Summer wasn’t even over before the most popular wine question of fall popped up: What wine do you serve at the Thanksgiving feast? Judy Laverty asked this as she moderated the Blazing Pans cooking competition in early September at the Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival in the Village at Northstar just outside Truckee.
This is a cook-off in which two of the Tahoe area’s more celebrated chefs go head-to-head in a format and with an intensity akin to the popular TV series “Iron Chef.”
Within 75 minutes, the chefs were to prepare four courses featuring an ingredient they learned of only as the clock started its countdown. This year, that was a whole organic free-range turkey, out of which they created such dishes as a colorful and vibrant salad of heirloom tomatoes and grilled peaches with crispy shreds of smoked turkey wings as an accent, a crostini topped with a focused turkey-liver pâté, robust sausage of turkey giblets and liver finished with brown butter and sage, slices of traditionally roasted turkey sweetened with a fig compote, turkey with tomatoes and cauliflower on pasta finished with Asiago cheese, and turkey with a blackberry bacon compote on sautéed arugula.
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In other words, the standard range of Thanksgiving dishes, at least when two exceptionally creative and quick professional chefs do the cooking.
Thus Laverty’s question to the five judges, one of whom was myself. I was more-or-less ready with my usual answer: Set the table with whatever wine you like and whatever you expect your guests will like. If it’s a big gathering, almost surely someone about the table will expect chardonnay. Another will be looking forward to cabernet sauvignon. Not my first choices, but go ahead, be the most hospitable of hosts.
One complication of the Thanksgiving table is that no one varietal or style of wine will fit either the range of dishes or the diversity of the guest list.
However … my Thanksgiving table won’t likely be set without a bottle of pinot noir, a bottle of riesling and a bottle of zinfandel. The first two are the most adaptable and appropriate varietals for just about any meal. Zinfandel is there out of sentiment. It’s the varietal most closely identified historically with the United States, so it should be present at this most American of holidays. As a bonus, it customarily has the fruit, spice and structure to stand up to just the sort of varied dishes served judges at Northstar, where, incidentally, no wine was served during the competition.
At any rate, for Thanksgiving you’re on your own for chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and so on, but for riesling, pinot noir and zinfandel, here are my suggestions. For the most part, these suggestions have been gleaned from judging at a dozen wine competitions this year, narrowed down by a pretty good hunch that they are available locally:
Handley Cellars 2012 Anderson Valley Riesling ($20): If it didn’t get a gold medal on the competition circuit over the past year, it almost invariably won a silver medal, and that kind of consistency speaks to the wine’s clarity and equilibrium. Even as we hit the wall while judging 69 rieslings at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in January, this entry stood out for its vital fruit and reviving acidity, just the kind of rescue that would be welcome at the Thanksgiving table.
Ravines Wine Cellars 2012 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling ($18): Not to pick a fight, especially at the Thanksgiving table, but New York’s Finger Lakes district is turning out not only the freshest and crispest rieslings in the nation but the interpretations that offer the most value, as this assertive, layered and lengthy take bears out. About this time a year ago, the Wine Spectator named this wine the 33rd-best in the world in its roundup of the top 100 wines of 2013. Not many Finger Lakes rieslings can be found in Sacramento, but this one is on the shelf at Corti Brothers.
Smith-Madrone 2012 Spring Mountain District Riesling ($30): Here’s the California counterpart to the Ravines, a producer that can be relied upon year after year to turn out riesling of character and balance. The Spring Mountain is heftier than the Finger Lakes, but carries its .41 percent residual sugar with aplomb, coming off tasting dry thanks to its bracing acidity. Its flavors of tropical fruits, peaches and apples will be right at home with the rich range of the Thanksgiving meal.
Baileyana 2012 Edna Valley Firepeak Pinot Noir ($22/$30): While San Luis Obispo County is identified with warm-climate varietals such as cabernet sauvignon and syrah, the small and chilly Edna Valley yields masterful cool-climate wines like gruner veltliner and pinot noir. The Firepeak is one of several pinot noirs in the Baileyana portfolio, and the wine that delivers the most agility and finesse. It’s quiet enough to not interrupt the Thanksgiving chatter for the first pour or two, but after that guests will start asking about the origin of this exquisite and vital take on the varietal.
Domaine Drouhin Oregon 2010 Dundee Hills Laurene Pinot Noir ($65/$70): Vintage after vintage, Domaine Drouhin Oregon is one of the more reliable of the Willamette Valley’s pinot-noir produces, and it has a lot of competition up there. The 2010 Laurene is a sturdy yet silken rendition of the varietal. Its beguiling herbalness and resonating earthiness brings a European gravitas to the wine’s bright and nervy New World cherry fruit. This is a lot to pay for a wine, but Thanksgiving comes around but once a year.
Francis Ford Coppola Winery 2012 Russian River Valley Director’s Cut Pinot Noir ($27): As I said back in a column here this spring, this pinot noir doesn’t rely on any special effects for its seduction. It’s a straight-forward interpretation, with raspberry-accented fruit that it fragrant and floral, a texture that is fleshy without being heavy, and a finish that lingers pleasantly.
Artezin 2012 Mendocino County Zinfandel ($13): The best red wine at the Mendocino County Fair commercial wine competition in August, the Artezin is lean yet exuberant, a zinfandel that speaks clearly to the variety’s juicy raspberry and blackberry aroma and flavor, in a construct that while sturdy with tannins isn’t at all intimidating.
Sobon Estate 2012 Amador County Old Vines Zinfandel ($12): If you find yourself shy of spices like nutmeg and clove while assembling the pumpkin pie, just toss in a splash of this zinfandel; it tastes as if it’s been sprinkled liberally with them, though they don’t outshine the vibrancy of the wine’s raspberry core.
Alexander Valley Vineyards 2012 Alexander Valley Sin Zin ($20): The 2012 version of Sin Zin marks the 35th anniversary of the wine, which early on drew attention for its spicy name and risqué label, from a mid-19th century German etching. Beyond that, Sin Zin over the vintages has shown itself to be a consistent interpretation of the jammy, peppery and saturating style of zinfandel. The 2012, a seamless integration of fruit and wood, is all that, again. This summer it won a gold medal at the Long Beach Grand Cru.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.