Thursday, November 09, 2006

Thanksgiving and Wine, Part 1: Some General Considerations

It's two weeks until Thanksgiving, and we will soon be inundated with hundreds of tips in every magazine, newspaper, and television show from the daily news to the Food Network on what to serve with this all important holiday meal. I can't resist entering the scrum.

All over America, people are being whipped into stiff white peaks of hysteria and anxiety over this one meal. But here's the thing, folks: holidays are supposed to be about comfort, joy, and generosity of spirit--even if this message is sometimes delivered in a way that seems a bit tyrannical and Victorian! (vintage image from Karen's Whimsy)

What follows are my general observations about what works and what doesn't for the big day, drawn together to hopefully induce a sense of calm anticipation rather than frenetic worry. Early next week I'll be back with some specific bottle recommendations pulled from a year's worth of tasting notes, all checked to make sure they are still available for purchase.

So here are the things that I think about before selecting wines for Thanksgiving:

1. Fruit-forward wines are your friend. Our abundant holiday tables are a challenge in wine and food pairing terms, but if you are asking what wine goes with turkey you are asking the wrong question, as Ray Isle explains in his excellent article in Food & Wine this month. This is the most sensible thing I've read yet on Thanksgiving food and wine issues. He points out that turkey goes with pretty much anything--it's the sides you have to worry about. So many conflicting flavors and textures (sweet, salty, tart, gamey, creamy, it goes on and on) means that grass, vegetal, oak, mineral, and spice flavors have to be considered carefully with respect to your menu decisions. And then there's your brother-in-law's jalapeno and cornbread stuffing! The easiest way to steer around these potential pitfalls is to focus on wines that are fruit-forward. Look for tasting notes and/or labels that mention specific fruits at the beginning. When in doubt, go with unoaked sauvignon blanc that is not grassy but citrusy or with a fruit-forward wine made with pinot noir grapes. And, you can always serve one white and one red (see warning below, #3, regarding more than 2 different wines with the main course).

2. Unless you are serving genuine wine enthusiasts, now is not the time to pull out the premier crus. There are a couple of good reasons for this. First, the food is supposed to be the star at this meal, and if you serve your most expensive bottle of wine to Aunt Tilly only to have her coo instead over the pattern the marshmallows have made on the yams the entire evening is likely to devolve into a wine seminar with you lecturing down the table on the finer points of Burgundy. Of course, if you can simply plunk the premier cru down on the table like it's a box wine and let it go, then more power to you (and I'm coming to your house for dinner). Second, many of us will be having 8-12 for dinner, and will want to have multiple bottles on hand for guests. Finding good quality, interesting wine at a reasonable price is all the more important since it is likely to make you, and therefore your guests, feel at ease. No one needs to bankrupt themselves for Thanksgiving wine.

3. Only serve six different wines with the main course if you are having a buffet or have announced that this year Thanksgiving will have a "Tasting Dinner" theme. While it does demand some pre-planning, putting two or three identical bottles of wine down the center of the table screams abundance and plenty to me. If you just pull out 3 miscellaneous whites that have been cluttering up your wine rack for the last few months and hope for the best, there will be unpleasant results as friends and relatives start topping up glasses mixing the German riesling with the Napa chardonnay. If you are having a buffet, however, you can put out what you like, but I recommend pulling all the corks in advance so people can (in true buffet style) browse the offerings and drink what they want rather than settling for the sauvignon blanc because that's the wine that's open. Don't know how much wine to buy for dinner and/or cocktails? That's the Spirit! gives some advice on how much wine you will need per person. And don't be afraid of half-drunk bottles of wine or unopened bottles. Remember, there will be leftovers, it's soup season and wine is great for enriching soups, and you can always keep unopened wine for the next round of holiday parties.

4. High alcohol wines and holidays do not mix. For this reason I don't serve Zinfandels at Thanksgiving (despite the many recommendations for this wine) unless I can find one at well under 14% alc./vol. We should be aware of alcohol levels year round, but I think it is crucial at this time of year. This goes double if you are a generous host (and I know you are) and like to top off glasses and serve wine from the moment people arrive to the instant their feet cross the threshold on the way out the door. This goes triple if your guests are driving home. Read the fine print on your bottles, find the alcohol content on the label, and remember that the higher the alcohol content the trickier it can be to match it with food. Zinfandels are classically fruit-forward wines, but they are also heavy and full-bodied which can overwhelm the turkey (unless its smoked or deep fried), drown the creamed onions, and engulf the mashed potatoes. If you are serving different wines with different courses, try to balance out higher alcohol offerings with moderate and lower alcohol selections. In addition to choosing your wines carefully with respect to alcohol levels, don't forget to have a nice selection of imported non-alcohol beers, fancy bottled waters, and sparkling non-alcoholic ciders on hand for those who choose not to drink.

