The holiday season from Thanksgiving through New Year’s is a festive time to enjoy a range of your favorite wines, and also to try some new ones.
Thanksgiving, of course, is a challenge of its own, for the traditional turkey is not an easy fit with wine. The up side of that dilemma is that there is no “right” wine to serve. You can drink what you enjoy best, without fear of the Wine Police descending upon you with lectures about what must be served and what should not. Here are some suggestions for the holidays, all wines currently for sale at the prices indicated in the Washington area. Thanksgiving. I always enjoy reading Art Buchwald’s annual Thanksgiving column, in which he explains our national holiday to the French. It is, he rightly says, “the one day when Americans eat better than the French do.” But I notice that in describing how it all began, he avoids mentioning any wines to go with the meal.
He is right to do so. Turkey, after all, is not one of those meats automatically associated with any particular wine. While we would associate roast beef with a fine Bordeaux, and game dishes perhaps with a mature Burgundy, neither wine would go as well with turkey. The Burgundy would be too rich and powerful, and the Bordeaux too nuanced, to complement turkey’s mild flavors well. So serve a less complex wine from either region with a good conscience.
In a way, our Thanksgiving meal is a celebration of plenty, available to nearly everyone. It’s appropriate that wines that go with it best are neither overly expensive nor hard to find. The Pilgrims would probably approve. (They would probably also serve ale or beer).
Turkey is a mild meat, and generally a softer red wine would match it. Here, you have a fairly broad choice. Take a merlot varietal wine, such as a young wine from the Pomerol region of Bordeaux (Chateau Moulin St. Georges 1998, $29), or possibly a young St. Emilion (1999 Carillon de l’Angelus, $30, the second wine of the grand cru Chateau l’Angelus, at a fraction of its price). More reasonable choices would be the quality generics that Barton & Guestier offer, in the $10-15 range. You might also discover a wine from the Fronsac or Cotes de Bourg region that would go well and be reasonably priced.
If you can find them at reasonable cost, offer a magnum of wine. This two-bottle size always seems more festive, and helps create a sense of occasion. A magnum of the well regarded Graves, Chateau Carbonnieux, goes for $59. My local wine retailer on the Eastern Shore of Maryland offers magnums of Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Villages for $15, a wonderful buy for a soft red wine. It’s usually served as a hot weather wine, but why not enjoy it now? Just chill the bottle for an hour or two before the dinner.
Burgundy wines pose similar challenges. You don’t need a great one, but a young wine that is beginning to develop might complement the feast. Look to a younger Côtes de Nuit Villages, or a Hautes Côtes de Beaune. There should be a good selection at your wine retail store, and those wines are in the $15-$20 range. We sometimes look to a red Chateauneuf du Pape, and recent years have been excellent. Look, for example, for a Domaine Lucien Barrot et Fils ($20), or a 2001 E. Guigal ($28). For a special occasion, serve a magnum of 2000 Chateau La Nerthe ($77).
These red wine choices would be particularly appropriate if your turkey is accompanied by sausage or chestnut stuffing, including the assertive herb sage, with traditional side dishes. The tastes would complement each other well.
This is not to rule white wines out. You could serve a non-vintage brut champagne, domestic or imported. Champagne would work very well, and a light one would be welcome, given the general heaviness of the meal and dessert. Another possibility would be an Alsatian white wine, perhaps a Riesling or a Gewurztraminer. Hugel, Adam, Trimbach, or Albrecht are fine producers, and unless you get into the limited production wines, you should stay in the $12-$15 per bottle range. These wines would go particularly well if you use an oyster stuffing with the turkey. Last year, we tried three Willm 2000 Reserve wines over the holidays: their Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer. Each bottle cost $14. Hands down, out favorite for our own Thanksgiving dinner was the Riesling.
My assumption has been that you would be serving turkey. If not, make your wine choices accordingly. A crown roast of pork would go well with a Loire Valley white wine. Try marinating it with Vouvray wine, then roast it with apples or prunes and some thyme, adding a bit more wine from time to time to pan brown it. Ask your wine retailer about Vouvray wines. Unless you get into limited production wines, $10-$12 should buy a nice bottle. But be careful. They tend to be rather sweet. With baked ham, a medium-dry white wine of character would be a good choice. Here, I would suggest an Alsatian Pinot Gris. You should be safely within the $15 range with these wines.
