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annual Thanksgiving dilemma: which wines with turkey, pumpkin pie?

November 20, 2010

Every year, conflicting Thanksgiving wine advice overwhelms anxious hosts.  Because wine is pretty much the only element of this annual feast not dictated by tradition, what you decide to uncork is wide open.

That’s the problem.  There are just too many choices.

Even restaurants serving Thanksgiving dinner are happy to pass the buck on what to drink. This year I noticed that very few in New York include wine in their advertised menus, though Latin restaurant Agua Dulce will hand out Pumpkin Hot Butter Rum Cocktails (ugh!). Maybe even top sommeliers can’t take the pressure of coming up with the perfect pairing.

The latest suggestion I’ve received came in a Thanksgiving card from Aline Baly of Bordeaux’s Château Coutet. She touts serving six vintages of her luscious sweet white as the ideal accompaniment for everything from sage-and-spice-roasted turkey to pumpkin mascarpone tart with candied kumquats and Sauternes cream (enticing recipes here).

Much as I like Château Coutet, all that unctuous sweetness seems like way too much of a good thing and would only mystify many of my guests. I’ve learned over the years not to put out anything too outlandish or esoteric or made from an unpronounceable grape.  At holidays, people crave the familiar, and don’t want to feel like they should study the label.

That’s as it should be.  At Thanksgiving, food and feasting take center stage.  The main role of wine is to wash it all down the without fighting the flavors on the table, to mellow tempers during political arguments or the reemergence of sibling rivalries, and refresh the palate so you can eat even more.

The number of dishes with contrasting tastes and dozens of flavor components (sweet, spicy, tart, rich, bland) all heaped together on a plate means you can forget about the subtleties of wine matching or the search for a one-perfect-wine solution.  Instead, go for wines that are fruity, softer and brightly acidic, with little tannin and low oak—the vinous equivalent of lovely background music.

My choices this year? I always pour American on this national holiday.  I’ll start with a fruity sparkling wine, like non-vintage J Cuvée 20 Brut ($20).  Then I’ll put a white and red on the table—a rich but balanced Chardonnay like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Karia” ($35), and a satiny, stylish Pinot Noir like 2008 Freeman Sonoma Coast ($44), served slightly cool.

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