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Thanksgiving: Challenge or Opportunity?

Robert Whitley on

The Thanksgiving table is often seen as a challenge by those who seek to serve the perfect wine with every meal. The combination of sweet and savory, and the sheer number of courses, present a bit of a gauntlet for the average wine enthusiast. I take a slightly different approach.

I look at the Thanksgiving table as an opportunity. Start with the premise that there is no single wine that suits each course and pleases every palate.

The obvious solution is to let it all hang out. I begin with the place setting. In my opportunistic scenario, I set out four wine glasses: a glass for bubbly; a glass for a rich, complex white wine; a third glass for a soft, juicy red packed with abundant fruit; and a fourth for a sweet -- but not too sweet -- dessert wine.

The bubbly is my celebratory aperitif wine. It need not be expensive, though given the fact that sthis kicks off the holiday season, something a little bit special seems to be appropriate. Two of my favorites are the Domaine Carneros by Taittinger Cuvee de la Pompadour Brut Rose (about $40) and the J Vineyards Cuvee 20 Brut (about $30). These wines are among the finest of their kind produced in the United States and always crowd pleasers.

We are blessed to have a number of outstanding domestic sparkling wine producers. You won't go very wrong with anything from Iron Horse, Roederer Estate, Schramsberg, Mumm Napa Valley or Domaine Chandon. And if you're watching the budget, Barefoot Bubbly produces delicious bubblies in the $10 range.

By the time you move on to the white wine offering, you will notice the Thanksgiving table is crowded with roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sometimes candied sweet potatoes and typically a green vegetable that has been enhanced with caramelized nuts of one type or another. The stuffing can be all over the map with savory notes of sage, pepper, onion and sausage combined with sweet notes of currant, golden raisins, apples or even cranberries.


For me, a light, tart white simply doesn't cut it. If ever there is a time for a layered, complex chardonnay with hints of spice, this is it. Chardonnay from the likes of Dutton-Goldfield, Merry Edwards, Tongue Dancer or Gary Farrell (all in the $40 to $60 price range) will find room at my Thanksgiving table. Slightly less expensive but also very good are Morgan, Eberle, Rodney Strong, Chateau St. Jean and Souverain.

Alternatives abound. Dry riesling from Smith Madrone, Trefethen, Chateau Ste. Michelle or Stony Hill are classic and have the depth and complexity to hold up against the onslaught of Thanksgiving flavors. Pinot gris from Oregon's King Estate or Ponzi also are up to the Thanksgiving challenge. All of these wines can be found for less than $40 a bottle, and the Chateau Ste. Michelle (slightly off-dry) is a steal at $10 or less. Even Ste. Michelle's higher-end Eroica riesling at less than $20 is a bargain.

In my humble opinion, the red wine in your glass on Thanksgiving should be supple, fruit-driven and juicy on the palate, for all of the reasons stated above. A young, tannic red would dominate everything at the table and clash with the sweeter elements. Not good, but again, that's a matter of taste, and my palate prefers easy-drinking reds. Those would be pinot noir, Beaujolais, red Rhone blends, etc.

The U.S. has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to pinot noir. The top producers are many of the same that make outstanding chardonnay, which stands to reason because both are Burgundian grape varieties.


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