Traditions of the Fall Harvest
Amy Porter, 2014
What better time of the year to remind ourselves of the joy a special bottle of wine can add to the dinner table surrounded by family and close friends. An occasion that focuses on the seasonal crops of the land that includes root vegetables and fruit that have just been harvested and will be prepared by millions throughout the United States to celebrate Thanksgiving. So it makes perfect sense to also celebrate another harvested fruit, the grape. As wine pairing goes, Thanksgiving may be the most anxiety-induced meal of the year. It's fraught with high expectations, and the whole production has to be better than good, because the guests are putting your meal up against their own interpretation of tradition. Make your dinner table unique by adding your own special touch by choosing just the right wines to make your menu really stand out.
Thanksgiving involves a large number of dishes, many of which vary wildly in terms of ingredients and preparations. No single wine is going to be perfect with the turkey, cranberry sauce, and that weird thing with marshmallows that your Aunt Betty brought with her. So relax, and pick some versatile wines that will work with a lot of what's being served. Southern food is notable for not skimping on fat, and at Thanksgiving, all diets are suspended in any case. Green beans simmered with back fat in pork stock and Oyster stuffing? I think, "Let's cut some of the intensity with bright, crisp Chablis.” (Don't forget, Chablis is 100% Chardonnay, for those relatives who ask for that grape by name.)
Chablis, and the entire eastern coast of France from the North in Alsace, down to the South in Provence, produces exceptional wines with flavor profiles that pair perfectly with the Thanksgiving fare. Alsace has bone dry Pinot Blanc that when eaten with turkey breast will bring out the juicy texture, and the sweeter style Gewurztraminer will bring out the sage in the turkey giblet gravy. Travel further south to the regions of Burgundy, Beaujolais, and the Rhone Valley and discover red wines that will pair with the heartier dishes on the table. These wines tend to extract herbal notes of sage and rosemary and red fruit flavors similar to tart cranberries and raspberry. The annual event of the release of the Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday of November is just in time to pick up a bottle or 2 for dinner. It is 100% Gamay, bottled only 6-8 weeks after harvest. The quick method of production means that there is very little tannin and shows bright acidity, a nice complement to the cranberry sauce.
If you’re looking for wines with a bit more body, look no further than the white and red varietals grown in the Rhone Valley. Syrah (red) and Viognier (white) are the leading grapes in production for the region and carry herbal and floral notes on both the nose and the palate. The aromas in your home during meal preparation just blend so well with these wines, it makes you almost want to ask yourself why you only do this once a year? But since most only do this on the last Thursday in November, and look at it as not only a tradition but a celebration, then go nuts and splurge even more! How can you do that you ask? Entertain the idea of a Grand Cru, Premier Cru, or Chateauneuf du Pape while shopping your local wine store.
If you want to stay with the theme of the North American holiday and choose domestic wines then look to the wines of Oregon. For red wines, it's all about the mushrooms and the roasted game meat, whether you go with the traditional turkey or choose from other popular fowl such as duck and Cornish hens. Don’t forget that when it comes to the turkey, dark meat and white meat are quite different, and not only in cooking time. The extra fat in the dark meat can handle more intensity in a red wine pairing, so you can serve fuller-bodied bottles to those who go crazy for drumsticks and thighs. Pinot Noir has fantastic cherry appeal plus a woodsy, earthy element that works with the porcini gravy and a slight herbal note that meshes perfectly with the sage stuffing. But the scalloped potatoes with fennel are out for something with sweet fruit power, like the pear and citrus found in Pinot Gris and Dry Riesling.
Bringing us to the end of our meal, the decadent pumpkin rolls and family recipe nut and fruit pies; we have what most would agree is the most anticipated course of the meal. Dessert! The transition of your palate from savory to sweet is assisted along by the choice you make on whether to go with a 4oz glass of a tawny port or a late harvest ice-wine. While clearing the table for dessert and waiting for the coffee to brew, place the cordial glasses in front of your guests and watch as each one raise an eyebrow; even the ones you thought you could never impress. Then raise a glass to toast yourself and your guests to another successful Thanksgiving holiday. Then ask the question, “Who is hosting next year?”