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Thanksgiving Wines: Pairings for the Big Feast

White wine on the Thanksgiving table

There has been a distinct chill in the air and the east coast has already seen a significant snowstorm.  There’s no denying that winter, and the holidays, are fast approaching.  While I’m not necessarily looking forward to the biting cold days ahead, I’m eagerly awaiting the holiday season!  The next two months promise to be filled with plenty of feasting, celebration and a steady flow of delicious wine…merriment that will stave off winter’s hold for a while, at least.

With Thanksgiving just a few weeks away, family chefs across the nation have already begun planning their menus and experimenting with new recipes.  The beauty of Thanksgiving, the reason that it tops my list of favorite holidays, is that it is a celebration of food and family.  Not only does the holiday give gourmands more reason than ever to run wild in the kitchen, it is a welcome opportunity for oenophiles to show their stuff too.  The cooks are already ahead of the game.  It’s time for us wine lovers to plan our attack and seek out the very best wine pairings for the grandest of feasts.  So wine lovers, what will you bring to the Thanksgiving table this year?

Pairing wines with Thanksgiving dinner is easier than one might think.  The meal itself features abundant flavorful side dishes, all with a gorgeous, simply roasted turkey as the centerpiece.  One could argue that just about any wine can work with Thanksgiving, due to the vastness of the meal and diversity of flavors within, but there are certain wines that elevate this feast, bringing it to a whole new level.  Here are our suggestions for some truly knockout Thanksgiving wine pairings

Wine Pairings for Hors d’oeuvres and First Courses

The wine you choose for kicking-off your Thanksgiving feast should have some bubbles!  Champagne or sparkling wine makes an ideal pairing for hors d’oeuvres ranging from charcuterie and cheese plates, to soups and salads.  Cheese almost always makes its way into the appetizers for a large party and the refreshing acidity and bubbles in sparkling wine cut right through the richness and saltiness of any assortment of cheeses, from Brie to Stilton.  This Thanksgiving, we’ve selected several champagnes and domestic sparkling wines for Turkey Day pairings:

NV Henriot Brut Souverain ($50) – Recently awarded 93 points from Wine Spectator, this champagne has long been one of our favorites.  A blend of 50% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs and 50% Pinot Noir from Montagne de Reims, the Brut Souverain is aged in the quiet darkness of Champagne Henriot’s Gallo-Roman crayeres. These dramatic cellars, unique to the Champagne region, are carved out of chalk 60 feet underground and provide optimal aging conditions.  Upon release, the Brut Souverain has been aged to perfection. Its rich, elegant style is lovely as an aperitif or as an accompaniment to variety of dishes from hors d’oeuvres straight through to a fruit-based dessert.

NV Delamotte Brut Blanc de Blancs ($55) – This vivacious champagne, made from 100% Chardonnay, has satisfying richness while being exquisitely elegant at the same time.  Delamotte has been producing champagne since 1760 and is the sister house to renowned Champagne Salon.   Situated in the grand cru commune Mesnil-Sur-Oger amongst the finest Champagne producing vineyards, Champagne Delamotte is a reflection of this unique, exceptional terroir.  The style of this blanc de blancs is well suited to Thanksgiving festivities.

Look no further than New York State for some sensational sparkling wines that are wonderful for Thanksgiving and the holiday season.  The Chateau Frank sparkling wines are the very best in quality and offer enticing value as well.  For a truly American holiday like Thanksgiving, it is only fitting to show off some of our country’s finest wines…

2006 Chateau Frank Blanc de Blancs Finger Lakes ($29) – This blanc de blancs is one of our new favorite 100% Chardonnay sparkling wines from Finger Lakes producer Dr. Frank.  This bubbly has a sublime voluptuous froth, great complexity, elegant flavors of honeysuckle, citrus and ginger, all undercut with refreshing, zippy acidity that make it the ideal companion for appetizers and first courses.

NV Chateau Frank Célèbre Rosé Finger Lakes ($20) – The festive color of this sparkling rosé will look stunning on your Thanksgiving Day table and in the hands of your dinner guests.  Made from 100% estate grown Pinot Meunier grapes and crafted in the traditional French Crémant style, this sparkling rosé offers rich raspberry and strawberry aromas, lush cherry flavors and beautiful, delicate bubbles.

Wine Pairings for Thanksgiving Dinner

Zinfandel

As I mentioned before, I’ve always thought it was nice to feature a few American wines at Thanksgiving. Red Zinfandel is the first wine that comes to mind, especially since it has an interesting immigration story of its own.  Let’s be clear, we are not talking about semi-sweet, pink-colored White Zinfandel, which has managed to disgrace the grape’s name.  In stark contrast, the Zinfandels that I adore are rich, robust, red wines that sing aromas of ripe briar fruit, dark cherries, currants and spice.  They are big, intense wines that pair well with a variety of foods.  These wines are akin to the gravy for your Thanksgiving bird.

