Wednesday, November 25, 2009
New York Times Dining & Wine Section
FOR six consecutive years, the Dining section’s wine panel has gathered for an early Thanksgiving meal. The mission: to taste potential holiday wines, to determine what works and what does not with a representative feast, and to offer coherent answers to the annual question of what to serve with the bird.
This year, I think we really got it right.
Oh, I don’t mean the advice we offered was ever wrong. We are committed as always to the idea that Thanksgiving requires agile, nimble wines that can refresh and satisfy over the course of a long and possibly fatiguing meal.
The wines need to be versatile, to complement a wide assortment of dishes, including the idiosyncratic variations that every family knows and loves. They must be modest but confident wines that assert their flavors in harmony with the food rather than trying to dominate the proceedings. And they must be modestly priced.
This, of course, assumes that like mine, your Thanksgiving will be an exuberant extended-family gathering. For my family feast, I buy a white and a red by the case, and everybody helps themselves, pouring into glassware that we are none too picky about. If your Thanksgiving is a more intimate candlelight and crystal affair, by all means break out the exceptional wines you’ve been hoarding for the right occasion.
So what do I mean about getting things right? Well, this year, for the first time, all the wines we tasted fit the meal beautifully, though each was very different. The wines produced none of the sneering and ridicule — I mean, constructive analysis — that has characterized past wine panel Thanksgivings. It couldn’t be that our bubbly brother Frank Bruni left his job as restaurant critic and so could not grace our table with his provocative wine choices and sharp wit, right?
Absolutely not. This year, Julia Moskin, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by our new restaurant critic, Sam Sifton, and, as always, Bernard Kirsch, our tasting coordinator. We each chose two bottles, one red and one white, maximum price $25, and we tasted them blind with our Thanksgiving-style meal.
The wines we brought approached the problem from multiple angles, demonstrating that the Thanksgiving wine issue has no right answer, but many excellent solutions.
Take the five whites we chose, one each from the United States, France, Austria, Spain and Sicily. Tasting them blind, I was in a most uncomfortable situation as for the first time I couldn’t even identify the white I had brought! It was the 2008 Rueda Pie Franco from Blanco Nieva, a wine I’ve loved year in and year out. It is made from old, pre-phylloxera verdejo vines that manage to survive in the sandy Rueda soils (pie franco means ungrafted), and I’ve prized its subtle fruit and mineral flavors.
This year, however, it seemed brasher — minerally, yes, but with a twang to its fruit. I still loved it, but I pegged it as a Sancerre, which is a sauvignon blanc wine. Meanwhile, the real sauvignon blanc in the group, a 2008 Charles Krug from Napa Valley brought by Florence, had an unusual white-pepper element to it that made me think it was grüner veltliner. Not even close! We all really liked the Krug, while my Rueda was a trifle polarizing. Julia, who also typed it as sauvignon blanc, called it too strong, although she allowed it would be perfect with a dozen oysters.
My favorite of all the whites was a 2008 Beaujolais blanc from Château de Chatelard, which Bernie brought. This fresh, stony chardonnay was one I could drink for hours, I thought.
Sam brought the 2007 grüner veltliner from Domaine Wachau — the one I didn’t guess was a grüner. It’s a delicious, light, grassy wine that would be just right, Sam thought, for the shellfish course that leads off his family’s Thanksgiving. That left Julia’s 2008 Sicilian white from Feudo Montoni, which had the kind of ripe, floral character I often associate with Rhone whites.
Each of these wines fit the Thanksgiving white wine paradigm: lively, dry and thirst-quenching, with enough character to continually pique the interest. Sam, for one, felt that white wines aren’t taken seriously enough as companions to the Thanksgiving feast.
“Most people think white wine is something you drink after yoga class,” he said.
All the whites were under 14 percent alcohol, which helps over the course of many hours of imbibing. On the good chance that those individual bottles won’t be available, other wines with similar characteristics would include whites from the Mâcon, Muscadet, light sauvignon blancs and whites from Campania.
The reds didn’t hit the target quite as squarely as the whites. My favorite was the 2007 Morgon from J. Chamonard, which Bernie had brought. Good Beaujolais is always a great Thanksgiving choice, as are gamays from the Loire. By contrast the candied Beaujolais nouveaus that are common this time of year can be noxious.
Sam brought our top-rated red, a 2007 Three Valleys zinfandel from Ridge. I always run counter to the Thanksgiving bromide that zinfandel is the perfect American wine for the most American holiday. Zinfandel is often too big and alcoholic. But at 14.3 percent, this zin was well balanced and almost sleek.
My own wine was the 2008 Il Frappato from Valle dell’Acate, kind of a Sicilian Beaujolais in its earthy chuggability. Sure, it drew a few snipes — Florence said it wasn’t her kind of wine, and Sam called it “the kind of wine someone would bring to your house,” which I inferred would be unwelcome. Yet I couldn’t help but feel they really liked it as much as I did.
Julia also brought a Sicilian wine. Her 2007 Colosi Rosso, made of nero d’Avola rather than the frappato grape, was jammy like some zins, but likeable enough.
Florence’s red, a 2007 Sonoma cabernet sauvignon from Louis M. Martini, was polished and redolent of the vanilla flavors that come from new oak. She called it an “uptown wine.” It’s not to my taste, but still, if you like that sort of wine it won’t overwhelm the food.
With so many different types of wine that work so well with a Thanksgiving dinner, can anybody really think that choosing wines for the holiday is a problem? Just between you and me it’s easy. But don’t let this get out, or we’ll have nothing to talk about next year.