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You really can't go wrong
MOST Thanksgivings are grand affairs, if measured solely by the scale, the effort and the sheer volume of food set upon the table. Some celebrations are positively majestic, aglow with candles, warmed by crackling fires, with heirloom china and the fancy crystal — so that by the end of the evening it feels as if no stop has been left unpulled.
Of course they're not all like that. Nearly every one of us, at one time or another, has been a Thanksgiving orphan, miles from our families on a day when no amount of squinting or complaining will make the apartment cozier, where the glow of the oven pilot is a poor stand-in for the glow of a hearth. Even so, we gather (there's comfort in numbers) and do what we can to pull off a feast. Happily, for every shortcoming in culinary skill there is usually a surfeit of effort and heart.
Each version of the traditional dinner demands a wine, or two or three, in sync with the mood of the feast. Depending on the feeling, they might be unusual finds from emerging regions (at bargain prices), or big guns from a famous chateâux. But the idea remains the same: to complete the meal, to fill out the feeling of celebration.
Impromptu meals, potluck or otherwise, benefit greatly from wines that are versatile, forward and broad in sweep. It never hurts to have them flow freely, so moderate pricing is another attractive feature.
Begin with Beaujolais, perhaps the happiest red wine France produces, with a bottling from one of the crus such as Morgon. Beaujolais is one of the best Thanksgiving bargain wines for its delicious red berry fruit, light tannin and mild autumnal spiciness — with plenty of stuffing, if you will, to stand up to the meal.
Or pick up a young Spanish wine from the Toro — these are every bit as forward as Beaujolais but possess a little more richness and body to go with their jammy fruit. Plenty of Spanish reds are undervalued, especially if they have not been submitted to many months of aging.
And for a wine with a bit more grip, try a peppery Piemonte Dolcetto, whose dark clove spice scents and smoky meaty flavors will always have a place at the table, even if that table is a coffee table, or your lap.
It's a fact that Thanksgiving, however well-meant, is a leading cause of hazardous waste in the U.S., with burnt offerings turning up on the menu alongside respectable dishes. The cause? A host or hostess who can't cook. This scenario requires an intervention, distracting the cook in question with a well-choreographed carrot-and-stick operation (useful props: a cute grandchild, a cheese log) while someone rescues the turkey.
When you can't undo what's done, a particularly pleasing wine can at least soften the blow. It's time for a happy puppy wine — one so smooth, forward, unchallenging and delicious, it will make anyone smile. By definition a happy puppy wine is all wiggles and warm tongue; it has no edges, no angles, not much complexity or nuance. It's obvious, and proud of it — rich, smooth and uncomplicated, with lots of sweet fruit. Many American Chardonnays fall comfortably into this category, as do many Australian Shirazes; a good old-fashioned, broad-shouldered American Zinfandel makes nearly everything taste better, even an accidental case of turkey jerky.
Maybe during one of your orphan absences you have the good fortune to hook up with some of your more adventurous foodie friends, the sort that can put the haute into any cuisine, even one as traditional as Thanksgiving. Such meals can be as thrilling as they are daunting: Who knew there were different breeds of turkey, so many unpronounceable squashes, or that something such as a pan sauce (augmented with a little foie gras) could render you speechless?
Fortunately, every self-respecting foodie is as adventurous with wine as he is with food. So if you ever wanted to bring something out of the ordinary, to feel that special nebbishy thrill of being a wine geek, this is the time. Any knowledgeable retailer will happily hold your hand through this scenario, but here are some suggestions.
Uncork a spicy Weissburgunder, and make sure you point out that the wine may be weiss, but it's not from Burgundy — it's actually a Pinot Blanc from Austria. This is a grape that possesses a broadness of flavor (think fall apples and quince) with a nervy minerality that is thoroughly Austrian.
Or bring on a Malbec from a once-neglected ancient vineyard in Argentina's Andean foothills. Aromatically, old-vine Malbec is like opening a cigar-box with allspice, clove and blueberries inside, and it has a finely grained tannin that will cut into the meal's richness.
To really raise some eyebrows, trot out a sherry, preferably an amontillado or an oloroso. These sherries aren't sweet — in fact they're bone dry, cleaning the palate for that next unctuous bite of celeriac gratin, or for that matter, sweet potato pie.
This is the kind of Thanksgiving in which the guest list is tiny, and the company irresistible. It's the occasion not for something showy or emphatic, but for a wine that makes a quiet statement.
