Thanksgiving Malaise … but the show must go on

I’m thankful for lots of things. I am thankful for the food and wine I eat and drink, the home I live in, the peace and prosperity I enjoy. I am thankful for my job at Spec’s, the church I attend, for my friends and family, for my freedom. And I am thankful for the coming holiday meal or meals but I just can’t do it. I just can’t write another article extolling the virtues of pairing this wine or that with the Thanksgiving meal.

In 2011, I wrote about pairing Champagne and Bordeaux with a wine tailored version of the traditional feast. In 2010, I wrote about pairing Beaujolais (specifically the top Beaujolais-Villages and Cru wines from the excellent 2009 vintage) with the Thanksgiving feed. Before that, it seems like I wrote something each year recommending Riesling and Pinot Noir. It’s not that I don’t like Beaujolais or Champagne or red Bordeaux anymore. Perish the thought. Nor is it that I somehow don’t like Riesling and Pinot anymore. I do still like them and I will be drinking them this year on Thanksgiving. It’s just that I feel like I have said (or at least written) whatever I have to say (at least for now) on the topic of pairing wine with the various variations of the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

So one more time, with feeling: Riesling is a great match for Thanksgiving appetizers and Pinot Noir is the best wine to pair with turkey (whether roasted or deep fried in peanut oil). Amen. Please pass the gravy.

For my 2011 Champagne and Bordeaux Thanksgiving article, please go to http://www.specsonline.com/pdf/bear_Thanksgiving.pdf. None of my previous Thanksgiving efforts are still archived on the Spec’s website so I’m including and update of one below.

 

Giving Thanks and Drinking Wine (Updated)

This time of year reminds me that I have a lot to be thankful for. While I don’t think of it everyday, I live in good health and enjoy peace and prosperity. I enjoy my family and friends and have a lot of them. I have a great job. I enjoy the freedom to live where and as I want and the freedom to worship as I see fit. I am thankful for the wine I get to drink. I have much to be thankful for and, apparently so do many of my friends and customers. They are already asking me “What wines are you drinking for Thanksgiving?” The general answer is the same every year but the details change. Before I get into the specifics of the answer, let’s look at the challenge of the Thanksgiving meal.

Thanksgiving is the most American of all our holidays and its attendant feast may be the most American of all meals. The holiday comes down to us from the some of our earliest European settlers. The feast is traditionally centered on the turkey (which Ben Franklin thought should have been our national bird) but offers a place for new foods from the many cultures feeding into the American melting pot. Every year, this Thanksgiving feast presents lovers of food and wine with a dilemma. Do we dial back the wine and let the traditional foods shine? Or do we dial back some of the tradition to make the meal more wine friendly? Is there middle ground?

For some wine lovers, the holiday is a chance to bring out their best wines and dazzle their friends, whether casual wine drinkers or fellow aficionados. As satisfying as this can be, there is also the potential for real disappointment if the wine and food don’t pair well or if the treasured bottle is overwhelmed by a traditional menu.

For many families, the traditional Thanksgiving foods are sacrosanct. Aunt Betty’s sweet-and-sour-jalapeno-pickles HAVE to be on the table along with Grandma’s buttered-mashed-yams-with-bananas-honey-and-marshmallows. Of course, these accompany Uncle Bubba’s Cajun fried turkey (“Kids – keep your distance from both Uncle Bubba and the fryer”) with oven-baked jalapeno-oyster-cornbread stuffing and a dozen or so other exotic must-have dishes. How do you pair wine with all that?

In most every Thanksgiving tradition, the turkey is the centerpiece of the meal. By itself, a properly roasted Turkey doesn’t cause any wine pairing problems. It tastes great with almost everything from light fruity whites to the fullest-bodied Chardonnays, and from the lightest, fruitiest reds (such as Beaujolais) to an elegant, perfectly-aged red Bordeaux. Season that simple roast turkey with certain spices or push a typical Italian basil-and-pine-nut-pesto between the skin and the meat and you narrow the wine field a bit. The same is true of that flavor-injected, Cajun-seasoned, deep-fried turkey. Add regional stuffing variations and the typical side dishes that grace many Thanksgiving tables and the difficulties are compounded. Many of the traditional garnishes and relishes include salty, vinegary, and/or pickled flavors. Candied yams and cranberry sauce are each sweet enough to cause lots of wine problems. While I never have figured out which wine goes best with deviled eggs, I still eat ‘em.

Add to all-of-the-above the fact that Thanksgiving has become a melting pot holiday. As cultural traditions from family and friends are merged into the traditional Thanksgiving celebration, Cajun, Italian, Mexican, African, and Asian seasonings, flavors, and techniques are finding a place as part of this most American feast. Fish sauce finds its way into the marinade. Mole may appear as a sauce for the turkey. Chiles grace the table and may be included in recipes. Pot-stickers, spring rolls, piroshki, egg rolls, or empanadas are as likely as boiled shrimp or deviled eggs to appear as appetizers. Anyone up for Jamaican-jerked-turkey?

