Wines To Be Thankful For
By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
Before heading to the New World in 1620, our Pilgrim forefathers spent their last night in the Refectory Room of what would become the Black Friar’s Distillery for Plymouth Gin. Unfortunately for the Pilgrims, there would be no gin at the first Thanksgiving. According to Stephen C. O’Neill, Associate Curator of the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, most provisions lists for the period contain references to ‘strong waters’ or aqua vitae, generic references to distilled wine or brandy. No gin or genever to be found. In all likelihood, the beverage selections at the first Thanksgiving would have leaned more toward the familiar beer and wine. And so, 12 Bottle Bar has a few suggestions for your Turkey Day. Let the gobbling – er, sipping – begin.
When it comes to holidays, we at the Bar firmly believe that you should drink what you like. But with the literal cornucopia of foods available at the table during this overindulgent season, there’s no arguing that some flavors work better together. In order to choose what you drink, you need to think about what you are eating first. Let’s leave the side dishes out of it and simply consider the centerpiece of the feast – the bird. Turkey is a bit of an odd duck, so to speak. The standard supermarket versions – usually the industrially-bred Broad-Breasted White — are pretty insipid (translation: dry and flavorless), so we tend to juice them up with marinade and brines. In stark contrast, the once almost-extinct heritage breeds like the Naragansett and Bourbon Red are mind-bendingly different with their juicy, cappuccino-colored dark meat and creamy, toothsome, flavor-packed white meat. If you can stomach the price – around $4.00 to $5.00 a pound for heritage versus $1.00 to $2.00 (or even free with grocery purchase!) for basic supermarket – you’ll taste the difference. If not, I don’t blame you; just buy the freshest, most natural bird you can find.
Heritage birds will require a gutsier wine, whether red or white; when pairing wine with the supermarket versions, your decision will be most influenced by how you cook them (i.e., gravy, what you baste and spice with, etc.) That said, there’s a lovely, little triumvirate of vino that you can always count on, tailoring to the richness or lightness of the meal.
Bursting with gentle straw- and raspberry flavors with a silky feel in the mouth, Pinot Noir is a natural for Thanksgiving. Neither too fruity nor too dry, it is the go-to red for the holiday. Unfortunately, Pinot Noir often comes at a price. If you want to splurge, look for the “real” stuff from the Burgundy region of France. The highest classification is grand cru, but you can find more reasonable bottles by seeking out the less in-demand regions and/or relying on a well-regarded producer. For instance, Bruno Clair, Faiveley, and Vincent Girardin are all superb names and their lower end bottling are quite inexpensive (i.e., $30-40). Likewise, the Gamay region of Burgundy specializes in fruity, juicy (and much lower priced) Beaujolais wines – not the Nouveau stuff at the market, but rather Beaujolais-Villages or the Beaujolais cruswhich have a lot of richness and depth.
American Pinot Noir can still run you a pretty penny, but it is often easier to find. Opt for lower alcohol (12.5%-13.5%) bottlings from the Sonoma Coast (try Flowers), Santa Barbara County (Bonaccorsi Pinots are lovely), or Oregon, as they tend to emulate the French profile rather than the standard California “fruit bomb” style that has emerged in recent years. And, a little 12 Bottle Bar secret. Mark West Pinot Noir (between $8-15 depending on where you go) is an infinitely drinkable wine for a ridiculously comfortable price point. Grand cru it ain’t – but it’ll leave you with the cash to buy the heritage bird.
If white is your tipple, look no further than German Riesling. And look no further than Riesling from the Mosel region, which always comes in a long-necked green bottle and offers up a refreshingly soft, slightly floral/fruity/minerally profile. There are a lot of choices here and a few things to avoid. What you are looking for is a Riesling with a nice balance of acidity (to cut through the richness of the food) and perceived sweetness, which marries nicely with Thanksgiving spices and flavors. Look for the designations ‘Kabinett’ or ‘Spatlese’ and producers like Reinhold Haart, J. J. Prum, Selbach-Oster, and Fritz Haag. They’ll probably set you back between $25-40; the higher the designation (‘spatlese’ is more concentrated than ‘kabinett’, the more expensive usually.) In a pinch, any Riesling that is a “Terry Thiese Selection” will be outstanding. And, if you are on a serious budget, Chateau St. Michelle Riesling from Washington State won’t drink like a Mosel, but it is surprisingly decent for what it is — and, did I mention, cheap (about $8)?
And finally, you can’t overlook the bubbly. My suggestions – the strawberries & cream lusciousness of Veuve Clicquot Rosé (around $50-60) or the lighter but still fruity and palate-cleansing Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Rosé (around $18-20). And, believe it or not, I have a $5 bottle to recommend as well. The caveat: It’s only available at Trader Joe’s, as far as I know, but wow, what a fun find. If you’ve read my sparkling wine recommendations before, you know I’m a fan of Schloss Biebrich, a German sparkling from white grapes. Well, TJs is now carrying Schloss’s Demi Sec made from red grapes. The color is as deep red as the label and the flavor is more like Italian Brachetto – fizzy, sweet raspberries – but it is still dry enough – and boasts a cranberry-like tanginess – to stand up to the Thanksgiving meal. And it prices out at, as I said, $5. Will it drink like champagne? Absolutely not, but then, you can drink five times as much, so you choose.
If champagne and its cousins aren’t your style, here are two final somewhat unorthodox ideas. Eric Bordelet Poire Granit ($18), an off-dry, sparkling pear cider from Normandy (insanely good and only 4% alcohol), or opt for a Deus, a large-format champagne-style Belgian beer that runs $30 and can serve about four people.
If none of these suggestions fit your idea of a happy Thanksgiving or you are simply dead-set on incorporating some spirited sipping into the day, then by all means, mix up a Martini or two. Not only is this gin-based marvel a classic appetite stimulator, but, according to Plymouth, the first documented recipe – Plymouth gin, dry vermouth, and orange bitters — for what would eventually become known as the dry Martini is found in Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them. The Pilgrims may not have had the Martini, but their arrival perhaps unwittingly set the wheels in motion for our bibulous future. And that’s certainly a reason to give thanks.
Featured Glassware: Modern Grace Brandy by Villeroy & Boch.