So tomorrow's Thanksgiving, and you're lucky enough to have been invited to eat, not cook. You'll bring some wine, of course. But don't just bring a bottle that will get lost in the something-for-everyone shuffle at the buffet. The best way to score points as a guest is to bring something delicious for before or after dinner.
The pre-turkey beverage of choice in many American households is beer, which offers about as much preprandial zest as a bowl of oatmeal and is just as filling. A true aperitif is light and perky and revs up but doesn't stifle the appetite. So why not Champagne? Festive and refreshing, it goes with all kinds of appetizers, and it's the perfect prelude to the tumult of food to follow. Plus, if your football team is losing, it'll keep your spirits up.
Sparklers from the big producers such as Veuve Clicquot are easy to find and always reliable. Two I never tire of are the powerful Bollinger Special Cuvée, a nonvintage brut, and the delicate, fine-boned Laurent-Perrier rosé. These wines typically run more than $40, though, so, while well worth the money, they're a lot more expensive than Bud.
An alternative is to turn to a cooperative like Nicolas Feuillatte. This is the label used by a consortium of growers who pool their grapes and make their own wine rather than selling it to corporations such as Moët et Chandon. Feuillatte makes a fresh and lively rosé Champagne that's a steal at about $30. The nonvintage brut is also faithfully clean, crisp, delicious, and, best of all, easy to find and affordable at about $25.
For something more distinctive, seek out small grower Champagnes. Larmandier-Bernier's 1999 Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Vieille Vigne de Cramant, made entirely of Chardonnay from one of Champagne's greatest villages, is a stunner that carries a stamp of individuality. Another beauty is the rosé made by Henri Billiot, a small producer farming just five hectares of 100% grand cru, old-vine vineyards. This crisp, bright rosé fuses power and elegance as few others do. If Champagne's not your thing, consider a still wine as an aperitif. And no, not something thick and buttery — there will be enough of that at dinner. Rather, this is the time for an aromatic white, a wine that's light in body with a bright, effusive bouquet.
The region to turn to for these wines is Alsace, which is known so well for its Rieslings that other grapes sometimes get overlooked. Hugel & Fils produces a lovely wine called "Gentil," a blend of mostly Gewürztraminer with lesser amounts of Muscat, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Sylvaner. Trimbach's Gewürztraminer is a standard. Inexpensive and easy to find, the wine smells deliciously of roses and pears and has plenty of structure, but it's light enough to precede the meal. The Domaine Schlumberger Pinot Blanc is less floral, but light and charged with enough acidity to make a glorious aperitif. After a few sips of this, you're ready to eat.
And eat and eat and eat.
And on to dessert.
Serve with pie
The perfect closure to Thanksgiving dinner is something autumnal, burnished and nutty. For this, two choices stand above the rest: tawny Port and Madeira. These amber-hued wines are often overlooked in the sweet wine category, edged out by the glitz of vintage Port or the flamboyance of Sauternes or ice wines, but they're the perfect complement to pumpkin or pecan pie (especially if the whipped cream is spiked with Cognac or rum).
Tawny Port comes from the same grapes and vineyards that vintage Port does, but it's aged in wooden barrels rather than bottles. Oxidation results, and that's why the wine takes on its amber color and flavors of caramel, hazelnuts and dried fruit, as opposed to the red fruit, mineral and spice characteristics of a bottle-aged Port.
Nor do you need to spend an arm and a leg.
Dow's makes a profound tawny. The 10-year-old is a beaut; it retails for around $30. For $15 more, you can get the 20-year-old, which has the same profile as the younger wine, but with deeper flavors. This is the one to have with pecan pie.
Graham's 10- and 20-year-olds are equally well made, but a touch sweeter than Dow's. Sandeman's basic tawny is on average about four years old, but provides remarkable flavor and complexity for its $12 price tag. Taylor Fladgate, so renowned for its vintage ports, also makes gorgeous tawnies. The 10-year-old is clean and surprisingly refreshing and would even pair nicely with salty cheeses. The 20-year-old is richer and denser, with almond, hazelnut and caramel flavors and a spectacularly long finish. Warre's makes a sleek, elegant tawny called Otima, which has lovely hazelnut and almond flavors as well as a hint of orange peel. These wines are best served slightly chilled.
Madeira has largely been forgotten, except as a cheap cooking wine. However, true Madeira is a gorgeous wine that can resemble tawny Port — the amber color, the caramel taste — though it's made from different grapes on the subtropical island of Madeira, 375 miles west of Morocco.
There are a number of styles; the one called Malmsey is the most appropriate with dessert. The Broadbent 10-year-old Malmsey reliably delivers great richness as well as classic flavors of chocolate and caramel. Blandy's 5-year-old Alvada Madeira is a rare blend of two classic Madeira grapes (Bual and Malmsey, usually kept separate) and, with its razor-like acidity and nutty character, serves as a great introduction to the genre at a fantastic price of $16 for a half bottle (the stuff is so rich that you only need a small amount).
Of course, everyone remembers beginnings and endings even more than middles. So the ultimate advantage in bearing such gifts is that they'll be remembered — and so will you, when the invitations go 'round next year.
Don't come empty-handed
Bollinger Special Cuvée ($36), Laurent-Perrier Rosé ($50), Nicolas Feuillatte Rosé ($30), Nicolas Feuillatte Brut ($25), Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label ($35). Available in selected supermarkets and most liquor stores and wine shops.
Henri Billiot Brut Rosé ($45). Available at Wine Exchange in Orange, at Wine Expo in Santa Monica and at Wine Country in Long Beach.
1999 Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Vieille Vigne de Cramant ($44). Available at Wine Expo in Santa Monica and at Hi Times Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa.
2002 Domaine Schlumberger Pinot Blanc ($17). Available at Wine House in West Los Angeles.
2002 Hugel & Fils "Gentil" ($12). Available at Vons and Pavilions stores, specialty markets and many wine shops.
Trimbach Gewürztraminer ($16). Available at Wine House in West Los Angeles, and at Beverages & More, with nine locations in the greater Los Angeles area.
Dow's 20-year-old Tawny Porto ($46). Available at Wine House in West L.A. and at Woodland Hills Wine Company in Woodland Hills.
Dow's 10-year-old Tawny Porto ($30). Available at Wine House in West L.A. and at Woodland Hills Wine Company in Woodland Hills.
Graham's 10-year-old ($24) and 20-year-old ($50) Tawny Port. Available at John & Pete's Fine Wines & Spirits in Los Angeles and at Beverages & More.
Sandeman Tawny Porto ($12). Available at Beverages & More in Los Angeles and at Victor's Liquor in Los Angeles.
Taylor Fladgate 10-year-old ($24) and 20-year-old ($40) Tawny Port. Available at John & Pete's in Los Angeles and at Beverages & More.
Warre's Otima 10-year-old Tawny Port ($20). Available at Wine House in West Los Angeles and at Wine Exchange in Orange.
Blandy's Alvada ($16 per half bottle). Available at Woodland Hills Wine Company and at Wine House in West L.A.
Broadbent 10-year-old Malmsey ($30). Available at Hi Times Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa and at Beverages & More.