Sunday, November 19, 2006

Giving Thanks for Pinot

It's that time of year again, when wine writers and bloggers love to blither about their choice for the "perfect" Thanksgiving wine. I get asked by friends for my thoughts on this subject every year at this time. So let's get this on the record here and now. Pinot noir. In fact, if the pilgrims had pinot noir on the table for that first Thanksgiving celebration, relations between settlers and native Americans might never have soured!

I've heard every kind of Thanksgiving pairing imaginable suggested by the so-called experts. Let's be clear -- there is no concensus. It shows how inexact and personal the choice really is. So, instead of trying to recommend the "best" Thanksgiving wine, it's probably more helpful to explain why pinot noir is my favorite Thanksgiving wine.

Cabernets and zinfandels simply have too much alcohol and tannins to match well with the white meat on a turkey, which is what most people reach for. But I've seen both wines recommended for Thanksgiving. Wall Street Journal wine columnists Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, whose column I love, by the way, have advocated pairing a well-aged cabernet with turkey because the tannins have been defanged by time. Maybe, but I don't think it's practical. Most people don't have well-aged cabs on hand. And, I just don't think classic cab flavors marry well with poultry.

Others like whites with turkey. It can work, but you've got to be careful here. Some whites can seem overly acidic once you bite into some of those sweet sidedishes. Riesling, chenin blanc and some pinot gris can work fine. But turkey is not chicken -- it has more character and body (however you look at it). I think a red complements the flavor of turkey better, not to mention savory stuffing and gravy.

So, what wine works best with game birds like duck or turkey? Pinot noir, of course. A friend of mine at the wine store where we once worked used to say, "finding a wine to pair with turkey is not hard at all. It's all those candied yams and cranberry sauce that screw it up." That is, indeed, the rub. But I think many people hyperventilate needlessly over this challenge.

If pinot noir works perfectly with turkey, as I believe it does, stick with what works but deal with the sweet potato onslaught by choosing your pinot wisely. With sweet sides in mind, Thanksgiving is one time I don't want an earthy complex pinot like Burgundy or even a dark Russian River pinot. Instead, I want one with jammy red fruit, like those often produced in Carneros. Perfect, perfect example -- Etude. Too pricey for your budget at about $45? There are others more affordable that are just about as good.

That's what works for me. But tastes are so different that in big family gatherings you're never going to get everyone on the same page. It probably makes sense to offer family members both a white and a red. The important thing to remember is that there are no rules in your house but your own. And, oh yeah, have a happy Thanksgiving.


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