peterson of Ravenswood for this trend. Helen Turley is the real villan in that story. In any case, I agree with Zakaria that you want to stay away from any zinfandel with more than 14% or so alcohol for your Thanksgiving dinner. Save the big monsters for something else.
So what will I be drinking tomorrow? I've settled on a nice 1997 Ridge Pagani Ranch Zinfandel.
In case you want some alternatives, however, I'm reposting my 2004 Thanksgiving wine advice column. Like a fine wine with some age, it still holds true today:
Assuming a gathering of friends but not of wine snobs, you want good wines that will complement the food but not be the star attraction. Anyway, star attraction wines -- well aged clarets, cabernets, or burgundies -- don't mesh well with Thanksgiving Day.
Granted, roast turkey would go well with most wines. Turkey is not quite as much of a blank canvas as roast chicken, as it has stronger flavors and a firmer texture, but it still will work well with most wines.
Instead, the problem children at the table are all the other things we eat at Thanksgiving. You have a lot of strong and diverse flavors with which to deal. Worse yet, you've got both sweet and savory items, sometimes in the very same dish: herbed stuffing, yams with those little marshmallows, cranberry in some form, and (lord help us) Jello molds. No fine claret or burgundy should have to compete with little marshmallows.
That still leaves us with, quite literally, a world of wines from which to choose.
Some wine and food mavens who make a strong case for certain foreign wines. Many, for example, are convinced that Beaujolais nouveaux is the perfect Thanksgiving wine. And they make a good case: It's a fun, fruity, easy to drink wine and the annual release is perfectly timed for Thanksgiving. Others will argue for Australian Shiraz as another wine that offers tons of forward fruit in a slightly bigger style. (I'm speaking here of low- and moderately-priced Shiraz. The expensive stuff is much bigger and darker.)
Truth be told, from a purely gastronomic perspective, either Beaujolais nouveaux or a light Shiraz probably would be a better choice than any of the wines I'm going to recommend. Both have more than enough fruit and good acidity to stand up to the intense flavors of the Thanksgiving meal, while having soft and round tannins that make them easy to drink with just about anything.
Food and wine matching isn't just about flavor, however. One must also have a sense of occasion.
While lots of countries have some sort of thanksgiving holiday, Thanksgiving -- with a capital T -- is a quintessentially American holiday. So I start narrowing down the field with a basic proposition: Only American wines on the Thanksgiving table.
This still leaves us with a huge array of choices. There are wineries in all 50 states and if you live near one there's a strong case to be made for supporting your local industry. If you go that route, I would recommend avoiding wines made from native American grapes or the so-called Franco-American hybrids. Many of these wines have a foxy flavor that I find off-putting.
So we're looking for US versions of the classic vinifera varietals. Excellent wines are being made from these grapes in many places, although Washington, Oregon, and, of course, California remain the places where the standards of American winemaking are set. But Texas, New York, and Virginia wines are gaining ground all the time. Having said that, however, being something of a California chauvinist, my recommendations will have a definite West Coast bias.
So let's get started. I'm going to recommend 5 categories of wine. In each, I'll suggest both an inexpensive and an expensive choice (the break point between the two is around $15).
Nothing says festive like sparkling wine, so have some domestic sparklers on hand to serve ahead of time and through the meal.
- Inexpensive: Korbel Natural, Ballatore Gran Spumante, Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut
- Expensive: Schramsberg (the 2000 Blanc de Blancs should still be in stores and is drinking quite nicely right now), Roederer Estate Brut, Domaine Carneros Brut, Iron Horse Wedding Cuvee
No vinifera wine is more quintessentially American than Zinfandel (I heartily recommend Charles Sullivan's Zinfandel as the authoritative history of the grape), besides which the berry and brambly flavors of good Zinfandel will stand up quite nicely to the strong flavors of the Thanksgiving table. (I'm speaking here of the red wine, not the white swill.)
California is Zinfandel's heartland. There are lots of producers, but by happy coincidence you can't do much worse than simply remembering to pick one from a winery whose name starts with R. Specifically, however, you really want a wine from one of the famous "four R's": Raffanelli, Ravenswood, Ridge, or Rosenblum.
Be sure to check the label for the wine's alcohol content before buying it. There's been a trend lately towards blockbuster Zinfandels, many of which have alcohol levels of 15 or even 16%. You'll notice a distinctly "hot" sensation in these wines, especially on the finish, which comes from having too much alcohol. For a more food friendly wine, look for something around 13-14% (yes, those couple of percentage points really do matter).
