Dunne on Wine

This year, set the Thanksgiving table with gold-medal wines

Turkey pairs well with well-made, fruit-forward reds that are lower in tannins and boast balancing acidity.
Turkey pairs well with well-made, fruit-forward reds that are lower in tannins and boast balancing acidity. Chicago Tribune

In color, weight and flavor, the traditional Thanksgiving table is a rangy pastiche of the nation’s agricultural bounty. No one kind of wine can measure up to such diversity. When the varied preferences of family and friends around the table are factored into the hospitality equation, the question of which wine to serve becomes even more problematic.

Our solution is to have on hand a wide assortment of styles, ready to be grabbed and opened whenever a guest suggests he or she would really enjoy a glass of this or that. Our shopping list this Thanksgiving consists solely of gold-medal wines from competitions we’ve helped judge this year, narrowed down to choices that provide unusual bang for the buck. Also, most should be readily available within the Sacramento region.

For greeting guests

A wine need not be fizzy to welcome visitors, but bubbles enhance both the generosity and the celebratory nature of the occasion. It need not be Champagne and it need not be dear to be appreciated for its distinction. Korbel is in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, not Champagne, but it follows the traditional French method of capturing effervescence in its 10 styles of sparkling wine.

At the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in January, the Korbel California Brut ($14) beat out three other contenders for top sparkling wine, largely because it was the brightest, leanest and sharpest gold-medal winner in the flight.

Another welcoming warmup

Pink wines are on fire in the marketplace, so at least one guest likely will expect to be handed a glass of some kind of blush soon after stepping across the threshold. One of the more unusual gold-medal pink wines on the market is the Terra d’Oro 2015 Amador County Rosé Wine ($16), made with the Italian black grape nebbiolo, rare to California but a variety that enthralls several of the state’s more determined vintners, including Terra d’Oro’s Chris Leamy.

At the Calaveras County Fair Wine Competition this spring, his handling of nebbiolo, which included fleeting skin contact and fermentation in stainless-steel tanks, added up to best-of-class honors for the wine’s uplifting berry fruit, punctuating spice and startling length. It has the juiciness to be welcome as an aperitif and the solid structure to accompany even the heartier dishes on the menu.

For traditionalists

Though cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot grigio and merlot aren’t the most flexible of wines at a table laden with the rich foods of a typical Thanksgiving dinner, they are immensely popular in the U.S., and someone’s holiday surely will be ruined if one or the other isn’t within reach.

While cabernet sauvignon has had difficulty gaining respect in the Mother Lode, the Sierra Vista 2013 El Dorado Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($18), which won gold at the El Dorado County Fair Wine Competition, should please the palate of anyone thirsting for the varietal. It boasts ardor, focus and balance, with its dominant flavor running to the cherry side of the cabernet spectrum, though a thread of fresh green herb adds beguiling complexity.

For value and interest, chardonnay doesn’t come much more intriguing and accessible than the McManis Family Vineyards 2015 River Junction Chardonnay ($10), which got a gold medal from our panel at the California State Fair for its clean lemony flavor, plush texture, refreshing acid and brushstrokes of oak.

Pinot grigio, aka pinot gris, customarily is pretty shy for the hefty dishes of Thanksgiving, but I’d make a place for the Terra d’Oro 2015 Santa Barbara County Pinot Grigio ($16) because of the breadth and depth of its citric fruit, its smoky complexity and its enduring grip. It was the only pinot grigio to win a gold medal of the five entered at the Calaveras County Fair Wine Competition, and it won a rare double-gold medal at the subsequent El Dorado County Fair Wine Competition. A double-gold medal is awarded when all judges of a panel concur that a wine deserves gold.

At the Los Angeles International Wine Competition, our panel was assigned the class of “new world” merlots. We tasted 17 of them, awarding six gold medals. From such countries as New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Mexico, they often are the least expensive and the most quaffable merlots on the market these days. The two to tie for best of class were from Chile, the sweet and solid Terra Reserva 2014 Valle Central Merlot ($14) and the soft and smoky Pepperwood Grove non-vintage Valle Central Merlot ($8).

For versatility

Over the years, three kinds of wines have shown themselves to be most adaptable at our Thanksgiving gathering: zinfandel, pinot noir and riesling.

This has been an especially good year for zinfandel on the competition circuit, principally because the 2013 and 2014 vintages yielded so many examples of clarity and authority. The Sobon family alone in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley racked up one gold medal after another, including for the savory and centered Sobon Estate 2013 Cougar Hill Zinfandel ($18), best of class at the Calaveras County Fair; the penetrating and spicy Shenandoah Vineyards 2013 Vintners Selection Zinfandel ($16), also a gold-medal winner at Calaveras; and the spirited and caressing Sobon Estate 2014 Amador County ReZerve Paul’s Vineyard Zinfandel ($24), designated the best zinfandel in California at the State Fair.

For pinot noir, the J. Lohr 2014 Monterey County Falcon’s Perch Pinot Noir ($17) won a gold medal from our panel at the California State Fair for its characteristic aroma and flavor, its lean yet strong build and its atypical yet beckoning suggestion of cocoa.

While I generally prefer dry rieslings, the sweet Pacific Oasis Winery 2013 Columbia Valley Riesling ($7/$8), which our panel anointed with a double-gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, would be no less fitting for the Thanksgiving table. While its body is ample and its apricot and peach flavors rich, it has enough zesty acidity and prickly spice to hold its own with even the heftier dishes of the banquet.

Note that some of these wines may have been succeeded in the market by a younger vintage, but given the consistency of style by the producers, the successors should be no less impressive.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.