It’s Thanksgiving wine time, but…where’s Napa?
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday so I’m excited. But I’m also kinda peeved. The happy part is that the Thanksgiving holiday entwines three of life’s greatest rewards: family, home, and sharing food and wine. I feel especially thankful because for me, all of that coalesces around the Napa Valley, my home for the last ten years, and America’s grand cru on the global wine stage. Which brings me to my beef:
In light of Napa’s red, white and true-ness, when it comes to wines for Thanksgiving dinner Americans—not just us locals–think Napa, right?
My quick perusal of the digital dialog on this topic turned up a resounding “Heck, no,” for an answer. The reality is that across the spectrum of tweets, hashtags, pins and posts, you’ll find a slew of American wine voices opining on great wines to invite to Thanksgiving dinner, but very few of them giving Napa the nod. I have to give props to bettycrocker.com, and specifically contributor (and James Beard Award winner) Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, who in 2013 bucked the unofficial wine gurus’ turkey wine taboo against California Chardonnay and recommended the butterball of turkey tipples, Rombauer. But otherwise, save for a few shout-outs to worthy bubblies from the big Napa sparkling wine houses (great picks to be sure), my ‘hood rarely gets tapped when pros are talking turkey wine.
Oddly, most every major high-acid wine style on the planet, with a heavy emphasis on imported wines (for our American holiday, cringe) figures into the chorus widely sung by pros across the somm-journalist-retailer-blogo-sphere, and it goes something like this:
“…spicy dry roses, racy Rieslings, zingy Sauvignon Blancs, oak-eradicated Chardonnays, juicy-crisp Chenin Blancs, mineral-y Gruner-Veltliners, —put your drinks up!”…
I can just hear Pink and Lady Gaga wailing on that one. Add in the old world classic reds from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and Rioja, plus some fun regional ditties from their home countries as budget options, and of course smoky-subtle Pinots–though there seems to be a penchant of late among pros to poo-pooh Pinot for Thanksgiving dinner even though it’s a real winner. (Usually this sort of thing is a sign that a wine is “too popular” or at least too obvious for geeky pros to feel like they’re adding value and standing out from the crowd with their recommendations. Remember Beaujolais Nouveau? And Zin?)
Anyway there you have it: America’s Thanksgiving table laid with nearly every great wine other than her native sons from Napa Valley. As the Boy Wonder say, “Holy cranberries, Batman, we’re in a jam!
I say “oddly” about all of this because, with the exception of true budget bottlings and some of the non-French grapes, we’ve got nearly all of those pet picks in Napa, at a world-class quality level.
To be clear, while Napa can’t claim cool-climate, high acid wine styles, we do have the cool nights and foggy mornings during our growing season that make for wines with a wonderful acid balance for pairing well with the cornucopia of flavors in the typical Thanksgiving spread. In fact, I caution against going too far towards uber-acidity in your Thanksgiving wine picks, because the inherent sweetness in so many classic Thanksgiving dishes can clobber the fruit expression in a high-acid wine, leaving it tasting unpleasantly sour and simple–not at all what you’re looking for at Thanksgiving dinner.
Or any other meal for that matter: if you’ve ever poured a typical Italian Pinot Grigio with your take-out teriyaki chicken, you already have experienced what happens when you ignore the underlying pairing principle here, which bears stating very plainly because it applies to every food and wine match:
The wine must be at least as sweet as the dish. It’s that simple.
