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Your Easy, No-Sweat Guide to Picking Wines for Thanksgiving
November 4, 2021
By Eric Asimov
Thanksgiving 2020 was an anomaly, I hope, in which potentially ominous consequences disrupted what typically is a joyous gathering.
This year, at least, the run-up to the holiday feels closer to routine if by no means ordinary. The pandemic lingers, for one thing. For another, it will be more expensive.
We are also out of practice, like business travelers who, on returning to the road, found their quick, efficient packing skills no longer reflexive.
Organizing Thanksgiving annually always seems daunting. Skipping a year can mean extra bafflement for even the most seasoned hosts. So why not begin with the easiest of tasks, selecting the wine?
Each year since 2004, the wine panel has gathered for an early feast to test which wines go best with the meal. Each of us brings two bottles, one red and one white, costing no more than $25 apiece.
Usually, we would gather in a dining room at Times headquarters. But with the building not yet reopened for general occupation, four of the Food section’s old guard, Julia Moskin, Florence Fabricant, Pete Wells and I, instead got a table at Bar Boulud in Manhattan.
We ordinarily would be joined by our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch, but like some favorite relatives will do, he was sticking close to home this year. We asked Ian Smedley, Bar Boulud’s head sommelier, to round out our table and to contribute a couple of bottles.
Over 18 years, we’ve accumulated a lot of insights about what makes certain wines good for Thanksgiving. We’ve learned that it does not much matter what grapes go into the wine, or where it comes from (though many people like to have American wines with this holiday).
We don’t fret about specific food-and-wine pairings. Certain components like turkey and stuffing may seem invariable, but the preparations are so individualistic and the sides so diverse that pinpoint pairings feel like futile fussiness.
Instead we preach versatility. Choosing wines that go with many sorts of dishes is a far better bet than selecting wines that, no matter how good they may be, are limited in the sorts of dishes they will accompany well.
Let’s be clear: Relatives may judge you on your hair style and marital status, but in the context of the holiday few will be held accountable for not creating precise pairings. Besides, if good wine and good food don’t make magic together, well, you still have good wine and good food, and what’s wrong with that?
Unless you and your guests are dedicated winelovers, the food and the people will be the stars. Wine’s simply a supporting player that will make things taste and feel better.
Still, it’s best to create a scenario that increases the odds of magic. For that, we offer some concrete advice.
First, and most important, you want lively wines. What does that mean? A lot of words connote liveliness, like fresh, lithe and energetic. These words technically refer to one key quality in a wine, acidity.
Wines with just the right amount of acidity enable a thrilling high-wire act. Too much, and a wine tumbles into the pit of harshness. Too little and it flops into the tank of dull tedium. With the right acidity, wine maintains a tension that invigorates and refreshes.
We imagine most people’s Thanksgivings to be long meals that may begin with snacks and noshes, extend through appetizers and main courses and end, perhaps hours later, with desserts.
The liveliness that comes with good acidity is in effect a survival strategy. Such wines will rejuvenate, even as all that food pushes you toward a comatose state.
The French naturally have a term for this characteristic in wines, digestibilité, wines that are delicious and easy to drink without being freighted with excess or weighing too heavily in the gut.
Here’s what you don’t want:
• Overly tannic wines. Tannins are not necessarily bad, but over the long haul of a holiday feast the astringency that comes with them can be fatiguing. Which wines will reliably be tannic? Young reds that are intended for aging, for the most part. Save that young Barolo for another occasion.
• Oaky wines. Overt oak flavors can clash with many foods, and oak tannins can be more obtrusive than grape tannins. Oakiness can appear in many different sorts of wines. You either must know your producer or consult with your wine merchant.
• High-alcohol wines. It’s a long day — the higher the alcohol, the quicker the trip to the couch. You can easily find high-alcohol wines, say, those above 14 percent, that taste good. But this isn’t the day for them. How can you tell? Alcohol content is right on the label.
• Transgressive wines. Thanksgiving is a time for making people happy, not for persuading them to drink avant-garde styles that you love but that may bewilder mainstream drinkers. You don’t have to sacrifice principals or suppress your own tastes, just look for styles that can be easily understood by most people.
Whenever we have tried to restrict Thanksgiving wines to certain types, exceptions always turn up. We’ve tried so many wines that have foiled our preconceived notions that I’ve realized it doesn’t much matter what sort of wine you choose, so long as it fits our criteria.
A word about planning: It’s always good to have on hand more wine than you think you will need. Our policy is to figure one bottle per drinking person, whether you are planning a sit-down dinner for four or a buffet for 20.
That sounds like a lot, and it is. Most likely you will not come close to finishing the wine. But you won’t run out, and that’s the most important thing. You can hand out extra bottles as keepsakes.
Plan to have equal numbers of both reds and whites. Your guests may prefer one or the other, regardless of your feelings. Let them have it.
Over the years, the panel has gotten so good at picking wines that we pretty much like all the choices. It’s a far cry from earlier years, especially one in particular, which we remember as the Thanksgiving Smackdown.
