At the same time I scheduled a wine dinner at Charivari for 7pm on Thursday March 12th, I discovered that March 12th is Chef Johann Schuster’s birthday  – so I asked him to pick the menu. As he is German and white Asparagus season is upon us, I knew that spargle would be involved. What Chef Johann initially came up with looked great to me but may have been a little challenging for many diners. Per my request, he dialed it back (from challenging to adventurous) to achieve a broader appeal. In choosing the wines to pair with these dishes, I went with some of my favorites (as my birthday is three days earlier). So we will have wines from Perrier Jouet (PJ), Pedro Romero (PR), Pinot Gris (PG), and Pinot Noir (PN).

Grilled Halloumi – White Asparagus Skewers
Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque, Champagne, 2006

White Asparagus Veloute with Marrow Dumplings
Pedro Romero Cream Sherry NV

Spiced Smoked-Miso-Maple-glazed Sable Fish fillet and grilled Asparagus with
Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Rotenberg 2009
Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl 2009
Trimbach Pinot Gris Gold Label Hommage A Jeane 2000

White Asparagus – Wasabi Root Sorbet

Rack of Lamb herbed & Roasted and a Pinot Noir reduction,
Yukon Gold White Asparagus aux gratin with
Bouchard Pere & Fils Beaune Greves Clos de l’Enfant Jesus 1er cru 2009
Roblet Monnot Volnay Taillepieds 1er cru 2009
Michel Gros Morey St Denis Rue de Vergy 2009
Lecheneaut Nuits St. Georges Les Pruliers 1er cru 2009

Quark Donuts & melted Quark Ice Cream
Pedro Romero Pedro Ximenez Sherry NV

As always, we start with Champagne and in this case it is very fine Champagne indeed: Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque 2006, a top luxury cuvee from a top grand marque house. With the white asparagus soup (a signature of chef Schuster), we will enjoy a Cream sherry. With the Sable Fish (a specialty of the northern Pacific also known as Black Cod) fillet we will have three Alsace Pinot Gris wines (all grand cru quality) which will offer a revelation about the quality potential of Pinot Gris. While lamb is (for me at least) more closely associated with Bordeaux, the coming of Spring and the Pinot Noir reduction led me to Burgundy and a selection of four fine terroir from four great domaines.

This Chef Dinner will cost $150.00 per person including a 5% discount for cash or check or $157.89 regular. All taxes and tips are included. For reservations, please contact Susan at 713-854-7855 or at  Charivari is located at 2521 Bagby (77006) in Mid-Town Houston.

Punching and Pumping in Burgundy

When I travel to winegrowing regions, I taste a lot of wines – often 60-100 or more a day – and I ask a lot of questions. If you’re not going to do both, why travel? Sometimes the wines surprise me and sometimes the answers surprise me. I always learn something new. On my most recent trip to Burgundy, I learned a lot.

I’ve been going to Burgundy pretty regularly now for over 18 years. In that time, I’ve learned a lot about the winemaking but long before I ever visited Burgundy, I knew that Burgundian red winemaking meant fermenting Pinot Noir grapes in open-top fermenters and managing the cap using pigeage or “punch downs.” That’s what I had been taught, that’s what all the books said, that’s what I expected to see, and – when I got there – that is in fact what I saw. Open-top fermentation tanks with the apparatus necessary to punch down through the “cap” of skins that forms on the top of the juice. No surprise there.

Why is this necessary? To understand, we need to start at the beginning or at least the beginning in Burgundy. By the time winemaking made it to Burgundy, people knew how to make wine.

Naked Pipeage from "Naked Winemaking" at

Naked Pipeage from “Naked Winemaking” at

The whole bunches (whole clusters) of grapes were brought into the vat room and dumped directly into the vat. While the weight of those clusters on top broke some of the grapes on the bottom which released some juice, there wasn’t much juice in the vat. So someone had to get in the tank and move around to break up the grapes and release juice. Think the famous grape stomping scene from I Love Lucy. Only naked. And up to your chest. (There is a story that, as recently as ten years ago, a certain Vosne Romanee producer had the gymnastics teacher from a local school come work out in his tanks, but I digress.)

