In my experience the majority of people tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to pairing wine with their Thanksgiving dinner. The choices tend to be either a a very light, young wine or something a bit darker and more mysterious. Surprisingly the lighter choice is often Beaujolais Nouveau, while the more substantial partner for turkey is frequently American red Zinfandel. In restaurants and in wine shops around the country, these two wines fly off the shelves in November. Although both pairings work, in my humble opinion there is a better choice. That choice would be Pinot Noir.
Beaujolais Nouveau is released for sale on the third Thursday in November. Although it can be shipped prior to that date, it cannot be sold until 12:01am on that third Thursday. This unusually early release date for a wine has been exploited to its full potential, with release parties scheduled around the globe each year. The date's proximity to Thanksgiving combined with the wine's fruity, easy-drinking nature and relatively low price point, is probably a large part of why it has become a standard Thanksgiving wine. It is fermented from 100% Gamay grapes from the Beaujolais region of France. It's early release date is due to it's fermentation process known as carbonic maceration. The grapes are placed in stainless steel tanks and covered with a layer of carbon dioxide and allowed to ferment naturally. As fermentation occurs, the grapes swell and burst their skins, releasing their juice. The wine that is produced from this style of fermentation is light and fruity, with low tannins and a faint hint of nail polish. It is a frivolous wine, meant to be consumed within a year and suitable for friendship, laughter, and easy drinking.
The next obvious choice for turkey day is red Zinfandel. I myself drank it for a number of years and sold it to many happy customers for their holiday celebration. The Zinfandel grape, known in Italy as Primitivo, has been documented in the United States as early as 1834. Originally prized for it's ability to produce easily and in quantity, in the last few decades it has developed into a major varietal in the California wine scene. Although it was more commonly known for producing White Zinfandel, the last twenty years has seen a major rise in the production of quality red Zinfandel wines, with higher levels of acidity, firm tannins and rich, earthy, jammy flavors. These flavors actually bring to mind the famous pairing of turkey and cranberry sauce, with some deep herbal notes that could echo those found in the stuffing. It's a combination that is popular because it works. Some notable producers of red Zinfandel include Ridge, Turley, Elyse, and Seghesio. The very best Zinfandels have a restrained, elegant style and intense flavors, rather like a trained military combat assassin in a designer tuxedo at a fancy dress ball. Just a few weeks ago we opened a bottle of 2003 Aida Zinfandel. It was a major splurge and so amazingly delicious that we actually postponed dinner so that we could fully savor a glass before pairing it with food. It had that crushed velvet mouth-feel that I tend to associate with Vineyard 29. Although still very young, it was very approachable in the glass with dark fruit, brambles, marjoram, licorice and a hint of dark chocolate. In short, it was a beautiful representation of what this grape can be when it reaches its full potential.
Of course, after a glowing review like that, how could I possible suggest something else? I do love my red Zin., it's just that I prefer something a bit leaner and more elegant with my bird. Hence my choice of Pinot Noir. The very best ones are full of lush berry flavors, dusty low notes, firm yet soft tannins and nervy acidity. They can be savored on their own or bring out the natural meaty essence of the turkey and the green, herbal notes of the vegetables without stealing the show completely. California makes some beauties, these are big intense Pinots that are impressive young and also develop and mature as gracefully as Paul Newman or Clint Eastwood. Some of our favorite American Pinot Noirs are produced by Papapietro Perry, Hartford, Ken Wright, and Williams Selyem.