5. If a guest brings wine to Thanksgiving dinner unexpectedly, you don't have to serve it unless you really want to. I once attended a dinner party where the host burst into tears because, on the heels of several culinary disasters, someone brought wine and then immediately asked for a corkscrew. The host had labored for the best part of two weeks over the shopping, the menu, and the pairings of every course with a different wine. They did not want their guest's favorite merlot inserted into the mix--but they didn't know what to do, and tensions were running high. Remember: it's a gift. All you are required to do is express your thanks. One way to deal with a guest eager to have their wine served is to say brightly that you are going to put this out on the bar to go with the hors d'ouevres. Another tactic involves staring at the label with rapt attention for ten seconds, devouring every detail of the label, and then saying "Wow! I'm going to put this aside for our dinner on Sunday when I can really appreciate it. Thank you so much!" Not much they can say then! If you are a guest and want to take wine to your hosts, then either buy a wine gift bag and put the bottle in it (this means the host knows this is a gift, and not necessarily meant to be served right away) or hand it over unadorned saying something like "here's a bottle of red for you to enjoy once we've all gone home."

Check your menus, paying particular attention to your side dishes. Check your closets, cellars, and wine racks for bottles that are ready to drink--especially look for the unopened bottle of champagne in the back of the fridge--but not over the hill. Figure out how many different wines you want to serve (cocktail hour? with the first course? with the main dishes? with dessert?), and think back over some of the fruit-forward wines you've enjoyed over the last few months. Calculate the number of bottles you need and then forge bravely on to the wine store or the supermarket before the shelves are depleted. Uncertain? Go with citrusy sauvignon blanc and/or berryish pinot noir. Still confused? Check back here for some specific recommendations with tasting notes that might help you decide on which wine you want to serve.

And if you have a particular recommendation for a wine that's worked well for your holiday meals, feel free to leave a comment here.


Sean Carter said...

Hey that's a lot of info on wine....thanks for the insights and your suggestions. And I've also posted a little something on wines at my
Thanksgiving Blog. Do visit it sometime soon and share your thoughts as well. Have a great time!!!!

Brooklynguy said...

WOW - great post. I couldn't agree any more with your thoughts about wine gifts (and dessert gifts too). People don't understand that when they bring a food or drink gift that was not requested by the host to a meal, the host might not want to serve the gift. I have a fruit forward inexpensive wine to suggest with Thanksgiving food: 2005 Domaine Des Roches Neuves Saumur Champigny. I think I have posted about it somewhere - its perfect for this meal.

Unknown said...

I’ve always had a preference for Alsatian wines on Turkey Day. I’d recommend pinot blanc or gewurztraminer (or riesling or pinot gris, for that matter) from Lucien Albrecht or Trimbach. All in the $10 to $15 category.

A Cru Beaujolais (Morgon is my favorite) works great for a red.

David said...

Good article. I go for reds myself on Turkey Day. I've actually had zin and liked it, but I'm thinking pinot this year, maybe this one from New Zealand I wrote about:

Anonymous said...

Though I am usually a stickler for pairing my wine with the meal (or vice versa), I have to agree with you here. When, in the past, I've tried to match up one varietal for the turkey, another for sweet sides dishes, etc, it only makes me unhappy to see people drinking the 'wrong one'. Therefore, keep it simple, enjoy the food, and relish in the company.

Dr. Debs said...

Thanks to everybody for their comments. I've been out of town--sorry to be slow in replying. BrooklynGuy, FoodChat and John over at Brim to the Dregs make some great specific suggestions.

David said...

I added a reference to this article on my posting about Thanksgiving wines here:

And added a link to your site on my blog.

Anonymous said...

I can't say I'm with you 100% on the "bringing wine as a gift" debate. Personally, when I bring a wine to a dinner, I've usually gone to great lengths to pick one that I want to drink together with those people. If I were to peruse my miniscule "cellar" and select a bottle that I'd been sitting on for a couple years, for example, I'd be hugely disappointed if the host just took it and put it away. I might never be able to find that bottle again -- is it so wrong to want just a little taste?

One thing I saw suggested somewhere (Natalie MacLean, maybe?) is to call ahead and ask. Just a quick, "hey, should I bring such-and-such a wine for dinner?" clearly makes your intentions known. If they've already planned the wine, they'll tell you so, and then you can bring a bottle you don't care about as your token gift!