For desserts, a heavier, fortified wine such as port would be a good choice, or perhaps a glass of Sauternes, especially if your dessert is not overly sweet. If you are serving a cheese course with apple slices and nuts, then a glass of port or a medium-dry sherry would be a good choice. And don’t forget to save a glass of wine to toast the cook when the meal is over. It won’t get you out of helping with the dishes, but it might get you invited back next year.
Let’s skip to Christmas dinner. If you have game, or a traditional goose, a robust Rhone wine or a Chateauneuf du Pape always goes well. This year, I’d suggest a red Chateauneuf du Pape. We have had several years of fine vintages, in addition to the exceptional 1998 vintage, so it’s very hard to go wrong. Another pleasant feature is that these wines are rounded, with fresh berry flavors. They will taste very fine in the future, but can be enjoyed right now. But you’d better look quickly, before prices start to soar. (The 1998 Beaucastel, for example, now costs $80 a bottle, and their 2000 retails for $53.) You might still be able to find a 2000 Chateauneuf du Pape Les Cailloux or Tardieu-Laurent in the $35 range.
New Year’s Eve.
I’m not forgetting the champagne for New Year’s Eve. What you prefer depends upon your own palate, whether a light champagne (Taittinger) or a full-bodied one (Pol Roger), or something in between the two (Veuve Clicquot, Louis Roederer). You can get very good non-vintage champagnes from any of these houses for $35 or less. Their vintage champagnes, blanc de blancs, or rose champagnes can cost up to five times that, and more. I’m not sure that New Year’s Eve, often a mob scene, is a time for rare and expensive champagnes anyway. Better wait until it is just the two of you to savor a bottle of vintage Salon, at $150 a bottle at least.
New Year’s Day.
For New Year’s Day dinner, with the traditional roast beef, you have quite a choice, but increasingly, an expensive choice. Going through the holiday season at retail rates for fine wine might just be the best reason for you to make a New Year’s Resolution. This is the year that you are going to start a wine cellar! The sooner you start, the more mature wines you will have to drink in the future. It certainly beats trying to buy mature wines, if they are available at all, a bottle at a time at very high prices. Without a cellar, for Burgundy lovers, I would set a budget per bottle, and then get the best village or communal appellation of a recent vintage that you can find for the money, in consultation with your wine retailer. A fine Gevrey Chambertin (for example, a Jadot) can be bought for around $30, while an excellent classified wine, such as Jadot’s 1999 Estournelles St. Jacques, costs $49. A good Hautes Côtes de Beaune or Côtes de Nuit Villages would cost much less, and afford much drinking enjoyment.
For those who prefer Bordeaux, it is just time to try the 2000 vintage wines that have reached your retailer. For example, the 2000 Prieure Lichine costs $37, and the highly regarded Chateau Poujeaux from the same vintage is $26. In other recent vintages, you might consider the very well made second wines of estates of high quality. For example, the 1999 Clos du Marquis, the second wine of Leoville Las Cases, costs $24.
Let’s not forget the Sauternes. A little goes a long way, and we usually open a bottle for Thanksgiving to have with those three desserts. Then the bottle will often last through the holiday season. This year I’m eyeing a bottle of Chateau Suduiraut 1975 from my cellar to open. It should be just right–rich and now amber colored. You may wish to start with a half bottle of 1998 Suduiraut, Guiraud, Coutet, or Doisy Vedrines. Each is well made, with Coutet representing a lighter style of Sauternes, and each retails for around $21.
You will of course want to savor a cognac or armagnac after dinner. Here, older is better (and more expensive). As to a spirit’s age, the various VS and VSOP cognacs, for example, are flavorful, but often a bit on the harsh side. Mellower by far are the XO cognacs, which are required to be aged a minimum of 25 years, and fine cognac houses use that as a minimum, not a standard. Better make sure this is on your own Christmas list, at $90 a bottle. Hennessey, Courvoisier, and Remy Martin are reliable, and they make even costlier blends and now even single vineyard cognacs if you sold your 401K in time. Some prefer armagnac to cognac, reasoning that since it is single distilled, while cognac goes through the process twice, armagnac retains a fuller flavor. They have a point. You might find yourself agreeing with those who prefer a Bas Armagnac to other districts for its finer, more nuanced flavor.
For your Christmas giving–or your own Christmas wish list–look for the December article, Wines for Christmas Gifts.