Pigeage plate

Pigeage plate

Once enough juice is released, the indigenous yeast from both the vineyard and the winery start the fermentation. The fermentation produces both heat and carbon dioxide. The heat helps break down more grapes and release more juice further fueling the fermentation. And the carbon dioxide makes it a bad idea to get back in the tank as you wouldn’t be able to breath. So from the start of fermentation on, the grapes were manipulated by pushing down through the cap with either a plate-on-the-end-of-a-pole or a sort of four-pronged-square-fork-on-the-end-of-a-pole. As carbon dioxide is heavier than air, it tended to stay on the surface of the fermenting juice so someone standing on top of the tank punching down with a long pole was OK. Not that anyone knew what yeast or carbon dioxide was. They were doing what experience had taught them. Once the juice was mostly released, it was run off and finished fermenting without the skins. Vatting times were generally short (no more than three days) and the resulting wines were light red in color and fairly light bodied.

Pigeage fork

Pigeage fork

As time passed, vatting times increased and the wines got (somewhat) darker and (a bit) richer. It turned out that there was a lot of color and flavor in the skins. It also turned out that there was a lot of bitterness in the stems. As time passed, some winemakers began removing the grapes from the clusters and just putting only the grapes (without any stems) in the vat. The grapes gave up their juice more readily as the network of stems did not provide structure to keep the grapes from getting crushed. Pigeage (punching down) was still the order of the day.

Longer vatting times put a higher priority on managing the cap. Left to itself, a tank of fermenting grape juice and skins will separate into the juice below and the cap floating on top. And the cap is further pushed up by trapped carbon dioxide release by the fermenting juice. Since there is flavor and color in the skins, the wine maker wants the skins in contact (as in mixed in) with the juice so that flavor and color can be extracted. So someone had to stand on top of the tank and, using a punch down pole, poke through the cap down into the fermenting wine. This both pushed grape skins (and pulp and trapped seeds) down into the wine and allowed wine to come up into the hole created and seep from there into the cap. In each vat,  several holes were punched through the cap once or twice a day depending on how active the fermentation was for 5-7 days. The other reason to punch down (or otherwise keep the cap wet) is that spoilage organisms can colonize if the cap is allowed to dry out.

Fast forward to modern times. The red Pinot Noir grapes of Burgundy are generally brought into the winery and run through a crusher/de-stemmer. Some producers both de-stem and crush the grapes. Some producers only de-stem so as to get whole berries into the tank and some add some whole clusters (anywhere from 10% to over 50%) to the tank. Some producers use all whole clusters.

Most Burgundian winemakers use a cold pre-fermentation maceration or “cold soak” before allowing the fermentation to start. The cold soak allows an aqueous (water-based) extraction to draw out color and flavor before alcohol is formed. Alcohol extracts tannins which are not soluble in water so tannin extraction doesn’t start until after the actual fermentation gets going and produces alcohol.

To cold soak, the winemaker either chills the tank down using the tank’s temperature control or (old school) adds dry ice. The goal is to get the temperature in the tank to below 12°C. The grapes are kept like this, macerating in their own juice for from three to as many as ten days. During this cold soak, the cap forms and must be managed. The options are to punch down or pump over. Punching down (pigeage) breaks open or crushes more grapes and releases more juice. Pumping over (remontage) takes the juice from the bottom of the tank and sprays it over the top to filter back down through the cap. The advantage to pumping over is that it is gentler. The disadvantage is that pumping over can introduce extra oxygen to the wine – and Pinot Noir tends to be oxidative so too much oxygen can be a real problem.

Conventional wisdom says that Pinot Noir producers punch down and because Pinot Noir is less extracted than say, Cabernet Sauvignon (which is usually made with pump-overs), that punching down is the gentler process. Both statements are less than fully true.

Starting with the second premise, standard plate-on-pole (or now more often plate-on-the-end-of-a-hydraulic-ram) punching down is actually a more aggressive extractive technique as the plate breaks, tears, and crushes the skins which allows more extraction of flavor and color. Pumping over is more gentle as only the juice is moved and no metal comes into contact with the grape skins.

The idea that most Burgundian Pinot Noir producers are using only punch downs as an extractive technique is more challenging. Just looking around certainly makes it seem that way. Most Burgundian wineries have lots of open top tanks whether wood, concrete, or stainless steel (or even plastic or fiberglass). And many have rails mounted on the ceiling above the tanks from which hangs a hydraulic ram with a punch-down plate at the bottom that can slide into position over each tank to make the punch downs.

But when you start talking to wine makers and asking detailed questions, another view emerges. Most of the best winemakers I saw on this trip say they are doing at least as much pumping over as punching down and some say they have virtually abandoned pigeage. Maybe they are pumping over in the cold soak, doing a little pigeage as the fermentation starts and then finishing with pump-overs. Some winemakers say there are a few days where they will do one pump-over and one pigeage. And some winemakers showed me a sort of four-pronged fork with which they were doing their pigeage rather than using the plate-at-the-end-of-the-pole. They say the fork is gentler and tears the grapes less but they are still pumping over as well.

