A Rather Lengthy Thanksgiving Food and Wine Pairing Rant
–with list of wines at the end
My brother and I have hosted Thanksgiving down here is Southern California for our Northwestern brethren now for over 15 years. Being an exceptional home cook and gourmand, my brother handles the food part of the meal. And because I happen to have a large amount of wine at my disposal, I have always been expected to procure the vino at our gatherings. It may sound like the division of labor is a bit unbalanced, which I do not dispute, however, it is not as easy as reaching in the wine cellar and magically pulling out a bunch of great bottles. There are some important considerations to be made, and these guidelines will hopefully help shed a little light on the process and aid in selecting something that will fit the bill. As an added bonus, this could easily work for Christmas pairings as well. Just white-out “Thanksgiving” in the title and insert “Santa Claus”.
The numbers game: If you’re dining with a small group, you can pull out the good stuff (up to 6 or 8 is the rule in my case-enough for a good sized glass each). If the number of guests exceeds 8, try to be reasonable, and shoot for good wines in the $15-$25 range, but don’t serve party swill. (somewhere in the teens is a good bet, unless you really find something you like in the $10-$15 range). If over 25 at your table, 2 Buck Chuck will suffice, and no need to read on.
I’ve seen guests, as well as myself, bring some pretty good bottles to these gatherings and popped them open mid-meal. These nice, rather flashy and expensive wines were completely lost: They did not match the food, everyone was busy socializing not sniffing, and no one paid attention-which of course, you’re not expected to. One year after grabbing a bottle which I stealthily hid under my chair, I popped and poured the revered wine and passed it down to one of my brothers, who then passed it down to another, and so on, until empty. Before I could raise my glass to make a toast, the bottle was gone, and so was the wine. Down the hatch with nary a comment on its quality or appropriateness with the food. An unnecessary loss. On another occasion we ate outside. It was a lovely evening high on a hill in Brentwood watching the sunset with Champagne. However, after the sun went down, the whites got too cold, and the ultra-premium reds I brought tasted metallic and tannic stricken from the light chill (despite the heat lamps). I may have been the only one who felt that, but at any rate, what you want is a good wine that you don’t have to fret over, that you don’t have to think too hard about, and that hopefully, with all the wine’s terroir and soul, will speak to all imbibers, without feeling like it has to.
As far as quantity of bottles, I tend to bring about 1 bottle for every two guests. Considering that some will not drink that much, and a few will drink a lot more, it’s always a good idea to bring 1 or 2 back-ups just in case. But also consider the fact that guests may also contribute, adding to the wine stash (and screwing with your carefully laid wine-pairing plans).
Make an impact:
If you want to do good wines, do it at the beginning and at the end.
In the beginning, have a sparkler with appetizers, or for a toast. I love starting out with a communal toast before anyone takes the first sip. If you want to pull out something nice, do it now. Everyone’s palate is fresh, you’re actually all together at this moment, and you can appreciate the wine with everyone around. This is where 2 or maybe 3 nice bottles of real Champagne are most appropriate. It makes a statement and the taste and quality are undeniable. Maybe even say a word or two about what you’re drinking. People often appreciate knowing what they’re drinking because everyone likes to sip something special, and later when asked about what they had at Thanksgiving, they might actually be able to recall this particular wine, before the slew of other bottlings hit the table. Plus, Champagne is one of those rare wines that goes with virtually everything you can fit on an appetizer plate.
At the end of a meal, if there is any room left, nothing beats sitting around with some close relatives to share a great bottle of Port or some other fine after dinner wine. If you have a fireplace, light a fire (or turn it on–does anybody light a fire anymore?). Nothing else says “Fall” and reflects the warmth and community of friends and family like a good aged port. The French call this kind of moment “chaleureux”. Anyway, when else do you get to drink port? Take my word for it and do it this Thursday.
Now for the nuts and bolts of choosing a good wine, and getting it right for Turkey Day. Here we run into several notorious problems in wine and food pairing: the number of items served; the variety of flavors and textures; both of the above served all at once, on the same plate–what I like to call the “washer machine” effect.
