Of all the year-end holiday gatherings, none is apt to be more diverse in food and the mix of celebrants than Thanksgiving. It’s often more than a gathering of family as the welcoming embrace widens to include colleagues from work or school, neighbors, friends.
Given that reach, this is no time to limit the choice of wine to one varietal or one style. To help hosts put out a few choices to surprise and delight such a variety of guests and to accommodate a broad assortment of dishes, here’s a suggested shopping list, based on the more impressive wines I’ve tasted this year and running largely to selections that can be found hereabouts. The list was drawn up principally with Thanksgiving in mind but also is fit for other seasonal parties:
For greeting guests
No beverage says “welcome” with more excitement and elan than sparkling wine, and California is producing the most varied, interesting and accessible sparkling wines on the planet today. Sure, Champagne still sets the bar for bubbles dramatic, romantic and enduring, but over the past couple of decades California vintners have been applying exceptional discipline and passion to the style, releasing ever more consistently reliable interpretations.
One of the early California adapters was Roederer Estate in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. Every year at this time I find myself tossing into basket or cart a few bottles of Roederer’s non-vintage Brut, a model of balance, freshness, vibrancy and persistence. At the Mendocino County Fair commercial wine competition in Ukiah in August, judges agreed that it was the best sparkler in the field. It is widely available in the Sacramento area, but shop around; I’ve seen the price range from $18 to $31.
The biggest surprise among California sparkling wines tasted this year was the Francis Ford Coppola Winery 2017 Monterey County Sofia Brut Rose ($19), a pretty, vivacious, pleasantly off-dry and surprisingly sophisticated blend of pinot noir (80 percent) and chardonnay (20 percent).
What well may be the newest California sparkling wine on the market is a model of precision, complexity and equilibrium. That would be the brass-colored and brassily named non-vintage Flaunt Sonoma County Brut ($48) by Dianna Novy Lee, who with her husband Adam Lee years ago created the Siduri and Novy wine brands. Flaunt is a dry and lean blend of 54 percent chardonnay from Russian River Valley and 46 percent pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast. It may not yet be in the Sacramento market, but can be ordered online at www.flauntwinecompany.com.
One more: The biscuity and biting Laetitia Vineyard & Winery 2015 Arroyo Grande Valley Brut Rose ($36), declared the best sparkling wine at this summer’s Central Coast Wine Competition in Paso Robles. I haven’t seen this bright, agile and incessant sparkler in the Sacramento market, but if you are heading to Paso Robles, Pismo Beach or thereabouts during the holidays watch for it, or invite someone from down there to your Sacramento party and drop a hint.
Other consistently reliable sparkling-wine brands from California include Gloria Ferrer, Mumm Napa and Korbel.
Because this has been the year of pink wine – it’s everywhere, whether called rose, blush or vin gris – at least one representative of the genre should be within reach. You will please your guests no end if it is the fruity, buoyant and snappy Boeger Winery 2017 El Dorado Primitivo Rose ($18). Primitivo, like sangiovese, has had trouble gaining traction in the American market as a red table wine, but both can turn out pink versions of uncommon spunk and stamina.
Regardless of how inappropriate the food may seem for chardonnay – rich and spicy carnitas, anyone? – any host who puts guests first will have on hand at least one take on the country’s most popular varietal wine. To this palate, no chardonnay offered more value and lilting fruit this year than the Michael David Winery 2016 Lodi Chardonnay ($16), which with sip after sip unfolded with ever more suggestions of refreshingly tropical and citric flavors.
But there’s a whole lot of other noteworthy chardonnays out there, including the ripe and powerful J Vineyards 2016 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($31), as fundamental and balanced an introduction to California’s mainstream way with the varietal as you are likely to find; the equally bold and representative William Hill 2016 North Coast Chardonnay ($17), which comes off fun while at the same time delivering intriguing smoke, silken texture and lemony fruit; and the juicy and animated Flora Springs 2017 Napa Valley Family Select Chardonnay ($36), as tangy and soothing as lemon curd.
Among red wines, none is more traditional and popular than cabernet sauvignon. As with chardonnay, the market is awash with the stuff. The best buy in cabernet sauvignon I came across this year was the Sean Minor 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), which seized adroitly the authority and elegance for which Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is celebrated, but at a price rarely seen for the appellation. If this can’t be found, don’t dismiss the spirited Sean Minor 2016 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($16), just about as concentrated and forthright as the Napa Valley.
Other commendable cabernets to watch for include the deeply colored and broadly built Penley Estate 2016 Coonawarra Phoenix Cabernet Sauvignon ($15, at Costco), packed with so many suggestions of eucalyptus it would please the koala in the family; the focused and supple Rodney Strong Vineyards 2014 Alexander Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($28), which captures all the grace and complexity for which the appellation is recognized; and the densely colored and berry-rich yet streamlined and zingy Heitz Cellar 2013 Napa Valley Linda Falls Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, though at $150 the bottle you may want to hold it for an intimate dinner party rather than a sprawling buffet.
For Thanksgiving in particular, no wine is more traditionally American than zinfandel, and surely a couple fellow diners will expect an example to be within reach. One of two standouts this year has been the Easton Wines 2017 Amador County “Lot 1852” Zinfandel ($22), a refreshing departure from the ponderous heavyweights usually associated with the Sierra foothills. Nevertheless, while lean in profile and shy in tannin it is layered with vivacious berry fruit – raspberries, cranberries and strawberries – as well as refreshing acidity.
The other has been the forward yet suave Dry Creek Vineyard 2015 Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Zinfandel ($35), which captures the essence of spirited and juicy berry fruit against a faint backdrop of oak.
The host who likes to surprise his or her guests with wines not only polished but out of the ordinary has an increasingly rich selection from which to choose. One of the more startling lineups in wine I tasted this year came from an entirely new source to me, the cooperative cellar Cantina Kurtatsch, which draws grapes from high up in Italy’s Alto Adige, not far from Austria. Indeed, the finesse and focus of Austrian wines resonate in the Kurtatsch selections.
Corti Brothers stocks several of them, my favorite being the dry, lean and zesty Kurtatsch 2016 Sudtirol Alto Adige Graun Muller Thurgau ($24). Muller Thurgau is the grape, a cold-resistant cross between riesling and madeleine royal developed in Germany in 1882. Graun is the high-elevation district where the grapes were grown. The vivid, spicy and peachy notes of the wine show a bit more sass in the 2013 vintage of the same wine, also carried by Corti Brothers ($36).
California’s Lake County is recognized largely for cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and petite sirah, but keep an eye out for cabernet franc from the area, in particular the Steele Wines 2015 Lake County Cabernet Franc ($19). It’s a great buy, running to the cherry/berry side of the varietal more than the herbal, with a beckoning floral aroma, a compelling thread of licorice, and the kind of frisky acidity to make it versatile at the table.
As with pink wines, this was the year when wine-shop shelves and restaurant wine lists saw a surge in blended red wines, particularly atypical blends. A standout in that respect is the fresh, juicy and exceptionally complex Sean Minor 2014 North Coast Nicole Marie Blend ($22), based half on merlot but also including petite sirah, petit verdot and zinfandel from several appellations, including Mendocino and Lake counties.
Grenache is another offbeat black grape gaining traction on the American wine scene. Many are light and straight-forward, but the bright, perfumey and sweetly fruity Iron Hub 2014 Shenandoah Valley Estate Grenache ($25) stood out for its uncommon complexity. That could be for the insinuation of 9 percent mourvedre that brought threads of earthiness and licorice to the chipper grenache. That the wine was aged for nearly two years in French and Hungarian oak barrels also helps explain its layering.
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 email@example.com.