The only winemakers that almost have to do at least some pigeage are those that are using all whole cluster as there is initially very little juice in the bottom of the tank. Until enough grapes break open to release enough juice to pump over, pigeage is necessary. Once there is enough released juice, they can (and many do) switch to pumping over.

And then there are the wineries, mostly newer, where there are no open tops or pigeage equipment. The first of these I noticed was several years ago when I visited Vincent Girardin on the east side of Meursault. On my most recent visit to Burgundy, I noticed that the Vignerons de Buxy co-op in Montagny had no open-tops and they acknowledged that all the wines are made with remontage (pumping over). The wines were clean and fresh and showed no oxidative problems so apparently they have it figured out. In visiting a number of other wineries they told me they were using the same sort of closed tanks (which I had incorrectly assumed were just for blending or white wine making) to vinify red wines. Who knew?

If Burgundy is so good – and (at least at the top of the quality pecking order where I work) it is – why change? There are several reasons. Grapes are riper. Winemakers now better understand aqueous (water) extraction versus alcoholic extraction. They better understand what happens with seeds during fermentation. They better understand what happens with stems during fermentation. They better understand both sugar ripeness and phenolic (stems, seeds, and skins) ripeness. The younger wave of winemakers has more education. All the better winemakers have more tools at their disposal. Newer better pumps make pump-overs gentler and less oxidative.

The conventional wisdom that the best Pinot Noirs from Burgundy are made using only punch-downs is incorrect. At this point, it is safe to say that most of the best properties are using both techniques (pigeage and remontage) on the same wine but it seems that there is (currently) as much or more pumping as punching going on.

Myth Busters would be proud.

Burgundy Profile: MARSANNAY

“Professor Pinot” has a nice ring to it. But what is it? Professor Pinot is the sort of Pinot Noir that college professors look for and drink. What makes college professors different? The are exposed to a lot of the better things in life and are often some of the smartest buyers but often operate on limited budgets because most college professors, like most other teachers, are under-paid. What does that have to do with Marsannay? Well, just about everything. Marsannay appeals to the professor – wine consumer on all levels.100_marsannay_lacote

Marsannay is the northern most village and wine appellation on the Cote de Nuits on the Cotes d’Or in Burgundy where it buts up against the south moving urban sprawl of the city of Dijon.

While it is true to say that Marsannay is less well known than its more expensive neighbors, it is still “in the neighborhood” Meaning it’s red wines are made from Pinot Noir grown in the same types of soils on the same slope as its more famous neighbors (such as Gevrey Chambertin, Morey St. Denis, etc.).

Actually, the Marsannay appellation is made up of three villages; from north to south, they are Chenove, Marsannay, and Couchey. Chenove has the least vineyards and is in eminent danger of being completely absorbed into the urban sprawl on the south side of Dijon, Marsannay the village, while still home to many wine domaines, is becoming something of a bedroom community for Dijon and little Couchey is not far behind. The vineyards at the bottom of the slope (close to the former RN74, now D974 road from Dijon down to Beaune) are Chardonnay for Marsannay Blanc and Pinot Noir for Marsannay Rosé. Once the slope proper begins to rise (well to the west of the road), the grapes from these better situated vineyards, many of which carry lieu diet names, are used for the red wines labeled Marsannay.

As they are at the north end of the famed Cote d’Or ridge, these vineyards are a bit cooler than those further south but they still have the highly prized limestone-based terroir and desirable east-southeastern exposure. What the Marsannay appellation lacks is a famous Grand Cru or even premier cru (1er cru) vineyard to carry its appellation name to greater fame. Where Vosne Romanee has Romanee Conti, where Gevrey Chambertin has Le Chambertin, where Meursault has Genevrieres, Marsannay has … well, nothing. Marsannay has little flash so it consequently has little fame. With little fame comes lower prices so Marsannay gives value.

Rather than a famous single site that has official recognition as a great terroir, Marsannay has lots of neat single sites officially known as lieux dits at the village level. Like a 1er cru, a lieux dit name can appear on the label with the village name. Some famous lieux dits include Meursault-Limozin and Puligny- Montrachet les Enseigneres. These lieux dits are sites that are recognized for quality but are just below the 1er cru level. In some cases they are very close but they are still village (pronounced vee-lahj like “vee lodge” without the “d”) wines (the third level in the Burgundy hierarchy). Nevertheless, as single vineyard wines, the wines labeled with the name of the village and the name of a single site they are usually more focused and cleaner tasting than a producer’s village (say it with me – vee-lahj) blend.

