Talking Turkey: Wine For Thanksgiving Dinner


November 24, 1991|By Michael Dresser

Considering that the turkey is probably the dumbest thing we eat this side of a potato, it certainly manages to confound wine drinkers easily enough.

Its flavors are a melange of gamy and delicate. It vacillates between being a friend to white wine and a boon companion to reds. Nothing seems to suit it just perfectly -- the way, say, a rack of lamb loves a fine cabernet sauvignon -- and nothing is absolutely wrong with it. (OK, vintage port would clearly be a disastrous match, but let's put dessert wines aside for now.)

For the family member charged with choosing the wine for the occasion, the Thanksgiving feast is both a dilemma and an opportunity.

With its immense variety of dishes, the traditional turkey dinner includes a lot for any wine to match up with beautifully as well as a lot for virtually any wine to clash with violently.

On the other hand, it is the great American holiday -- our only native feast day. Its centerpiece, for most families, is a dish we don't have regularly throughout the year. So it gives us a fine opportunity to enjoy some fine wines we normally might not taste more than once or twice a year. It's a great time to get out of the old cabernet-chardonnay rut.

Now that is no criticism of two fine grape varieties that just happen to be very popular. And if that's what you like to drink, there's absolutely no reason for you to change just because some self-appointed expert prefers something else. It's just that neither variety has any particular affinity for turkey, so you might as well be adventurous.

Chances are, the Thanksgiving wine is going to have a lot to compete with. Besides turkey, the traditional Thanksgiving table has stuffing and gravy and beans and corn and cranberry sauce and Lord knows what else.

So whatever you do, pick wine with bold flavors. It's easy for a lightweight to get lost amid the crowd of different foods. Whether white or red, the wine for the Thanksgiving feast shouldn't let any of the foods on the table push it around.

That eliminates a few wildly inappropriate choices. You can forget a delicate Muscadet or a fine Chablis (the real thing, as in French). It's also probably a waste to pick anything too subtle. Certainly a great old red Bordeaux would taste wonderful, but the experience probably won't be enhanced by candied yams. There are better occasions for your show-off wines.

Apart from that, there are no hard and fast rules, but here are a few suggestions:

*Forget the vegetables, forget the yams. Go right for the stuffing and gravy and play your wine choice off them. For instance, a chestnut stuffing might pair up well with a hearty Rhone. An appley stuffing might favor a riesling or gewurztraminer. A simple corn bread stuffing might work well with an Alsace pinot gris.

*Remember it's a family occasion, Part 1. You can serve a fabulous wine, but unless your family is entirely made up of oenophiles, don't expect a deep, intellectual appreciation of your choice. It's enough that they like it. You can do the appreciating for the rest of them.

*Remember it's a family occasion, Part 2. Consider bringing at least one bottle of semisweet wine so your Aunt Minnie and Uncle Herbert can enjoy a glass. Best of all, serve a semisweet wine fine enough that you can enjoy it too, such as a German riesling spatlese.

*If you can afford it, offer a choice. Family members and guests, even those who aren't wine sophisticates, love to compare and render judgments -- especially if they can contradict Mr. Connoisseur.

*With beef or lamb, you have something to take the edge off high-tannin wines. Turkey really won't. It's often dry, and the last thing you'll need is a mouth-drying wine. So if you choose a cabernet, you might want to go for a fruity, forward version.

Now there are already far too many wine writers out there peddling books purporting to tell you just the perfect wine to match with any food from grilled cheese sandwiches to hummingbird tongue. So I'm not dispensing any prescriptions.

These, however, are some types of wine I've enjoyed with the Thanksgiving feast. You might too.


Zinfandel: This all-American variety has a good, fruity chunkiness and generally light tannin. It might seem like a little much with the delicate white meat but once you douse the turkey with gravy, everything's fine.

Rhones: I'd steer away from tannic vintages of Hermitage, but a good Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas would give you much the same effect as a zinfandel. For a more delicate approach, a Cote-Rotie that is neither too old nor too tannic could be delightful. A vintage like 1987 would be perfect.

Pinot noir: The right pinot noir -- neither too light nor too weighty -- can be a classy accompaniment to the meal. A young Chalone from California would be too much; an off-year Fixin from Burgundy would be too little. But a Saintsbury from the Napa Valley or a good 1987 Volnay could be a terrific match.

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