Friday, November 10, 2006

The Gastronomic Nightmare Before Christmas

Face it; the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner is a gastronomic nightmare. We’ve all grown up with it, so to us a Thanksgiving feast is comfort food of the most comforting kind. But to a foreigner trying to get an “authentic taste” of American culture and cuisine, the bizarre combination of foods presented with fanfare on a Thanksgiving table may only serve to convince them of the culinary barbarity of America.

Personally, I never paid any attention to this until I started getting interested in wine and how different wines go with different foods – you know, the old saw of “red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat.” Those simplistic rules are considered outdated today, and in their place a whole science has grown up around “pairing” wines with food.

Some pairings are no-brainers, such as cabernet sauvignon with a big juicy steak, but that peculiar American institution of Thanksgiving isn’t so easy. You’ve got this bland, dry hunk of dead bird parked in the middle of the table along with wildly spiced stuffing (does parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme ring a bell?), weird gravy, God-awful gooey orange sweet potatoes speckled with marshmallows, and – the pièce de résistance – cranberry sauce. Who came up with this menagerie of flavors? And how the heck can you find a wine to pair with such a cacophonous collection of culinary comestibles?

The short answer is that you can’t. No single wine is going to go well with everything on the table. So, what to do? Serve three wines with dinner? Only a real wine snob would do that, so we’ll look at the most popular options, and I’ll leave it to you to make the best choice.

Before we get to specific wines, here are a few general pointers. Avoid strongly tannic reds like cabernets. These heavy wines will overpower or fight with everything on the table (cabernet and cranberry sauce is guaranteed to cause a mouth-puckering sensation of such power than you might actually swallow your entire face). Look for wines with good acidity. Acidity adds “crispness” to wines and helps cleanse your palate as you move from one food to another.

Riesling (REES-ling) is probably my personal top contender. Either a dry or off-dry Riesling will go well with pretty much everything. It won’t fight the sweet potatoes, and its slightly tart sweetness should compliment the cranberry sauce. It’s light enough to not fight with the stuffing or overwhelm the turkey.

Pinot Noir (PEE-noh NWAHR) is a rising star among Thanksgiving wines. Not as heavy or tannic as a cab or syrah, a pinot with enough smoothness and fruit can get along with most anything on the table (except maybe the sweet potatoes). Not to heavy for the turkey or too tannic for the cranberry sauce.

Champagne – A good, dry champagne with sufficient acid can be a good match for a Thanksgiving dinner, and it will add a touch of celebration to the meal. Avoid the cheap stuff like Cooks, and go for a truly dry sparkler. Should go well with the bird and stuffing, but might be a bit odd with the sweeter side dishes.

Chardonnay is the “no-brainer” wine for Thanksgiving, but it actually is a poor match with all but the bird. All those different flavors are going to overwhelm all but the crispest chards. It’s a pass in my book.

Zinfandel (ZIN-fin-dell) has suddenly become the big new wine to have with Thanksgiving dinner, but I can’t figure out why. Zinfandels are typically big fruit bombs, with lots of alcohol. To me, the huge fruit in a zin would overwhelm or fight with pretty much everything on the table. Of course, I haven’t actually tried it, so maybe it’s a fantastic match – but I have my doubts.

Other wines to consider include Pinot Gris (PEE-noh GREE) and Gewürztraminer (guh-VURTS-trah-mee-ner).

Wine of the Week

Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs (BLAN de NWAHR)

Blanc de Noir (literally "white of blacks") is a dry sparkling wine (that is, "Champagne" - but you're not supposed to refer to sparkling wines as Champagne unless they come from Champagne, France) made primarily from red pinot noir grapes. However, the skins are removed early in the wine-making process, leaving a elegant light salmon color wine behind. This is a fine sparkling wine for Thanksgiving dinner. It's flavorful and full-bodied enough to stand up to the stronger flavors, while delicate enough to not overwhelm the more subtle flavors. Hints of cherry and strawberry. Nicely balanced acidity. Available at Creekside Cellars for $23.99. 4 stars.


Anonymous said...

Nice post Tony....Most Thanksgiving meals have centered around a HUGE Cabernet Sauvignon. I have been changing it up as of late...what's your take on Sauvignon Blanc?

Anonymous said...

I like the Riesling idea. My family tends to lean towards the Pinot Noir but I may throw in a monkey wrench this year.

HHmmm...Sauvingon Blanc...good idea. Have you tried the NO Sauvi B?