- Inexpensive: Bogle, Cline, Ravenswood Vintner's Blend, Rancho Zabaco
- Expensive: Ridge Geyserville, Ravenswood Old Vines, Renwood, Rafanelli
Other red wines. Ever since Sideways, everybody and their brother is drinking Pinot Noir. I commend the trend highly, as there is nothing quite like a great Pinot Noir. Unfortunately, great Pinot Noir tends to be as rare as hen's teeth. I have several friends who pauperized themselves chasing the elusive great red Burgundy after experiencing that one sublime bottle.
Here in the USA, there are some decent Pinots coming out a few golden spots; most notably, Oregon's Willamette Valley and California's Santa Rita Hills. I'll offer some suggestions, but I do so reluctantly. For my palate, good Pinot Noir is a finesse wine that lacks the stuffing, if you will, to stand up to the intensity of Thanksgiving flavors. But your mileage may vary.
Also, ever since Sideways, nobody's drinking Merlot (sales actually are down about 15%). In some ways, this is a good thing. The runaway popularity of Merlot during the 1990s led to a lot of over-planting and over-cropping, which in turn led to a vast lake of industrial plonk. Yet, few wines are as food friendly as a good Merlot, so I'll offer a few possibilities.
Finally, there is the king of grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon. If I had a life time supply of antihistamines and a cast-iron liver, I would drink nothing else. A good Cabernet will offer an intensity of flavor that will stand right in there with the Thanksgiving meal throwing punch after punch. Of course, unless you laid down a few bottles from a good year and properly cellared them for a decade or so, your Cabernet likely will also offer industrial-strength tannins and acids that will make your mouth pucker. It likely wouldn't my first choice, unless I was opting for duck rather than the traditional turkey-based meal (which is what I'm doing this year), but I would never criticize my host for offering one either.
- Inexpensive Pinot Noir: Beringer Founder's Estate, Erath, Sebastiani
- Inexpensive Merlot: Columbia Crest (first choice), Chateau Ste. Michelle (the 2001 is quite good), Estancia, Hogue
- Inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon: There really is no such beast anymore, but you might try Kendall-Jackson's Cabernet-Shiraz blend. Also, Columbia Crest and Gallo of Sonoma
- Expensive Pinot Noir: Argyle, Beaux Freres, Golden Eye, Williams-Selym
- Expensive Merlot: Duckhorn (the 2002 is good now but really needs a few years in the cellar to show at its best), Shafer, Behrens & Hitchcock, Provenance
- Expensive Cabernet: Silver Oak (the recently released 2001 Alexander Valley is spectacularly good), Ridge Monte Bello, Robert Mondavi Reserve, Pina (the 2001)
White wine. Personally, I don't think white wines have what it takes to deal with the complexity of flavors at play on Thanksgiving. In particular, the oaky chardonnays that long dominated California white winemaking will not show well. Go for a more lightly oaked wine, with a lot of herbal flavors. The increasingly popular Pinot Gris (a.k.a. Pinot Grigio) would make a splendid alternative to Chardonnay.
- Inexpensive: Ca'del Solo Big House White, Hogue Pinot Grigio, Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling, Rodney Strong Charlotte's Home Sauvignon Blanc
- Expensive: Robert Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc Stags Leap District, King Estate Pinot Grigio, Conundrum
Dessert wines. I must confess to having never found a dessert wine that would work well with such Thanksgiving stalwarts as pumpkin or pecan pie. If I'm going to serve a dessert wine at Thanksgiving, I usually make it the centerpiece of the dessert course by pairing it with a plate of sliced apples, pears, and assorted cheeses. In this category, I'm not offering an inexpensive option. Good dessert wines are expensive to vinify and I'm afraid their prices reflect that basic fact.
- Heitz Ink Grade Port, Bonny Doon Muscat Vin de Glaciere, St. Supery Moscato, Jospeh Phelps Eisrebe
In closing, my best advice is to consider your audience. If your guests include a lot of serious wine geeks, push the boat out as far as your wallet allows. If your guests are fun loving beer drinkers who are planning on spending the day watching football, anything that's not in a box will impress them (but leave one bottle of really good stuff next to your plate setting).
And remember one last piece of advice: Don't cook with anything you wouldn't drink.