TASTINGS / By DOROTHY J. GAITER and JOHN, BRECHER
WE BELIEVE THAT THE BEST wine to have with Thanksgiving dinner is an American Cabernet Sauvignon with some age on it, It’s big enough to stand up to the heavier parts of the meal, but its tannins are relaxed enough not to overwhelm the lighter parts. Others believe that the best choice is Zinfandel, because it’s such an all-American gape. But both of these choices have one problem: They’re red, and some people prefer white wine. In the past we’ve recommended that those folks stick with the predinner sparkler, because a good bubbly will have the kind of fruity acidity that can stand up to a myriad of tastes on the table. But what about still white wine? What would be best? We conducted an experiment to find out.
Pairing wine and food is always a judgment call, as personal as wine itself. One of the world’s classic pairings, for instance, is foie graswith Sauternes. We love foie gras and we love Sauternes, but we don’t find they do much for each other. The perfect wine-food pairing is one in which the wine and the food make each other taste better. To us, Oregon Pinot Nair always tastes better with salmon, and vice versa.
To find out which white wines would be good with our Thanksgiving feast, we prepared our traditional dinner: roast turkey, bread stuffing, green beans, sweet potatoes with marshmallows and dinner rolls. We did this at some cost: Our daughters, Media and Zoe, both complained that having a faux Thanksgiving dinner in early fall would “ruin real Thanksgiving.”
We went with American white wines for this American holiday, naturally. We tried nine different white varietals that covered a range of tastes: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling. Sauvignon Blanc. Semi lIon and Viognier. In each case, we bought two
different wines of the same varietal that we’ve enjoyed in. the past and that represented different styles. Then we worked through the dinner and all of the wines. We warmed the food and prepared the same dinner the nex ‘ . retaste our favorites (and, yes, Media and Zoe were even more annoyed the second night).
These were all good wines-that’s why we chose them, But some weren’t up to this task. The slight sweetness of one of the Gewurztraminers and one of the Rieslings made for delightful aperitifs, but clashed dramatically with the food. The great minerality of the Vinum Cellars Chenin Blanc made the wine terrific on its own, and it was a good counterpoint to the dark meat, but in general it didn’t intersect with the other tastes on the table. The honeyed flavors of the Viognier didn’t cut it, either. “It’s like just one more taste on the table,” as Dottie put it, meaning that it was just too much, though it did do something nice to the turkey breast. The grassiness of the Sauvignon Blanc clashed with the tastes of the fresh-picked herbs that we used liberally in the dishes. “It’s head-to-head herbal,” Dottie complained. Other wines tasted fine with the food, especially the Pinet Blanc, but they didn’t engage the dishes’ flavors the way we wanted them to. The wine and food didn’t clash, but they didn’t make each other better, either.
We ended with three clear favorites, each a surprise in its own way:
Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Johannisberg Riesling from New York (2003). About $15. Wine writers love to talk about how great Riesling tastes with all kinds of food. We don’t necessarily agree, though we love it with pork, but consider us converts in this case. The wine itself was so ripe, clean, fresh and vibrant that it made the food livelier. It lifted the food and made every bite more exciting. Its attractive tartness was a nice counterpoint to the musky earthiness of the meal. The floral-apple-spice tastes of the wine worked beautifully with the sage and other green herbs. We know that many people are skeptical of Riesling- they think of it as sweet and simple-but. as Dottie said, “If you served this, you’d have to buy lots of it.” It can be hard to find a dry American Riesling, but look around. Remember that Thanksgiving is a good time to celebrate the bounty of your own region. and many local wineries-especially in northern states, such as Michigan-make excellent dry Rieslings. Drop in and buy one.
Gallo of Sonoma Pinot Gris from California (2003). About $12. This was certainly a surprise. As we’ve written, Pinot Gris is the same grape as Italy’s Pinot Grigio, and more and more American wineries are making it to piggyback on Italy’s success. We would have thought it was way too simple to go well with our big meal, but we were wrong. In fact, we preferred the Gallo to the J Wine Co. Pinot Gris, which we usually enjoy more. The J is richer, which is what we like about it, but that tumed out to be less than perfect with the dinner. The Gallo had bright acidity that made it lively and fun. “It’s light enough to want to play with the other flavors,” said Dottie. Its clean crispness was especially attractive with the fluffy, herbal stuffing.
Robert Mondavi Chardonnay “Reserve” from California (1999). About $38.00. Going into the tasting. John guessed that a big, oaky Chardonnay would be good wi h the dinner, matching the weight of the meal. He was wrong. The oakiness was like an extra dollop of heavy gravy on an already heavy meal. The wines with too much oak made the meal too complicated. The Mondavi has lots of oak, but it has such great fruit and terrific acids that it was outstanding with the meal-the best of the three, by a hair. It was crisp and clean, with great lemon-lime acidity. Even its hints of nutmeg seemed to enliven the food. It also worked because the wine has a seriousness, a certain gravitas and clarity, that are appropriate to this very important meal.
What to Look For
So here’s what we learned: Look for a white wine that is quite dry, is bursting with fruit and has abundant acidity. Stay away from oakiness, but remember that the real issue, especially with Chardonnay, isn’t whether a wine is heavily oaked but whether it has the acidity and fruit to give it balance. Don’t be shy about asking a good wine merchant to find you an American white wine that fits these characteristics. And especially if it’s not too expensive. you might want to buy a bottle and try it now to make sure you like tre wine, because no wine- food combination is good if you don’t like the taste of the wine.
UNUSUAL STUFF: We first went to Care Carlyle in Manhattan to hear the great Bobby Short 20 years ago. We still remember the wine we drank:
Scharffenberger Brut from California. When we visited again recently, we hoped to have an equally memorable wine. The wine list was impressive and, for New York. reasonably priced, on the whole. We always look for something unusual on wine lists and we found a hidden treasure: a Syrah from Bedford Thompson Winery & Vineyard in Santa Barbara County. Syrah is today’s up-and-coming grape in the U.S. and the Santa Barbara area is a real hot spot, but this was the best part: On a wine list that primarily featured younger wines, this was from 1995. We rarely get a chance to drink an American Syrah with any age on it, so this would dearly be a treat. It was dark and rich, with dramatic tastes of dark soil and great, blackberry fruit and hints of chocolate. It was big, yet easy to drink, with good
acids and a long, lovely finish. SO here. are two pieces of advice: 1) If you’re in New York anytime soon, go see Bobby Short and 2) Always look for something different on wine lists. Not only will you have a new and interesting experience, but you’ll often get a good deal compared to more common Offerings. Our well-aged and hard-to-find Syrah was $50. Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio was $55.