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Even bad jokes can make good Thanksgiving wines
SOMEWHERE in the US on Thanksgiving Day, a guest on the corny side will arrive at the feast, grinning and bearing a bottle of Turkish wine.
"Turkey for the turkey," he will say. The hosts will graciously accept the prize even as they groan inwardly. And yet, the jester might have it exactly right.
At the wine panel's annual pre-Thanksgiving meal, where we test out wines to see what might go best with the turkey and sides, the guy who brought that wine was our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch.
It was an US$11 red, a 2017 Yakut from Kavaklidere, made largely of the little-known grapes okuzgozu and bogazkere, grown in the Eastern Anatolia and Aegean regions of Turkey. Bernie's dad joke notwithstanding, the wine was excellent, dry and structured, with enough complexity in the flavours of myriad dried fruits to be interesting and refreshing.
Good Thanksgiving wines can come from anywhere, and anybody. They can be red or white, rosé or orange, sparkling or still. As widely as the wines might range, we have, in the panel's many Thanksgiving run-throughs over the years, consolidated the characteristics that comprise the best Thanksgiving wines.
Here is how our tasting works: Each member of the Thanksgiving panel - Florence Fabricant, Julia Moskin and Pete Wells, along with Bernie and me - brings two wines, a white and a red, each costing no more than US$25.
We imagine an unruly feast, with lots of people, perhaps served buffet-style. For a big group, chances are that nobody will want an exorbitant wine bill, hence our price cap.
If you are planning a sit-down Thanksgiving for six, by all means pick great, expensive wines, if you like. Offer a good Champagne to start, and follow with a fine white and a fine red. Use your most delicate glassware. Enjoy.
Our feast is festive, but maybe not so grand. We imagine, with a crowd, that stemware might not be an option. If not, glass tumblers are fine for these wines. If you must use plastic, beware the flimsy pretend stemware. The benefits are negligible and not worth the risk of spills. Opt for tumblers instead.
We emphasise that choosing wines for Thanksgiving is not an exercise in pairing. The meal - especially the sort of potluck buffet where guests bring all sorts of family favourites - is too complex and disparate to worry about precision matching.
Instead, we suggest picking versatile wines that go with many different sorts of flavours. And we are wary of wines that are more than 14 per cent alcohol.
Some people argue that the alcohol level is meaningless, as long as the wine is balanced. I don't buy that in general. But Thanksgiving in particular is a long, fatiguing journey, literally and figuratively - many people travel over hills, dales and interstates to feast on the myriad filling dishes that cover the table. Don't add to the languor with heavy, alcoholic wines.
We prefer wines that are nimble and energetic, that refresh the palate rather than enervate. Usually, these are wines with lively acidity, which snaps the mouth to attention and merges well with many flavours. While acidity is a friend, pronounced tannins, oakiness and unbalanced sweetness are not. Avoid them if possible.
My conjecture is that it's no fun to bring the sure things: the Beaujolais and dry sauvignon blancs, the Loire reds and Italian whites, the barberas, Chiantis, pinot noirs and cabernet francs from the Finger Lakes.
The challenge is to add to the list. Julia succeeded admirably, at least with one of her wines, which turned out to be our top white. It was the 2016 Cuvée de O from Avancia, made from godello grapes grown in the Valdeorras region of Galicia, in north-western Spain.
Godello is a grape that practically disappeared from Spain in the mid-20th century before it was resurrected, and this wine, with its texture, energy and touch of bitterness, showed why it's now considered a rising star.
"It's got great balance, and is perfect for people who like wines that aren't fruity," Julia said.
The grapes that make such wines are often described as "neutral", not a word dreamed up in the marketing department. Yet these neutral wines, emphasising texture and savory flavours over extravagant fruit, go beautifully at Thanksgiving. Another option to consider might be the chardonnays of the Mâconnais region of Burgundy.
Neutral would also describe our No 2 white, the 2015 pinot blanc from the excellent Eyrie Vineyard in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. It's a subtle, floral and mineral wine, which I brought and which Pete called "moody".
Florence's white, the 2017 Moulin de Gassac Guilhem Blanc from Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Languedoc, was actually a tried-and-true style, and it showed why. The wine, made about equally of sauvignon blanc, grenache blanc and clairette, was lively and pungent, and would be a crowd pleaser. At just US$11 a bottle, it was also our best value among the whites.
No 4, the 2015 Polarity from Heart & Hands in the Finger Lakes, was an oddball. Though made of pinot noir, it was vinified as a white, with the grape juice immediately whisked away from the pigment-bearing skins. The wine was still a bit pink, more rosé than white, and quite pleasant, if not memorable.
Among the reds, Bernie's wine from Turkey was not only among our top choices but also our best value at US$11. Bernie brought a second red, which we opened to compensate for Julia's two whites. It also turned out to be one of our favourites, the 2014 Bebame from El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills of California.
The wine was made mostly of cabernet franc, with some gamay thrown in, and was light-bodied and fresh, as might be expected from a project involving Steve Edmunds, who makes wonderful wines at Edmunds St John.
No 2 was my red, the lightly tannic, slightly funky, energetic 2016 Duc des Nauves from Château Le Puy in Bordeaux, a moderately priced cuvée from a committed biodynamic producer.
Our last two bottles were efforts by Florence and Pete to rehabilitate zinfandel as a go-to wine for Thanksgiving. It used to be highly recommended as the perfect all-American wine for this all-American holiday, and the impulse is not wrong. I have stepped away from recommending zinfandel, as most nowadays are too high in alcohol. Florence's bottle, Cline's 2015 Ancient Vines zinfandel from Contra Costa County, was bold and spicy, but also 15 per cent alcohol.
Pete's wine, the 2016 People's Zin from the People's Wine Co, was soft, jammy and a trifle sweet, with some spicy, licorice flavour. I don't know what the alcohol level was, but it seemed lower than the Cline.
"Zin's time will return," he said. He was equally drawn, he added, by the wine's red-white-and-blue label, and the fact that it donates a portion of its proceeds to non-profit organisations such as Farmworker Justice and Coalition for the Homeless.
That's not such a bad way to give thanks. NYTIMES