While there are simple village level, non-site-specific blends labeled Marsannay, the best wines from the appellation come from the single site lieux dit vineyards. One producer we began to follow back in the mid 1990s – Domaine St. Martin – makes several wines labeled Marsannay _______. Maybe it is Marsannay Champs Salomon or Marsannay Finottes or Marsannay Grand Vignes or Marsannay Longerots. The most fun may be Marsannay Echezeaux which had to change its name to Marsannay Echezots (which is pronounced the same) in order to placate the growers in the Grand Cru vineyard called simply Echezeaux – even though there is at least a $100 per bottle price difference between the two.

As Marsannay is a lesser know appellation, the prices are lower than for comparable “village level” wines from other appellations making them smart buys for those looking to drink good Burgundy Pinot Noir on a budget – which makes Marsannay, along with Maranges (at the south end of the Cote de Beaune, and Hautes Cotes de Nuits and some of the Chalonnaise wines, Professor Pinots.

While Spec’s carries a number of Marsannay wines, it should be obvious from the list below that my favorite Marsannay producer is Domiane St. Martin. Unfortunately, if you look at a map of Marsannay, you don’t find such a domaine. You do find, however a “Domaine Bart” owned in part by Martin Bart.2007 marsannay echezots

Domaine St. Martin is a sort of virtual domaine that is a joint venture between vigneron Martin Bart and elevage expert and artesinal wine broker Patrick Lesec. Bart owns Domaine Bart, a Marsannay successor estate to the former Domaine Clair Dau (the vineyards of which were purchased by Louis Jadot). The domaine has 15 hectares (38 acres) of vineyards with vines ranging in age from 20 to over 60 years old in multiple lieux dits in  Marsannay as well as Santenay, Fixin, Gevrey, and Chambolle. Patrick Lesec is a broker who works with such Burgundy domaines as Jean Louis Trapet and Henri & Giles Remoriquet. He is an expert at elevage – the art and science of taking a wine from just after fermentation through the cellaring process into the bottle – who advocates a non-interventionist approach where wines are racked no more than twice while they’re developing in the barrel, left unfiltered and unfined, and are often hand-bottled directly from the barrel with no assemblage. Why? Because racking, fining, filtering, blending, and processing through a pressurized bottling line all take away some of the flavor and aroma of the wines. Some of that flavor comes back but some is lost forever.

Bart tends the vineyards, farming to keep the yields low (but in balance) and harvests the grapes at maximum ripeness. Bart typically ferments the wine with a five day “cold soak” (pre-fermentation maceration) and fermentation that lasts 15 days. The Bart/Lesec cuvees are released not as “Domaine Bart” but as “Domaine St. Martin” to differentiate them from Domaine Bart’s own bottlings.

I could give you my tasting notes on these wines but they really don’t matter. They’re only snapshots of what the wines tasted like at a particular moment in time. The wines are all close in quality and frankly, some weeks one will show a bit better than the other and other weeks it won’t. They each age and develop on their own curves. A few years back, I served four of the St. Martin Marsannay lieux dits at Thanksgiving dinner and, although they all showed well, there was a consensus favorite. At Christmas dinner that same year, I served the same four wines again. Again they all showed well but this time there was a different consensus favorite. The point is that they are all good and all great values and it is virtually impossible to pick which will show best on a given day – which of course is part of both the fun and the frustration of Burgundy.

CAMILE GIROUD Marsannay Longerois 2009 ($42.74)
BRUNO CLAIR Marsannay Longerois 2009 ($34.49)
St. MARTIN Marsannay les Longerois, 2009 ($29.99)
Longerois is on clay soils (in Burgundy clay = fruit) at the north end of the lieu diet band near the top of the slope.

St. MARTIN Marsannay Grands Vignes ,2010 ($31.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Grands Vignes, 2009($31.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Grands Vignes, 2007($29.39)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Grands Vignes, 2006($24.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Grands Vignes, 2004($21.84)
On a more classic limestone terroir just above the village in the southern middle of the appellation. I think this should be 1er cru.

St. MARTIN Marsannay Finottes 2006 ($25.64)
Finottes is on sandy terroir (sand = elegance) just south of Longerois and below Echezots.