The history of America’s Zinfandel can be traced to roots in Croatia, where it is named Crljenak Kaštelanski, then to Italy, where it is Primitivo.  The grape was brought to the Boston area in the early 19th century, by the Austrian Imperial Nursery, and named Zinfandel (a name whose origins are unclear).  By the mid 19th century, the grape had made its way to sunny California, where it was a popular table grape and dried for sweet raisins.  A few years later, California recognized Zin as viable for winemaking, and adopted the grape as a signature American varietal.

Zinfandel has extensive heritage in America, and an immigration story that reaches far beyond our borders.  The lush fruit character and versatility of these wines make them an ideal pairing for your turkey along with all the trimmings.

The Zinfandel to pour this Thanksgiving is the 2009 Ridge Vineyards Zinfandel Geyserville ($35). Wine Advocate critic Antonio Galloni praises this impressive wine, awarding it with an attractive score of 94 points.

“The 2009 Geyserville is a gorgeous wine. It shows expressive inner perfume, sweet black cherries, menthol and minerals. This is an understated, exceptionally elegant red endowed with considerable finesse and fabulous overall balance. A round, sensual finish makes it impossible to resist a second taste…” – Antonio Galloni

Pinot Noir

Pinot’s beautiful cherry fruit aromas and flavors, combined with its characteristic earthy quality, make it just perfect for Thanksgiving menus.  Harvest season ingredients such as butternut squash, sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, mushrooms, roasted root veggies, nuts and dried berries are all accentuated by the character of Pinot Noir.  Those Pinots from the West Coast (California, Oregon and Washington State) tend to be more fruit-forward, which is a great complement for turkey meat.  Pinots from Burgundy are often lighter bodied with an earthy-minerally quality, quite similar to the character of the ingredients that show up on the Thanksgiving table.  Any of the Pinots listed below will work marvelously with your feast…

2009 Capiaux Cellars Pinot Noir Widdoes Vineyard Russian River Valley ($35) – A delicious and sweet-fruited single-vineyard Pinot Noir with lush berry flavors, earthy undertones, full juicy body and a smooth, rich texture. Sean Capiaux, owner and winemaker of Capiaux Cellars, is a Pinot Noir expert with an impressive winemaking resume, including Jordan, Pine Ridge and Peter Michael in California and Houghton Winery in Australia.

2008 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Yamhill Cuvee Willamette Valley ($37) – With its dark fruit, black cherry, lively spice notes and impeccable structure, your bird is calling for the Yamhill Cuvee this Thanksgiving. Domaine Serene Winery and Vineyard was founded in 1989 by husband and wife team, Ken and Grace Evenstad.  The Evenstad’s are advocates for sustainable farming, practicing dry farming techniques on their vineyards, meaning that they never use artificial irrigation or tap into local rivers to water their vines.  Domaine Serene specializes in world class Pinot Noirs, while also producing excellent Chardonnay and Syrah.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, we can get enough of 2009 Burgundy.  They are simply irresistible.  Don’t feel guilty about uncorking them this Thanksgiving…even if their projected prime is still a few years away!

2009 Domaine Michel Magnien Bourgogne Rouge ($25) – Rich black cherry and blackcurrant aromas and flavors are dressed up with baking spices and subtle floral aromas.  You’ll hear, “Please pass the Burgundy” more than anything else with this stellar Pinot on the table.

2008 Domaine Bernard Moreau Bourgogne Rouge ($20) – This is exceptional red Burgundy for the price.  Lovely red cherry aromas give way to an earthy accent of briar patch.  The vibrant acidity and lengthy satisfying finish make this a superb choice for the Thanksgiving feast.

White Wine Options

Aromatic white wines work especially well with Thanksgiving dinner for several reasons.  Grapes such as Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Riesling can be vinified into dry wines that have slight amounts of residual sugar.  This hint of sweetness, combined with the fragrant and sometimes tropical aromas and flavors in the wine, pairs wonderfully with Thanksgiving Day spreads, which often incorporate sweet elements as well (think sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce).  Meanwhile, the naturally high acidity of these types of wine is the perfect foil for rich, hearty dishes.

Chardonnay is another excellent option for Thanksgiving and a classic pairing for roasted turkey.  You can go with either a white Burgundy or a new world Chardonnay with subtle oak influence.

