Wine's World

American Unexceptionalism

Don’t let patriotism interfere in your choice of a Thanksgiving wine.

Are you a person of ideology or a person of taste? These are the two guides to choosing wines for a Thanksgiving meal. Ideology points unambiguously in the direction of zinfandel (red, that is; the candy-flavored white zins are best left alone). Thanksgiving is a uniquely American custom–part of our secular religion–and zinfandel is the quintessential American wine. Never mind that the vines actually came here from the former Yugoslavia. If you want to be pedantic, Thanksgiving itself is an annual harvest festival, commonly celebrated in many parts of the New and Old worlds. Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards has called zinfandel “the Horatio Alger of varietals, the ‘True American.’ ” That gets it right. Zinfandel was a lowly grape in the old country, arrived here and, after a while and some luck, blossomed into greatness and wealth. Today, both Thanksgiving and zinfandel are as American as apple pie (which is not really American either, but you get my point). Red zinfandel is a fantastic wine–rich, fruity, and with a distinctive taste. Unfortunately, it is not well suited to turkey, a mild–dare one say, bland–bird. Unless you are serving a spicy turkey gumbo, the zinfandel will overpower the bird. This does not make it a terrible choice, but it isn’t an inspired one either.

Nevertheless, if you do want to make that toast about American exceptionalism in political ideas and wine alike, there are two further choices before you–Ridge or Ravenswood. Hundreds of wineries now make zinfandel, but these two remain a class apart. Ridge is in some ways the original zinfandel producer, being the most famous early exponent of the wine in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ravenswood is a relative newcomer, having started in the late 1970s, but its wines are probably the most sought after zinfandels in the world and regularly score sky-high marks in wine tastings. Ravenswood’s winemaker, Joel Peterson, makes a blockbuster wine. He leaves the crushed grapes to marinate in their skins for a month and then ages the fermented juice for 14 to 24 months in French oak. All this results in a big, inky, Gothic wine that overpowers all competition in tastings. Ridge’s Draper makes the wines in a more elegant and restrained style that showcases the natural fruitiness of the grape and the balance of fine wine. I prefer Ridge’s wines, but wineries in California are increasingly following the Ravenswood technique, and most zins today are out of control monsters.

Should you forgo ideology and go purely by taste–and in this age of decadence that is surely a temptation–none of the zinfandels fits the bill. But many other wines do. Turkey has a neutral taste that can marry with most wines, provided they are not too strong. Big Bordeaux, Rhones, Australian Shirazes, and Barolos are all wrong. (Hint: Anything that seems perfect with steak is imperfect with turkey.) Merlots are fine, but I haven’t found too many American merlots that have real distinction. Burgundies and American pinot noirs are probably the best match among red wines. The softness and sweetness of the grape nicely compliment the turkey and condiments. Andrea Immer, the ebullient wine director of Windows on the World, suggests Spanish Riojas, which would make sense for the same reasons. I don’t like serving white wine at a ceremonial meal; reds somehow seem more appropriate. But some white wines would go very well with a Thanksgiving meal. Turkey, being poultry, is actually best accompanied by a rich chardonnay. For those of you who think of white wines as aperitifs to be drunk while standing, ask your wine store to suggest a first-rate burgundy (say, a Chassagne-Montrachet or a Meursault) or an American chardonnay, and try this match. Most other whites seem a little wimpy when faced with the full-dress Thanksgiving meal, with one exception, which is my suggested match–wines from Alsace, France. Alsatian wines have all the body and acidity necessary to stand up to turkey. They also have a touch of sweetness, which works superbly with all the sauces and condiments served. One producer in particular, Zind Humbrecht, makes rich, golden hued, intense wines that would be lovely with a festive and varied meal. Most Thanksgiving matches forget that much of the meal is taken up with pumpkin, squash, baked onions, cranberry sauce, and relish. In this sense, wines from Alsace are a natural match, since roast meats accompanied by onions, sweet sauces, etc., are an important part of Alsatian cuisine. It turns out that to find the best match for America’s distinctive ceremony, we have to go back to the old country.