Wines from the Loire, both red and white, tend to have that kind of immediacy and openness. The Loire wines best suited for Thanksgiving are composed either of Chenin Blanc or Cabernet Franc. Both have a fullness to their flavor — an earthy, autumnal feel that makes them right for the job. An Oregon Pinot Gris will often have a similarly unadorned, self-composed grace about it with its savory aromas and fleshy, pear-like fruit flavors.
And if you can, finish the meal with an aged Madeira, one of the great unsung pleasures of the wine world. Its pristine, exquisitely balanced caramel and toffee flavors, neither too rich nor too sweet, are the perfect accompaniment to the Thanksgiving panoply of desserts.
Some families decree Thanksgiving to be sacrosanct (another word for it is mandatory) and treat it accordingly. These meals treat the occasion with all the formality, flair and grandeur of a state dinner. For such a feast, the wines should be no exception: They should be of exceptional pedigree and sophistication.
If it's Champagne (and why not?) it should be vintage, rich and yeasty. For a still white, look to the majestic whites from the Rhône Valley for the opulence and the weight to go up against rich fare. For the reds, only nobility will do, a burnished wine with the history, stature and star power of great Bordeaux — the gentler, suppler wines from the Right Bank might be the best choice for the meal.
Or seek out a polished Napa Valley Cabernet. If there's a cult Cab you've been able to get your hands on, so much the better. This is the moment to bring it forth.
Simple, grand and everything in between
Recommendations of real-life wine choices to go with Thanksgiving scenarios, real or imagined.
Beaujolais. Any bottle that names a village, such as Morgon, or is from the great 2003 vintage, is a safe bet, with Jadot being one of the most consistent and dedicated producers.
Spanish reds. Look for "Joven" or "Crianza" on the label; try the wines of Bodega Viña Bajoz or Val Viadero, from Toro, or Casa da la Ermita, from Jumilla.
Dolcettos. These are Piemonte's affordable, undervalued wines. The most serious come from Dogliani, where little else is grown. Pecchenino and San Romano are meticulous producers.
California Chardonnay. There are many classic fruit-forward California Chardonnays, but Sonoma Cutrer makes one of the most iconic. Cambria and Au Bon Climat, both from the Central Coast, are great choices as well.
Australian Shiraz. Grocery shelves are crowded with Australian Shirazes these days, but Rosemount, Tintara and Leasingham provide some of the smoothest and most reliable.
Zinfandel. Choose from one of the four Rs: Ridge, Rosenblum, Rafanelli and a new kid on the block, Roshambo.
Austrian Weissburgunder. Two of Austria's finest Weissburgunders come from Heidi Schrock and Rudi Pichler.
Alsatian Pinot Blanc. Hugel or Albert Boxler make broad, forward delicious wines from the grape.
Argentinian Malbec. Look for those from Achaval Ferrer, Catena or Altos Las Hormigas.
Sherry. There are a surprising number of fine sherries out there, but the two most esteemed houses are Lustau, with its dry olorosos and palo cortados, and Hidalgo, with its amontillados.
Loire. Among Chenin Blancs, choose Vouvray from Huet or Chidaine for its rich yet minerally complexity. Cabernet Francs from Chinon and Bourgueil make superb, gentle pairings with turkey. Seek out Joguet for Chinon and Breton for Bourgueil.
Oregon Pinot Gris. There are many good Oregon Pinot Gris, but among the finest are King Estate, Ponzi, and A to Z.
Madeira. Finding the right Madeira may turn into a labor of love. At five years of age it's delicious, but it's relatively easy to find bottles that date back to the early 1900s, even the 19th century, and they won't bankrupt you the way d'Yquem would. Blandy's, Broadbent and Henriques & Henriques are a few of the more well-regarded houses.
Champagne. There are many to choose from, but Agrapart and Bollinger are current favorites. Rosé works well with Thanksgiving fare as well; try those from Billecart-Salmon.
Rhône whites. Select a rich Condrieu from Guigal or Francois Villard or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc from Château La Nerthe or Beaucastel.
Bordeaux. In Bordeaux, Right Bank wines work best for Thanksgiving because they're blended with softer Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Look for Châteaux Figeac, Angelus or La Mondotte from St. Emilion; Hosanna, Le Pin or Vieux Chateau Certan from Pomerol. They may cost you, but they'll certainly impress.
Napa Valley Cabernet. Napa Cabs, cult or otherwise, will have the tannins to contend with even the richest meal. One with star-power will show some California flair too. Niebaum-Coppola's Rubicon, Dominus, Araujo Eisele or Shafer all make impressive choices.