2009 Breggo Cellars Pinot Gris Wiley Vineyard Anderson Valley ($27) Located in Northern California’s rustic, pastoral Anderson Valley, Breggo Cellars specializes in stunning wines from Alsatian varietals – Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Riesling.  Breggo means “sheep” in the local dialect, homage to the area’s native population of sheep. The winery property, a 203-acre farm, was one of the first sheep ranches in Anderson Valley. This small production (only 350 cases produced), single-vineyard Pinot Gris offers delightful notes of pear, baked apple and honey, with a touch of candied lemon peel. Rich and medium-bodied, flavors of apricot preserves, melon and Meyer lemon dance on the palate.

2009 Breggo Cellars Gewurztraminer Anderson Valley ($27) – This exotic and enticing wine shows opulent aromas of orange zest, lychee, honeysuckle and rose, enhanced by notes of sweet lemon and apricot. Elegant and refreshing on the palate, bright tropical flavors mingle with zippy acidity and a long, lovely finish. Only 398 cases made.

2009 Francois Chidaine Vouvray Clos Baudoin ($25) – Crafted in a range of styles from bone dry to sweet, François Chidaine’s Chenin Blancs share an ethereal quality and great complexity. A brilliant wine with aromas of lemon rind, honey suckle, citrus blossom and white pepper; on the palate, the tangy character is accompanied by honeyed citrus flavors, with hints of bitter almond skin. The finish lingers gracefully.  A truly exceptional wine with the resounding acidity and brightness needed to emphasize the elements of Thanksgiving’s banquet.

2008 Ramey Wine Cellars Chardonnay Russian River Valley ($28) – “Bright yellow. Precise, mineral-driven aromas of pear, spicecake, iodine and wet concrete, along with a sexy floral aspect. At once tactile and fine-grained, with subtle smokiness giving depth to the flavors of Meyer lemon, minerals and candied ginger. Tightens up toward the back, finishing quite suave, with strong lift and cut to its ginger-laced orchard fruit flavors.” – Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, 91 pts

2008 Domaine Bouchard Père et Fils Meursault Genevrières ($85) “As it almost always is, here the nose is spicier still and more refined as well with striking complexity adding compelling interest to the floral, citrus and white fruit aromas. The rich, concentrated and classy flavors possess plenty of extract that confers a seductive texture that carries over to the impressively long and harmonious finish. This is unmistakably at another level, at least at this early juncture.” – Burghound, 92 pts

Rosé

Rosé is one of my favorite wines to pair with Thanksgiving dinner.  Not only is the wine’s color cheerful and festive, the characteristic red berry flavors make it the ideal choice for Thanksgiving.  Incredibly food friendly, Rosé provides the best of both worlds, combining the brisk acidity and refreshing quality of a white wine with the body and structure of a red wine, making it compatible with a range of dishes.  To quote Julia Child, “Rosés can be served with anything.”  The versatility of the wines below make them perfect pairings for Thanksgiving’s bounty, complimenting everything from the mashed yams to the stuffing.

Steal! 2010 Mulderbosch Vineyards Rose Stellenbosch ($12) – This is a dark cranberry-colored, robust and refreshing rosé made from Cabernet Sauvignon, showcasing complex aromas and flavors of rose petals, lime zest and wild strawberry.

2010 Prieure de Montezargues Tavel Rosé ($21) – Enticing style and finesse, showcasing raspberry and subtle peach aromas.  On the palate, red berry flavors mingle with Provencal herbs and spices, resounding in the full-body, freshness and length of this gorgeous wine.

2010 Bieler Pere et Fils Sabine Rose Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence ($14) – Aromas and flavors of raspberry, cherry and wild strawberry shine, along with racy minerality and bright, food friendly acidity. Charles Bieler has been crafting his delicious Provençal rosé, Bieler Père et Fils Sabine, for the last 5 years. Named for his daughter, Sabine, who was born the same year as the wine’s first vintage, this rosé honors Charles’ father, Philippe, who introduced he and his sister to the wine business. This rosé continues the Bieler family reputation that was built over 13 years at Chateau Routas and the last three years with Three Thieves.

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Oregon Pinot Noir: Treasures from a Terrific Vintage

Barrels of wine at the Domaine Drouhin Estate in the Willamette Valley.

For the past few months, all eyes have been on the 2008 vintage for Oregon Pinot Noir.  Nothing gets people’s attention like a write-up in the New York Times – Toasting a Vintage, With Few Quibbles, and when that is followed by an article in Wine Spectator – Oregon’s Natural Wonder (February 28th issue), you can be sure that wines from the noted producers will start flying off the shelves.  All of the excitement around the 2008 Oregon Pinot Noir vintage is well deserved, as these are truly terrific wines from one of America’s finest wine producing areas.  Oregon’s wine industry has been given limited time in the limelight, often overshadowed by California, but this burgeoning region has something very special, delicious success with fickle Pinot Noir.