Two more challenges to consider: Many who enjoy wine with their Thanksgiving dinner only occasionally drink wine (and may not be used to drinking really dry wines at all). And some (many?) turkeys are, regrettably, a bit dry by the time they’re served. It’s also good to remember that at this meal, perhaps more than any other, the traditional foods (from whatever traditions) really are the stars. In most cases, the wine – however good it may be – is in at best a co-star and is more likely playing a supporting role.

So, what’s a wine lover to do? The way I see it, we have three choices. A food and wine free-for-all with no real plan is the easiest … and you might get lucky. In this case, serve the wines you and your family and friends most like to drink on an everyday basis and let the chips fall where they will. Chances are most people will enjoy the food and the wine – but there will be only a limited possibility for the thrill of a great match.

The second choice is for one person to control all the food choices so that everything works well with the sort of wine served. If a treasured bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or red Bordeaux is the desired accompaniment, a simple roast bird seasoned with olive oil, rosemary, and a hint of garlic and served with a savory bread pudding (in lieu of soggy stuffing), mashed potatoes, turkey gravy, and a simple green bean dish will do admirably. But beware the cranberry sauce, yams, assorted pickles (I love pickled baby corn at Thanksgiving), Cajun spice, or jalapeno cornbread stuffing. This option may work best for a smaller celebration or for another meal besides the Thursday Thanksgiving feast. It is how I plan my normal dinner parties – but Thanksgiving is a bit different.

The third choice is my favorite: Turn everyone loose to contribute and create. Have a bird or two or three at the center of things and combine it all with a range of wines designed to refresh and accompany the broadest possible range of flavors. Some years back, I hosted a Thanksgiving meal where we had twenty-seven adults (family, friends, and strays) and a double handful of kids in one house.  Guests originated from various parts of the US as well as Mexico, Vietnam, China, Russia, and the Middle East – and they all contributed to the mix of food on the table. Our appetizers included lobster and scallop pot-stickers, piroshki, a multi-layered Tex-Mex dip, boiled shrimp, and baked oysters. For the main course, we had a roast turkey, a deep-fried turkey, and a roast goose. I lost track of how many side dishes both traditional and nontraditional were offered.  It was a riot of flavor and fun. And the wines were good.

To get down to specifics for this year:  At our house, we are going to drink Riesling and Pinot Noir this Thanksgiving (but more than one of each). The Rieslings will be served starting about 10:30AM while the cooking and pre-lunch nibbling is going on. We will continue to offer them through lunch to those who are so inclined but I will switch over to Pinot Noir as soon as I begin to carve the bird. While I like Zinfandel and Syrah, my number one choice for red wine with Turkey is Pinot Noir.

For Thanksgiving dinner, super depth and complexity are not necessary; maximum versatility and an invitingly comfortable, even “glug-able” character with lots of fruit are required.  The key to success is lots of fruit and flavor and little, if any, obvious oak character. Fruit and a hint (or more) of sweetness helps offset any spice and makes a better match with any smoky, sweet, and/or vinegary dishes. As tannic and/or oaky wines generally clash with salt, smoke, peppery spice (other than black pepper), and chilies so, I avoid most Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and oak-influenced Chardonnay. Fresh, fruity flavors allow the food to shine and serve to refresh the palate so I generally serve younger wines at Thanksgiving.

So what am I having? Here’s my Thanksgiving wine shopping list.

RIESLING
Donnhoff Estate Riesling of Donnhoff Kreuznacher Krotenpfuhl Riesling Kabinett 2011
Chateau Ste. Michelle – Dr. Loosen “Eroica” Riesling Washington State 2011
Kesselstatt Estate Riesling Qba 2011
Prinz Su Salm “Two Princes” Riesling QbA 2010
Schloss Vollrads Riesling Qba 2010
Selbach Riesling QbA 2010

PINOT NOIR
Talmadge Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2008
Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Santa Barbara 2009
Routestock Pinot Noir Oregon 2009
Healdsburg Ranches Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2010
Evesham Wood Pinot Noir Willamette 2010
Henri de Villamont Savigny les Beaune “Clos des Guettes” 1er Cru 2010
Remoissenet Beaune-Greves 1er Cru 2008

And of course we will need some BUBBLY:
Marniquet Brut Tradition Champagne NV
Montsarra Cava Brut (Spain) NV
Gruet Blanc De Noir Sparkling (New Mexico) NV
Varichon & Clerc Blanc de Blancs Brut Sparkling (Savoie, France) NV

A Thanksgiving Blessing

Lord God, Heavenly Father we bless You and thank You for this food and this wine which You have given us to nourish our bodies and make glad our hearts. We thank You for our families, our friends, and our freedoms. We thank You for this day of rest and reflection. And we thank You for the peace and prosperity that we enjoy in the midst of an often chaotic world. Grant us Your comfort, Your strength, and Your Peace. All of this we pray in the name of Your Son our savior Jesus. Amen.

3 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Malaise … but the show must go on

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