Monday, November 24, 2008

You Turkey! Finding the Right Wine for Your Bird

November 2008, Corrales, NM
If this is November, it must be turkey time, or how do we find a wine to go with the bird? This yearly guessing game stems from the fact turkey can be notoriously hard to pair with your favorite wine. On the other hand, this is also the time of year you’ll get too many suggestions for pairing wine and fowl. Some people - I’ve been told – even go to the extreme of eliminating the bird entirely and going for roast beef to ease the frustration of bad pairings.

That will cause most traditionalists to cringe, perhaps even double over in pain. Such extremes are really not required, however. There are two methodologies for pairing food and wine; decide on the food and find a complementary wine, or choose a wine and find the right food for it. It would seem we are constrained to the former, but there are ways to insinuate the latter in our decision-making process.

Let’s say you prefer red wine with a meal. The old rule of white wine with fowl would cause some problems, unless we view the entire meal. Remember, side dishes can offset some of these difficulties, even within the context of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Sweet potatoes with a caramelized brown sugar topping can go with many red wines. The stuffing is fertile ground for offsetting the flavor profile of the turkey. Adding a spicy sausage and compatible herbs can change a turkey’s DNA to conform to a favorite Sangiovese or Tempranillo.

Both of these wines, of course, can work with even a traditional bird if they have the right palate notes. I’ve sampled Sangiovese wines with a definite cranberry aspect that can favorably complement the trimmings. In fact, many berry-rich red wines can work with end of year holiday celebrations.

One of the key elements to look for is lower alcohol. Any red wine over 14.5% can be challenging to pair with foods unless the alcohol is well integrated into the wine’s structure. Aggressive oak-heavy wines can also be off-putting, muting the berry flavors that provide an integrating influence to the meal. The fruit flavors should be pronounced, with red berries working better than black berries, or plum-like notes which are characteristic of many red wines derived from fruit picked after a longer hang time.

A full-bodied wine can be too heavy to marry with white meat and root vegetables, medium and light-bodied wines pair better. Finally, a bit of sweetness to the wine also works, as too-dry reds will drive us to ladle on the gravy to offset the astringent hit. However, if you want an excuse to load up on gravy this type of wine could be a godsend.

Two other wine grapes that work well within this area are Barbera and Pinot Noir. Both are generally acknowledged as great food-wines, and both are typically vinified with less oak and medium body. Both offer rich berry flavors. Many Barbera wines have Bing to Dark Cherry flavors while Pinot exhibits aromas of cherry, strawberry, and even rhubarb in more herbal varieties. Spice accents of cinnamon also indicate a good companion to a turkey dinner.

If these are not your favorite red wines, maybe this is a good time to try them out. Otherwise, consider the other options. While Cabernet Sauvignon is often difficult to match, Cabernet Franc, with its cherry and raspberry flavors can work better. Most California Zinfandel is too highly alcoholic (up to 16.8%!), too heavy in tannins, and too full-bodied to pair up, but the rare lighter-bodied, lower alcohol versions can work because of the bright berry flavors this grape offers. Syrah, Shiraz, and Petite Sirah are generally too heavy as well, but if you love these wines seek to add flavors to the meal that will complement them better.

If you wonder how to accomplish this feat, consider the following. Try an Italian-flavored bird with garlic, rosemary, and oregano. Complement this with Italian sausage in the dressing, and maybe even a pasta side dish. I don’t advise covering the poor turkey in red sauce, however, as it will create a most revolting sight. Subtle notes are best. Alternately, go for Spanish or Mexican accents with peppers, cumin, and spicy sausage again, and other elements that will be at home with a Tempranillo or Spanish Rioja wine.

Right about this time of year, the Nouveau Beaujolais makes its appearance, and many people clamor to add it to their Thanksgiving shopping list. While I’m a fan of the Gamay grape, I’m not a fan of Nouveau Beaujolais. I consider this the closest thing to a slapdash wine. It is 90% marketing and airmailing the stuff, and 10% putting it together. On the other hand, well-made Beaujolais, not the commercial junk that gets exported, can be a perfect match. These wines are carefully crafted to emphasize the best elements of the Gamay grape, and marry with the bird as few wines can. If you never tired a Cru Beaujolais, but do like Nouveau, you are in for a revelation.

If white wine is your preference, then we need to leap in another direction. Sparkling wines are made for the holidays. If you don’t think so, start counting all the advertisements and commercials around this time of year. I think most domestic sparkling wines work best as a contrast to the meal, but ones that mirror the classic French Champagne flavors of caramel, cream, and yeasty notes can complement as well. Or just buy French Champagne.

Chardonnay is often selected to go with the meal, because, well – it’s our most popular white wine. Nope, that’s not a good enough reason. Look for something other than an oaky, buttery Chardonnay, unless you’re doing a Butterball turkey with corn-on-the-cob side dishes. Yuch, that was almost painful to write. Remember the characteristics I mentioned above for choosing a wine, light on the oak for one thing. Splinters in your Chardonnay suggest a really aggressive use of oak. Acidity is one of the things going for a white wine that acts as an integrating force. Using 100% malolactic fermentation to alter the chardonnay’s acidic edge to add the buttery notes makes it a flabby choice for a meal.

Much better choices are Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Chenin Blanc. Some New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines may be a bit too acidic to pair, look for good balance and a medium-bodied mouth feel. A French Sancerre is a good choice, particularly if you are a doing a rich herbal or Provencal version of the bird. Riesling is probably the most versatile of white food-friendly wines, with the kinds of flavors to work with anything from sweet potatoes to herbed stuffing. A good dry Chenin Blanc will also work, but they are harder to find.

Viognier is a good alternative for those that want a bigger wine, and are trying to combat their Chardonnay addiction. Some Oregon Pinot Gris wines are also a wonderful complement to Thanksgiving. I’ve paired a Willamette Vineyards Pinot Gris quite successfully with many foods in the wine dinners I create.

And then there is my current favorite turkey wine: Ahlgren Vineyards 2004 Livermore Semillon, a rich wine with flavors of baked fig that had all the partakers of last year’s Thanksgiving meal all agog. If you only experience this marriage of turkey and wine once in your life, you will never forget it. I have not tried the current 2005 vintage, but if it is anything like the 04 you should buy up a case while this small producer of quality wines in the Santa Cruz Mountains still has it in stock. Check them out at and while you’re at it, sample their red wines as well.

While I presented you with perhaps too many choices, consider which of the wines I suggested is your favorite, then plan the sides and the style of turkey that will best complement your choice. Don’t try to make it too difficult, this should be fun after all. Or you could just say the heck with it and go with the roast beef. Salut!

No comments: