Nov. 25, 2013 at 12:52 PM ET
Let’s face it, Thanksgiving, the great American holiday, also produces a jumbo-sized serving of angst, whether it’s the travel headaches, having to tolerate certain relatives, or picking the right wines to serve your guests or present to your hosts.
While the travel and family issues are often beyond our control, the wine is not. And the first and most important thing to do about it is to relax. After that, understand that you’ve got a great deal of leeway when it comes to the wines you choose.
Perhaps no wines have been promoted more for Thanksgiving in recent years than zinfandel from California and Beaujolais from France, especially the over-hyped Beaujolais Nouveau (the just-bottled 2013s started to arrive last week).
Whether you choose red or white wines is a matter of preference. I like to start with a white for appetizers and first courses and move to a red or two for the main event, but it’s entirely acceptable to stick with one or the other.
What kinds of wines work best? With the volume and variety of food on the Thanksgiving table, I look for medium-bodied wines that will be refreshing yet substantial enough to withstand and complement the myriad tastes and textures.
The challenge, of course, isn’t so much the turkey itself, with its relatively neutral taste, but everything that goes with it, from rich gravies to buttery potatoes and sweet potatoes, stuffing (perhaps with sausage) and a range of vegetables.
I want reds and whites with moderate levels of alcohol and, most importantly, vibrant acidity that enables them to cut through the density of the foods and provide a graceful lift as you wash them down. With that in mind you’ll find some unusual choices here, including a couple of sauvignon blancs among the whites, and wines that span the globe from California to South Africa. And, as it turns out, none of the wines I’ve chosen has an alcohol level of more than about 14 percent.
So here are 10 wines from my recent tastings, in a range of prices, that I would be proud to serve this Thanksgiving.
2012 Bayten Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa’s Buitenverwachting winery is a deliciously balanced wine with subtle tastes of honey, lime, orange, light herbs, a delicate creamy overlay and minerals on the finish. The key here, as with whites in general, is to drink it only moderately chilled so the flavors can emerge. This one opened up beautifully as it warmed up a bit. 14 percent alcohol. About $14. Find it here.
From California, Bonterra’s 2012 Viognier from Mendocino County is a crisp example of the variety with a core of apricot and a good deal of citrus and tropical fruit, including a banana-cream touch. Like all of Bonterra’s wines, it’s made from organically grown fruit. It’s a blend of grapes from Mendocino and Lake Counties. 13.8 percent alcohol. About $14. Find it here.
I love dry riesling, and Johannishof’s 2012 Charta Riesling from Germany’s Rheingau reminds me of why. It’s at once ripe, crisp and refreshing with white peach, pear and lime notes. 11 percent alcohol. About $16. Find it here.
From New Zealand, Kim Crawford’s 2012 “Spitfire” Sauvignon Blanc is a cut above the winery’s regular sauvignon. It’s a rounder wine with a core of ripe tropical fruit and quintessential New Zealand herbaceousness along with gooseberry and lime notes on a long finish. 13.5 percent alcohol. About $21. Find it here.
The 2012 Carpe Diem Chardonnay from California’s Anderson Valley is a beautiful and elegant wine with a perfect fruit and oak balance and lots of acidity to keep it refreshing. Most of the wine is aged in older barrels, which gives it its more subtle oak character. 13.7 alcohol. About $24. Find it here.
Cesani’s 2012 Chianti Colli Senesi from Tuscany is young and fresh, a mainly sangiovese blend with bright cherry, cranberry and blueberry fruit and a tannic grip that demands just the kind of robust foods served on Thanksgiving. It’s also a true bargain at $10 or so and is a nice alternative to Beaujolais. 13 percent alcohol. Find it here.
From France, the 2011 Bordeaux from Les Hautes de Lagarde is another excellent value at about $11. This blend of 65 percent merlot, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent cabernet franc opens up nicely to reveal bright raspberry and cassis notes and a touch of vanilla. It’s made from organic grapes. 12.5 percent alcohol. Find it here.
Doña Paula’s 2011 Estate Malbec from Argentina is one of the best malbecs I’ve sampled this year. It has a core of blackberry, along with blueberry and cranberry, and notes of coffee bean and meat with supple tannins and well-integrated oak. 14.1 percent alcohol. About $14. Find it here.
From New Zealand, Nobilo’s 2012 Icon Pinot Noir is one of the better pinots you’ll find from anywhere in the $18 range. Try chilling this one for 10 or 15 minutes to make it even more refreshing. Notes of cherry, black cherry and earth with beautifully integrated oak. 13 percent alcohol. Find it here.
From the Napa Valley, Stag’s Leap’s 2010 Petite Sirah would make a fantastic gift bottle to bring your hosts and is well worth the price of about $32. This is consistently one of my favorite California reds and is one of the best expressions of the lesser-known petite sirah grape, with tastes of deep plum and blackberry, raspberry and a tobacco note, all framed by an elegant tannic structure. 14.1 percent alcohol. Find it here.