We’re not talking 5 wines to match 5 plated courses. Have you ever been to a special restaurant where they pair each course with a special wine designed specifically to match each ingredient? Not this time. Here we have lots of food with different flavor profiles, and needing a wine or two to go with all of them together. This is virtually impossible in terms of fine wine and food pairing, but what we’re striving for is a balance. The best common denominator. One size fits all. For this reason, there is no one “perfect” Thanksgiving wine. But because of this, we have a lot of choices, and most of them are right, or all of them are right, depending on how you look at it.
Food takes center stage on Thanksgiving. Other times you want to build a meal around the wines if they warrant it (as in the 5 course scenario above, or with serious, collectible or aged wines). But not today. Today is about slaving in the kitchen, moms and dads, aunts and uncles (or chefs and sous-chefs if you’re one of the growing number of holiday-makers going out for Thanksgiving dinner this year) and others in the kitchen working towards a great feeding frenzy in the late afternoon. So you don’t want too big and bold of a wine to dominate the food.
Let’s list a few staples commonly found at traditional Thanksgiving dinners: turkey, ham, stuffing/dressing, cranberry sauce, savory fall vegetables (winter squash, yams, potatoes (sweet potatoes), green beans (but in a casserole), onions, corn, beets, baked carrots, pumpkin pie, pudding, apple pie, and on our traditional table of the past, the JPL inspired neon-colored lime green Jell-O mold cake with bits of fruit suspended in the middle like celestial asteroids in space revolving around the hollow core like the sun. There is no wine paring with the latter.
There are lots of elements to deal with here, but they do share three common themes: medium weight foods that are neither high protein nor excessively fatty, savory fall veggies, and a sweet aspect in some of the dishes. Then there’s cranberry sauce-kind of a “one-off” in the food world (when else do you serve this side dish?), but so good with the turkey and gravy and potatoes (I love the sweet and tart component to balance the earthy, savory flavors). Considering these common elements in the food, let’s look at what we can find in the wines, and then we’ll try to find compatible characteristics, not unlike filling out a profile on match.com. Will gravy date a Beaujolais? Is a Cabernet really too high-maintenance for turkey? Let’s find out.
I’ve listed 6 fairly common aspects of wine to dissect:
1. Weight: The first cardinal rule in wine and food pairing is: match wines and food of equal weight. You don’t want the wine to dominate and crush the smorgasbord of flavors on the table. And the opposite is true. Don’t take a massive break dancing Napa Cabernet to the ballet, and don’t take a delicate refined Blanc de Blancs to a punk rock show. One or the other will suffer.
2. Acidity: If you want one thing in a wine paired with food, you want acidity. Acidity in wine is foods best friend. You want it to have good acidity in order to combat, or at least stand up to the various earthy flavors and savory notes. Most importantly, you want the wine to be able to cut through the gravy, sauces, and various other “accoutrements”. Think of a lemon wedge on seafood or fish and chips. It cuts through, adds freshness, and helps make the food “pop”, and will work wonders with hard to pair items like green salads, beans, asparagus, and eggs. And with the variety of foods and the table, this concept is golden.
3. Alcohol: It should be on the lower side. The higher the alcohol, the heavier and the more dominant the wine will be on the food. Plus, the perception of alcohol tends to be amplified by food, throwing the pairing out of balance. 12-13% is fairly low these days, but sometimes hard to find. Try to keep the alcohol under 14%, but sometimes even a well-balanced 15% wine can work as well.
4. Tannins: Tannins by their nature are bitter and coat the mouth with a chalk-like film. Big powerful tannic wines should be reserved for high protein fatty foods like steak, lamb, and other fatty rich foods with heavy sauces. Tannins love to bond with fat and protein, which in turn lessens the tannic impact on the palate. For this reason, I would avoid big California Cabernets and dense Syrahs. Your stuffing would not appreciate it (nor would your turkey).
5. Sweetness: A little sweetness, or perception of sweetness (i.e. a “fruity” flavor, but not actually sugary sweetness) can work wonders with harvest foods. Think of the sweetness in ham (an off-dry Riesling is a classic pairing with pork), sweet potatoes/yams, cranberry sauce, and other dishes. Fruitiness with some tart acidity is even better to help liven up the dishes and keep things fresh.