Pioneering Pinot in the Pacific Northwest

Wine grapes were planted in Oregon in the second half of the 19th century and the industry grew steadily during that time.  Then, following prohibition, the state’s wine industry enjoyed a prosperous resurgence, but this didn’t last and advancement was slow until the early 1960s, when several pioneering winemakers entered the scene.  Many of these visionary winemakers were transplants from California who challenged the opposing viewpoints of their UC Davis professors and were united by the belief that Pinot Noir was better suited to Oregon’s growing conditions, especially those of the Willamette Valley.

Among the pioneers was Richard Sommer, who founded Oregon’s first estate winery in 1961, Hillcrest Vineyard.  Sommer, along with fellow Californian immigrants Charles Coury and David Lett, were the first to plant Pinot Noir vines.  However, it was David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards, who came to be known as “Papa Pinot”.  At the youthful age of 25, with a UC Davis enology degree in hand, Lett moved to Oregon to find the perfect place to grow Burgundian grape varietals, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  He found just that place in the Willamette Valley, in the Red Hills of Dundee, and established Eyrie Vineyards in 1966 with his wife Diana.  Along with pioneering Pinot Noir, Lett was the very first vintner to plant Pinot Gris in America.  In 1979, at a French tasting competition in Paris, the 1975 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir won first place against Burgundian counterparts, a victory that catapulted Oregon into the spotlight as a serious wine region and a producer of world-class Pinot Noir.

The Eyrie Vineyards 1979 win was followed by another triumph in 1980, this time at a competition arranged by the renowned winemaker Robert Drouhin of Burgundy.  This time, the Eyrie Vineyards Pinot came in a close second to one of Drouhin’s Grand Cru wines.  These consecutive, consistent results spurred Drouhin to establish his own winery in Oregon in 1988, not too far from Lett’s vineyards.

Cool Climate Lovers

There are several important climatic characteristics to consider when studying viticulture in Oregon.  First and foremost, it is the dampest winegrowing area in the Pacific Northwest, yet most of the rain comes between October and April, sparing the vines of damage and waterlog during the height of their growing season.  Unlike Washington, whose vineyards are shadowed by the Cascade Mountains, Oregon is completely exposed to the air currents that come off the Pacific Ocean.  This results in damp, yet mild winters and is also the cause of relatively cool summers.  It is important to note that Oregon suffered from a drought between the years 2000 and 2005, which temporarily disrupted the state’s signature wet climate.

Aside from being damp, damp, damp, there is little else that is consistent about Oregon’s weather.  Temperatures during the growing and ripening seasons vary greatly from year to year, which means that the wines are more apt to differ between vintages, especially in the past 15 years.  This talk of capricious weather brings us back to our fickle friend Pinot Noir, which happens to thrive in this cool climate, resulting in some of the best and most complex expressions of the grape anywhere.

Quality Over Quantity

Oregon’s wine industry has focused on quality over quantity, which is why it is rare to see low-priced wines from there.  Trends in Oregon winemaking include meticulous viticulture techniques, controlling grape yields, labor-intensive pruning methods and organic and biodynamic farming.  Many Oregonian vintners have chosen to grow “Dijon clones” of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  These clones produce lower yields and ripen earlier, making them a great match for Oregon’s climate.  Many producers are deeply invested in sustainability and land preservation, believing that organic and biodynamic farming methods are the best way to maintain the integrity of their soils and vineyards.  These conscientious practices certainly show through in the quality and purity of Oregon’s Pinot Noirs!

Willamette Valley AVA

The most important and largest wine region within Oregon is the eminent Willamette Valley.  This American Viticulture Area (AVA) runs west along the Willamette River, on the slopes of the Coast Range, extending for 150 miles from the Columbia River in Portland south to Eugene.  The Willamette Valley is home to over 200 wineries and more than 12,000 vineyard acres, of which Pinot Noir is the crown jewel.

The Willamette Valley enjoys a temperate climate year-round, and although damp in the winter months, the summers are warm with long daylight hours, providing the ideal conditions for growing superb Pinot Noir.  Long days of warm sunshine are followed by cool nights, giving the grapes the opportunity to develop great flavor and complexity.  Within the valley, there are six smaller sub-AVAs, which distinguish the unique terroirs within the larger area.  These AVAs, established between the years 2000 and 2006, are Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge and Yamhill-Carlton District.

