Turkey needs something.
Visually the big dumb bird makes a striking centerpiece for a family feast, but when the meat reaches the taste buds it's usually a bitter disappointment unless it's slathered in gravy.
Let's face it: Turkey is two meats in one -- the white, which tends to be dry, and the dark, which tends to be oily. No wonder we load down our Thanksgiving plates with so many culinary distractions from the main course.
A good wine can help, however. The right choice will play off against the bird, exaggerating its virtues and helping to conceal its flaws. But to do so it needs to cut through the multitude of flavors that make up the traditional Thanksgiving experience.
The range of options is wide, but no weenie wines need apply. The Thanksgiving turkey calls for a wine that makes a bold statement. It can be red or white, so long as it can stand up to everything from yams to cranberry to Mom's famous three-bean salad.
Over the years, I've met up with many turkeys -- some of them at Thanksgiving dinner -- and tried pairing them with many different types of wine. Sometimes the results have been laudable, at other times comical.
In fact, the obvious choices don't turn out so good. Most chardonnays do nothing to offset the meat's tendency toward dryness, and they tend to clash with some of the secondary dishes. Cabernet sauvignons, on the other hand, tend to be too oaky and tannic, and their flavors just don't seem to mesh with the turkey.
Nevertheless, here are some suggestions -- based on years of turkological research -- of wines that pair up well with turkey dinner.
*Red zinfandel. The exuberant fruit and bold flavors of zinfandel go surprisingly well with turkey -- even the white meat. There are many fine examples, but you want to be sure you are getting a zin that fully reflects the character of the grape. Steer clear of zinfandels made in too much of a cabernet style: The extra elegance will be lost and the extra oakiness will be a liability. You need a producer in the style of Ravenswood, Coturri or Lytton Springs.
*Rhone reds. Some of the less tannic Rhone reds pair wonderfully with turkey. If the budget allows it, Cote-Rotie is the best of them all. A 1984, 1985 or 1987 Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Chateau Beaucastel or Vieux-Telegraphe would also be wonderful, as would a good Gigondas from the same vintages. And don't ignore the multitude of exceptional, low-cost red Cotes-du-Rhones on the market today, especially the 1988s.
*Alsace pinot gris. The French region of Alsace is best known for gewurztraminer and riesling, but the less renowned pinot gris is no less capable of producing stunning white wines. If you can afford it, look for a "vendange tardive" or special proprietary reserve bottling of pinot gris, a varietal whose bright palette of flavors rivals any in the world. These wines are dry, but the exceptional fruit can give them a sweet appearance. Look for such producers as Zind-Humbrecht (particularly its Vieille Vignes bottling), Ostertag, Domaine Weinbach and Hugel. Top recent years are 1983, 1985 and 1988.
German spatlese and auslese: The conventional wisdom says German rieslings at these levels of ripeness are too sweet to go with a main course. Well, the conventional wisdom is foolish indeed. Turkey can use a wine with a little sweetness to offset its own dryness. Besides, good examples of Rhine spatlese (late-picked) and Mosel spatlese and auslese (late picked from selected bunches) are seldom so sweet they cannot be matched with food. Besides, Thanksgiving is usually a gathering of family, not connoisseurs, and a German wine might have a broader appeal among the aunts and uncles.
Your choices in German wine are virtually endless, but some Mosel-Saar-Ruwer producers (with vineyard sites) to keep an eye out for are J. J. Prum (especially Wehlener Sonneuhr), von Schubert (Maximiner Grunhaus), Selbach-Oster (Zeltinger Sonnenuhr) Merkelbach (Urziger Wurzgarten and Erdener Treppchen) and Christoffel (Urziger Wurzgarten), Egon Muller (Scharzhofberg), Kramp (Ayler Kupp) and Heribert Kerpen (Wehlener Sonnenuhr).
In the Rhine, top riesling producers, with subregions, include Kemmer (Mittelrhein), Odernheimer (Rheingau), Gysler, Heyl and Strub (Rheinhessen) and Neckerauer and Burklin-Wolf (Rheinhessen).
The German vintages to look for include 1983, 1985 and 1988. The 1989s, while excellent, are a bit too young right now (more on them in two weeks).
Pinot noir: Turkey dinner is not really the occasion to trot out your finest old red Burgundy. There's just too much culinary static to let its message get through. Still, there's no reason not to serve a fruity, relatively uncomplicated Burgundy or one of its American counterparts.