6. Flavors: Finally, we can now discuss flavors and actual wine suggestions.
For Whites: Nuttiness and rich earthiness, and even hints of honey in whites work well as it plays off the earth tones in the vegetables and sauces. A weightier white will stand up to squash, baked green beans, potatoes and gravy, yams, etc. and go well with a slightly gamey turkey. Think of white Chateauneuf du Pape, or any of the common blending grapes in that wine: Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc. I’d stay away from the fruit-salad character of Viognier unless it has some age on it. A slightly aged Chenin Blanc such as an off-dry Vouvray or a drier Savennieres, high in acidity, rich, and often with fantastic earthtones, and believe it or not, lactic notes (but also tropical fruit) can work very well. Most hosts are not going to be serving light crisp summer salads and fresh seafood, so bright, crisp, fresh lemony whites should not be part of the equation. Instead, look for a darker golden-colored white as an indication of weight, richness, and age. Here’s also where some oak aging will be ok with Thanksgiving foods because of the nuttiness, vanilla, and slightly sweet impression oak can leave in the mouth. The ubiquitous California Chardonnay (or other New World Version) fulfills this need quite well, just make sure it is balanced and of good quality. A medium rich Alsatian Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris or even Riesling may also be just the ticket, as their light appley sweetness and oiliness, as well as high acidity, match well with a host of T-Day foods. But take the plunge for a good one as extra expense will greatly reward your palate.
For Reds: The first thing to look for in reds is fruitiness: blackberries, raspberries, cherries, and plums are flavors that will go well. I would try to avoid bright strawberry flavors as well as tropical and other summery and citrusy fruits. When in doubt, think of richer, darker fall harvest fruits and vegetables, and you should be on the right track. This is where Beaujolais and Beaujolais Nouveau, made from the Gamay grape, come in handy and are considered modern classics for the Thanksgiving table. They are light, juicy, fruity, low in tannins, higher in acidity, and can have a slight earth-tone palate buried under all the fruit. The Nouveau is so juicy and light that it could be drunk without food or with light appetizers before dinner. If you want to get classy, find one of the 10 “Cru” Beaujolais which have a bit more of all of the above. Morgon, Mouilin-a-Vent, Brouilly, and Julienas are some of my favorites. Note that often they will not say Beaujolais on the label, but are the top wines from this region, and priced around $20.
Other considerations to look for are subtle earthiness in the reds: earth, tobacco, meatiness, and even a bit of forest “underbrush” are always a good thing. Lighter Syrahs, Cotes du Rhones, and Cabernet Francs from the Loire Valley will easily fill this need, as will an unobtrusive but good quality Chianti or a juicy and tartly acidic Barbera. Just stay away from the modern versions that are seemingly pumped up on steroids.
Pinot Noir from California is a natural pairing as well. It can have a bold raspberry-blackberry (as well as strawberry) fruitiness, low tannins, very little earth, but stand up well to the various flavors. Try to stay around or under 14% alcohol though. The higher alcohol Pinots can get fairly hot on the palate. The birthplace of Pinot Noir is in Burgundy, but I would not recommend these wines for Thanksgiving dinner. The high minerality, earthiness, and sometimes subtle perfumey aromas tend to get lost in this food feast. Also you have to consider cost, variability, and inconsistency of the thousands of bottlings on the market.
We finally get to Zinfandel. Not my personal favorite choice, but good for many reasons: First, it’s staunchly American (or Californian anyway). It is our grape. We own it, even if it did originate in Italy under the moniker Primitivo. Zinfandel works because of the high-impact fruitiness in the wine, the raspberry, wild blackberry and savage brambly-spicy quality of this wine. It is low in tannins, and can be earthy in an herbal sort of way. But look out, this can be a high alcohol fruit bomb or lumber yard if you’re not careful, detonating on the palate and obliterating the gamey turkey and shattering the savory stuffing. Pick a lighter styled Zin that is not over-oaked and you may have the perfect palate-and-PC pairing. Go USA. But more importantly, go family, go moderately, and go have fun.
The following is a short list of 8 wines available at Monopole that will work well for Thanksgiving. We have wines from all categories listed above, but the ones below I think are quite nice with Thanksgiving dinner, and I didn’t want to make an exhaustive list. Mention this article and get 10% off all of the wines listed here. Sometimes these sell out quick, so if you think you would like one of these wines in particular, come in early to pick them up.
2011 Dom. Habrard Crozes-Hermitage Blanc, Rhone, France (Marsanne-Roussanne) $20.99
2012 Domaine Jean Vullien Chignin-Bergeron Vin de Savoie, France (Roussanne) $20.99