St. MARTIN Marsannay Echezots 2009 ($31.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Echezots 2007 ($29.39)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Echezots 2006 ($24.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Echezeaux 2003 ($23.99)
Echezeaux (Echezots) is on a more classic limestone terroir at the top of the slope toward the north end. I think should be 1er cru.

St. MARTIN Marsannay Champs Salomon 2010 ($34.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Champs Salomon 2009 ($32.99)
St. MARTIN Marsannay Champs Salomon 2004 ($23.99)
Champas Salomon is on a more classic limestone terroir located mid-slope just across the border in Couchey

LECHENEAUT Marsannay Les Sampagny 2010 ($52.24)
LECHENEAUT Marsannay Les Sampagny 2009 ($49.79)
At the south end of Couchey (next to Fixin) toward the botton of the slope.

FOUGERAY de BEAUCLAIR Marsannay Gras 2009              $35.99)
LOUIS LATOUR Marsannay 2011                                            $21.49

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 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.

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

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.

Bubbles, Riesling, and Pinot Noir

Mike Veseth posted “That’s Where The Money Goes” on his Wine Economist blog citing Nielson figures showing holiday (the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year’s) sales indicating the big winners in extra wine sales for the holidays. A good, brief, interesting post that, unlike some Wine Economist posts, is hard to disagree with. To see the post, go to

The meat of the Nielson info is “The U.S. consumer is much more inclined to open up their pocket books during the holidays.  While overall wine sales are 67% higher in that week leading up to Christmas compared to an average week, that jumps up to 124% higher for wines priced $15-$20, and 180% higher for wines $20 and higher. And which varieties tend to really shine during the holidays? Rieslings and Pinot Noir lead the way – with sales increases compared to an average week in the year 107% and 74% higher respectively, even more of a jump than the wine category overall. By country, wines from Germany, tied to that Riesling jump, followed by France and Italy exhibit the greatest holiday sales leap compared to an average week, while wines from Oregon pop the most when looking at major U.S. wine producing states. “

I found that part of that part of Veseth’s post interesting but was even more interested in the end. He states
” Trading up for the holidays doesn’t surprise me, but I must admit that I would not have predicted surging sales for Riesling and Pinot Noir. Those are actually the wines that I recommend to my students for festive holiday meals (along with bubbles, of course). I guess the word is out!”

The word is and has been out. Bubbly, Riesling, and Pinot Noir – from where ever in the world they come – are often the best and always among the most versatile wines for pairing with food. If I am packing a wine bag to take to a BYOB restaurant or to a friend’s house for dinner – and I don’t already know what we’ll be eating – those three wines are almost guaranteed to be in the bag. If you peeked into my beverage ‘fridge at home, you see Riesling (Germany, Washington State, and New Zealand) and bubbly (Champagne, Tasmania, California, and other French) and not much else. And my under-the-kitchen-counter wine “cave” is well stocked with Pinot Noir (Burgundy, California, Oregon, and New Zealand). These three – Bubbly, Riesling, and Pinot Noir – are the way to go.

Here are some of my every-day and weekend (better than every-day but not “special occasion” or “break-the-bank”) picks in these three categories:

Varichon et Clerc Brut Blanc de Blancs, France, NV
Gruet Blanc de Noirs, New Mexico, NV
François Labet Cremant Rose, Bourgogne, NV
Jansz Brut Tasmania, NV
Jansz Brut Rose Tasmania, NV
Domaine Carneros Brut, Carneros, 2006
Marniquet Brut Tradition Champagne, NV

Polka Dot Riseling, Pfalz, 2010
Selbach Riesling QbA, Mosel, 2009 (in a screw cap liter bottle)
Schloss Vollrads Riesling QbA, Rheingau, 2010
Ch. Ste. Michelle Dr. Loosen “Eroica” Riesling, Washington State, 2009 and 2010
Donnhoff Estate Riesling, Nahe, 2010
Zind Humbrecht Riesling, Alsace, 2009

Pinot Noir:
Leonce Bocquet Bourgogne Pinot Noir Screwcap 2009
Hahn Pinot Noir, Monterey County, 2009/2010
Pierre Labet Bourgogne Pinot Noir Vielles Vignes, 2008/2009
Wild Earth Pinot Noir, Central Otago, 2006
Vincent Girardin Cuvee St. Vincent Pinot Noir, Bourgogne, 2009
Expression 44* Pinot Noir Eola Amity Hills 2009
Archery Summit Premiere Cuvee Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, 2009