For her white, Julia brought an herbal, citrus-inflected 2019 pinot gris from Montinore Estate, a Willamette Valley producer. It was just fine — Julia herself described it during our blind tasting as “respectable and upright,” but it was not as exciting as other whites.
Her red was a 2018 Château Maris La Livinière from the Languedoc region of Minervois, a juicy, inviting blend of syrah and grenache. Its only flaw was an elevated alcohol level of 14.5 percent and an intensity of flavors that some of us feared would be tiring over a long meal. Nonetheless, the wine was delicious. Languedoc reds can be excellent choices.
Florence, who generally brings American wines, picked as her white a 2020 California blend of chenin blanc and viognier from Pine Ridge that was bright, floral and slightly spritzy. Her red was a 2019 pinot noir from Oregon, Other People’s Pinot from Maison Noir, light in color and body with subtle herbal and fruit flavors. Julia especially was a fan of this wine.
Pete brought a 2018 riesling from Bloomer Creek in the Finger Lakes. It was labeled “skin contact,” indicated the white was made like a red, in which the grape juice macerates with the pigment-laden skins before and during fermentation.
These are sometimes called “orange wines.” This did have a darker color than a typical riesling, and it was spicy. But it was not as tannic as many orange wines can be and was more energetic than it might have seemed on first sip.
He also brought Humus, a nonvintage Portuguese red from Encosta da Quinta. This was an ideal Thanksgiving wine, earthy, lively, refreshing and low in alcohol at 12 percent. Sadly, this wine is difficult to find — most New York stores are sold out.
I brought two Italian bottles I’ve enjoyed several times over the year. My white was a bracing, spicy 2018 Pecorino Superiore from Antica Tenuta Pietramore in Abruzzo. My red was a juicy, buoyant 2019 Trebbiolo from La Stoppa, one of my favorite Emilia-Romagna producers.
In trying to rank these bottles, it was hard to find much separation, particularly among the reds. We liked them all. But it was left to Ian, our guest, to bring the two bottles that turned out to be our favorites.
His white was a refreshing, spirited 2020 ribolla gialla from Ronchi di Cialla in the Friuli Colli Orientali region of northeastern Italy, while his red was a tangy, savory 2019 Zeta garnacha, or grenache, from Pegaso in the Sierra de Gredos, a Spanish region northwest of Madrid.
All 10 wines largely fit our Thanksgiving paradigm. Ian’s just did it a little better than the others.
Let me emphasize, you should not restrict yourself to searching solely for these bottles. They are merely examples of the types of wines that will go well with the feast. Hundreds of other bottles will do.
For ideas, you could look at some of our past Thanksgiving wine panels. If you have access to a good wine shop, and that’s the single most important thing you can do to improve your wine selections, consult with the merchant about wines that meet our criteria.
Above all, don’t sweat the wine. Of all the many chores the Thanksgiving gathering entails, it should be the easiest. Simply identify the bottles, put in that order, store in a cool place and you’re done. Now the real work begins.
How the Wines Stacked Up
Ronchi di Cialla Friuli Colli Orientali Ribolla Gialla 2020 $20 ★★★
Fresh, energetic, clear and refreshing, with intense citrus and mineral flavors. (SoilAir Selection, New York)
Rich, creamy texture, with spicy flavors of tropical fruits and enough acidity to keep things lively.
Montinore Estate Willamette Valley Pinot Gris 2019 $16 ★★½
Refreshing and respectable, as Julia put it, with citrus and herbal flavors.
Pegaso Zeta Garnacha Sierra de Gredos 2019 $24 ★★★
Savory and inviting, with focused, tangy, refreshingly bitter flavors of red fruit. (De Maison Selections, Chapel Hill, N.C.)
Humus Portugal Tinto NV $18 ★★★
An intensely fruity, yet well-focused and earthy blend of touriga nacional, tinta barroca and syrah. (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)
La Stoppa Vino Rosso Trebbiolo 2019 $24 ★★★
A juicy, exuberant, herbal and balanced blend of barbera and croatina. (Louis/Dressner Selections)
Château Maris Minervois Syrah-Grenache La Livinière Natural Selection 2018 $18 ★★★
Lively and inviting, with intense flavors of earthy red fruits. (Cordier U.S.A., New Rochelle, N.Y.)
Maison Noir Oregon Other People’s Pinot Noir 2019 $20 ★★★
Pale red and straightforward, with stony flavors of red fruits and herbs.
Pairings: Miso Squash Soup
Soup is an easy first course for a holiday gathering, especially when it can be prepared in advance, even frozen, and accepts a partnership with wines that are red, white, rosé, orange, still or sparkling, as well as with seasonal ciders and beers. This soup calls for squash purée as its base. Kabocha, a variety that’s not too sweet, has a dense richness, though delicata, honeynut, the ubiquitous butternut or an everyday orange pumpkin all work well. This is a vegan soup, seasoned and decorated with miso and only a pinch of cinnamon to hint at the inevitable pumpkin spice. And instead of presenting it as a plated first course in china or pottery bowls or even in hollowed-out mini-pumpkins, you might consider spooning it into small cups or glasses for guests to sip as an hors d’oeuvre before the dinner. FLORENCE FABRICANT
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