Here’s the big deal with this principle: don’t get stuck on “sweet” meaning sugary. Many of the sweet-tasting Thanksgiving dishes are naturally so, without added sugar, in the same way that peak-season corn on the cob and my heirloom cherry tomatoes were last summer. On the Thanksgiving table, roasted winter squashes, caramelized onions, fruited stuffings, and of course yams (even without a lacquer of brown sugar and marshmallows) and cranberry sauce all have either natural or sugary sweetness, or both.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why Napa Valley wines hit the sweet spot for pairing with Thanksgiving fare: it’s the fruit. Quite simply, while most of Napa’s anchor whites and reds are not sweet, they do have a lush fruit ripeness that mimics sweetness on the palate, which allows them to play much nicer with many of the starchy-sweet, caramelized, and even sugary dishes and sauces we love to eat at Thanksgiving. So here’s my list of the best Napa versions of the go-to pro picks for Thanksgiving, all of which will match the traditional turkey and trimmings lineup to perfection:
Dry rose – When I read one New York somm’s recommendation of Provencal rose with cranberry sauce I shuddered—yes, roses from Provence classically exhibit a cranberry note, but the high amount of sugar in a Thanksgiving cranberry sauce will zap the wine’s subtle fruit and savory character, leaving it tasting sour and flat. My Napa rose favorites all sport a much riper red berry flavor that stands up to cranberry sauce, as well as plenty of red wine-like spiciness to complement the turkey, gravy and everything else. Look for the roses of Pinot Noir from Etude, Saintsbury and Robert Sinskey.
Riesling – This grape’s food versatility is frankly uncanny. Case in point: one of the most extraordinary dinners I have ever attended featured a Riesling-only menu that ranged from crab salad to wild boar and every match was a jaw-dropper. Given the huge array of flavors on the typical Thanksgiving table, there’s no better time to put Riesling to the test. In terms of quality, my favorites from Napa easily stand with the world’s best classic Rieslings from Germany, Austria and Alsace: Smith-Madrone, Trefethen and Stony Hill.
Sauvignon Blanc – Most classic New Zealand and French (think Sancerre) Sauvignon Blancs are like a citrus squeeze for your food: perfect for lots of things like salads, Mexican, shellfish, sushi and beyond. But for Thanksgiving dinner you need riper fruit, and that’s where Napa steals the show, particularly with fume styles that tend to have a splash of the Semillon grape, as well as some barrel or lees contact. St. Supery’s Virtu (heavy on the Semillon), Grgich Hills Fume Blanc, Silverado Vineyards Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc Reserve, and Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc, are all awesome for Thanksgiving. They are also some of my favorite Napa Valley wines, period.
Chardonnay – Although it’s America’s favorite white grape, Chardonnay doesn’t even make the cut on some pros’ Thanksgiving wine lists. Those who do recommend Chardonnay tend to recommend Chablis, Bourgogne Blanc and other non-oaky styles, with the idea that they are a clean and neutral counterpoint to the complicated flavor palette of the Thanksgiving table. Even following this theory, Napa Chardonnays are some of your best bets because their fruit ripeness will ensure they don’t get clobbered by all the rich food flavors. The subtle and sophisticated Chardonnays from Frog’s Leap, Hyde de Villaine, Antica Napa Valley and Stony Hill will all deliver deliciously on this profile. Having said that, if your menu features the heady flavors of winter squashes roasted or in a bisque, buttery or nutty flavors (think green beans amandine or a hazelnut stuffing), a more opulent barrel fermented Chardonnay style is what I’d reach for, and I think most pros would agree Napa makes some of the best. These recently-tasted picks are unbelievably yummy: Grgich Hills Estate, Marketta, Beringer Private Reserve, and Frank Family Vineyards Reserve.
I didn’t see a single pro recommendation for Napa Valley Cab–are you kidding me? Did I miss something? Please share any you found with me via the comment box below, or Twitter or Facebook. Our Thanksgiving table will absolutely have a Napa Valley Cabernet with a bit of bottle age because we love how the subtle tertiary qualities of bottle age–dusty/leafy, leathery and smoky notes–complement our decidedly earthy Thanksgiving spread (sage-y stuffing, roast Brussels sprouts, truffled mashed potatoes). And pros: if you recommended Bordeaux (cedar and blackberry), Tuscany (red fruits and savory spice) or Rioja (plums and leather) reds as Thanksgiving picks, it’s time to re-visit Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Because we’ve got all of that, too. Here’s to America’s top terroir.