A few fun and noteworthy facts on the sub-AVAs – the Chehalem Mountains AVA has the highest elevations, including Bald Peak, which rises over 1,600 feet above sea level.   The Dundee Hills are known for their highly praised Pinots and reddish-colored clayey Jory loam soils, the namesake of the Red Hills of Dundee.  The Eola-Amity Hills AVA enjoys consistent coastal winds that sweep in from the ocean through the mountains and balance the summer’s warmth. Fittingly, the name Eola is derived from the Greek god of wind, Aeolus.  Finally, Yamhill-Carlton is the largest of all six sub-AVAs, with 1,200 vineyard acres.

Pinots to Purchase Now

Oregon’s 2008 growing season started out cold and wet, a pattern that held through the summer and was followed by late September rains.  Vintners were dubious to say the least, and then, in early October, the sun came out just in time to finish ripening the grapes.  The weather remained warm and sunny through the end of harvest, resulting in beautifully complex and impeccably balanced wines.  With all of the attention the vintage has gotten, there’s no time to lose if you want to add the best of these wines to your collection, or at the very least, try them for yourself before they sell out!  Here are some of our picks from this outstanding vintage:

From the Gerrie family’s 65-acre Willamette Valley estate, the 2008 Cristom Vineyards Pinot Noir Mt. Jefferson Cuvee is a great bottle to open now.  Layered, complex aromas of red cherry, wild strawberry, herbal notes, mint, tealeaf, rose and roasted hazelnut are coaxed from the glass.  The palate fills with flavors of cherry, wild berry and sweet spice, showing vibrant elegance, impeccable balance and an enduring finish.

Paul Gerrie and his wife Eileen established Cristom Vineyards in 1992.  Paul left the east coast and a career in engineering in order to pursue his passion for terroir-driven wines, especially Pinot Noir.  The Cristom Vineyards estate is home to eight different vineyards, six of which are named after family matriarchs.

St. Innocent Winery is one of our favorites…founded by Mark Vlossak in 1988, the winery specializes in handcrafted, single-vineyard wines from prime sites in the Willamette Valley and has consistently garnering praise for its extraordinary Pinot Noir. Vlossak is dedicated to producing fine wines of exquisite texture that echo each vineyard, as well as each individual vintage.  These are excellent food wines, delightful to drink in their youth, while having great ageing potential.

The 2008 St. Innocent Winery Pinot Noir Momtazi Vineyard comes to us from the Willamette Valley’s McMinnville sub-AVA, located on a steep, south-facing hillside.  The biodynamic Momtazi Vineyard is warmed by the valley below during the day and cooled by the winds that blow in off the coast at night.  The resulting Pinot’s are rich, complex and intensely aromatic.

Adelsheim Vineyard is another favorite, an exceptional producer that is devoted to sustainable farming practices.  Founders David and Ginny Adelsheim shared the dream of planting a vineyard and producing magnificent wines in the Chehalem Mountains area of the Willamette Valley and they have worked diligently to make that dream a delicious reality.

The 2008 Adelsheim Pinot Noir is a gorgeous expression of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir!  Opulent, layered aromas of ripe cherry, raspberry, blackberry, violet and roasted coffee bean waft from the glass.  The palate is greeted with full, rich cherry and berry flavors, sweet spice, luxuriantly smooth tannins, and a silken finish that lingers enticingly.

Co-owned by Robert Parker, Michael Etzel and Robert Roy, Beaux Frères Winery is yet another exemplary Oregon Pinot Noir producer.  The partnership’s driving philosophy has always been to produce the very best Pinot from small yielding vines and to really convey the spirit of Beaux Frères Vineyard through their wines.  The 2008 Beaux Freres Vineyard & Winery Pinot Noir Willamette Valley is a great intro to this fantastic winery, if you haven’t already had the pleasure of trying their wines!

Finally, from Burgundy transplant Robert Drouhin’s Willamette Valley estate – the 2008 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Willamette Valley is a real delight. Youthful and complex, showing notes of cherry, spice and cedar, this superbly structured, elegantly textured and lively wine is ready to drink now, but will continue to age magnificently for another 10 to 15 years.  As head of Burgundy’s renowned Maison Joseph Drouhin, Robert Drouhin recognized the Dundee Hills of the Willamette Valley as being a perfect place to grow Burgundy’s beloved Pinot Noir.  Further inspired by David Lett’s success with his prized Eyrie Vineyards Pinots, Drouhin established his winery and is now joined by his daughter Véronique, whose passion and talent for winemaking continue the family legacy!

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