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November 19, 2013

Thanksgiving Options Wide Open


The beauty of the Thanksgiving feast from the perspective of the wine enthusiast is versatility.

The traditional Thanksgiving bird with all the trimmings provides multiple options for pairing with wine. The most obvious and oft repeated, of course, is the match with Beaujolais, the soft red wine of Burgundy made from gamay noir.

This fruit-driven red from France is versatile in its own right, taking on the mixture of savory and sweet at the feasting table without losing a beat. You could stick with the tried and true (good producers include Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin and Georges Duboeuf) and be perfectly happy at the end of the long Thanksgiving day.

Or you could eschew the tradition of drinking French on this distinctly American holiday and look to other possibilities; and they need not be red, for a roasted turkey is equally friendly to certain white wines.

I am fond of presenting an abundance of riches and allowing guests to choose on their own. It wouldn't hurt to place two wine glasses at each setting, for those who would dare to drink red and white at the same time, as I often do.

My preference in red wines for the Thanksgiving feast is inclined toward older, earthier wines or young wines with soft tannins. I try to stay away from young California cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux, unless the wines have aged to the point of mellowness. This pushes me in the direction of pinot noir (domestic rather than French, which tends to be tannic) and Rhone-style blends, particularly those with a fair amount of grenache, which typically lends a bright red-fruit characteristic that I find works well with the sweet and savory offerings at the Thanksgiving table.

A few of my favorite pinot noir producers are Alysian, Dutton Goldfield, Calera, Merry Edwards, The Four Graces, Gary Farrell, Domaine Carneros and MacPhail. All of the aforementioned make small batches of vineyard-specific pinot noir that are sure bets to dazzle even the most discriminating wine lovers. The choices on Rhone-style red blends are more limited, but one of the most consistent over recent years is Eberle Winery's Cotes-du-Robles. The 2009 won a gold medal at the recent Sommelier Challenge International Wine Competition, and it is a wine I regularly stock in my personal cellar.

During the Thanksgiving feast, I generally reach for richer, more full-bodied, complex white wines than I do for everyday consumption. The Thanksgiving table also lends itself to whites that are a bit off dry, so rieslings, which have more residual sugar than most table wines to balance higher-than-usual acidity.

Three domestic rieslings that are sure to please are Dr. Konstantin Frank Reserve riesling from the Finger Lakes region of New York, and Smith-Madrone riesling and Trefethen riesling, both from the Napa Valley. All three are limited production wines that will require some effort to locate, so I recommend doing a search at Wine-Searcher.com, an indispensable resource for finding wines that are not mass produced and in wide distribution.

My go-to Chardonnay these days is Bouchaine, made in the Carneros district of the Napa Valley by pioneering winemaker Mike Richmond. The beauty of the Bouchaine Chardonnay is its impeccable balance, combining rich, ripe flavors with firm structure. This excellent area for Chardonnay also gives us the stellar Acacia Chardonnays.

Of course, these suggestions are merely guidelines and reflect my own personal preferences. Your taste may well be different. And that's the beauty of the Thanksgiving feast. Chances are, if there's a wine you are fond of drinking, it will find a compatible match somewhere on the Thanksgiving table.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:52 PM

November 4, 2013

Wines for the Ages


I was invited on a recent Saturday night to join my friend and colleague Jeremy Parzen for dinner at a wine savvy local restaurant. Jeremy, a native Californian who is fluent in Italian, writes the closely watched Do Bianchi wine blog. The focus, as you might imagine, is on the wines of Italy.

We would be joined on this evening by winemaker Paolo Cantele, one of the young lions of the wine industry in the Puglia region of southern Italy. Everyone would bring some wine to share, as is the custom. And our small group grew as the evening wore on and the wine flowed.

I confess I was a bit nervous about my contribution, apologizing in advance should the wine I chose be over the hill. You may have heard that wine improves with age. That’s not always the case, and even when it is, there comes a time when any wine is completely shot, devoid of flavor and past the point of redemption.

I hoped for the best but feared the worst as we pulled the cork on my bottle of 1971 Argiano Brunello di Montalcino. When this wine was made, the producer was barely known outside the boundaries of Tuscany. The only Brunello producer of world renown was Biondi Santi. And there was serious doubt that many of the rustic wines of the era would improve over time.

As the cork came out intact (at 42 years on, it would not have been a surprise if the cork had crumbled) there was a sigh of relief around the table. The cork was in excellent condition, always a good sign after four decades in the cellar.

The first glass was poured and all around we marveled at the bright color, for red wines tend to lose color and brown around the edges with significant age.  Based upon the visual inspection, the wine appeared to be very much alive.

After a few quick swirls for aeration came the smell test. There were no off aromas. With a bit of air and a little time, it began to exhibit aromas of tart cherry and nuances such as leather and spice. So far so good.

Finally, the taste test. Despite its age, the Brunello had structure and tannic grip, with complex savory elements on the palate and ever more intense fruit as it got more air. I did a little fist pump. The wine was that good.

Not to be outdone, someone produced a bottle of 2001 R. Lopez Heredia “Vina Tondonia” Rioja Reserva; only 12 years old but a wine of legendary longevity. At my favorite wine shop, this is the vintage of Vina Tondonia Reserva that is currently available.

You would think this Rioja would show some signs of age: loss of color, taming of its fruit profile, soft tannins. Instead, the color was brilliant. On the palate the wine was remarkably fresh. The structure was bold and firm.

It took me back to a recent time when I ordered a 1970 Vina Tondonia Reserva from the wine list at another restaurant. It was decanted and brought to the table, and my guests at dinner were convinced it was a “young” wine.

Older wines are not for everyone, and they may not be for you. They evolve over the years and the flavors change. Most wines sold today are consumed within days, if not hours, of purchase. You get a blast of fruit and a blast of alcohol and that’s just fine for most people. Nothing wrong with that.

But if you are at all curious about profound wines for the ages and can’t afford the high price of Bordeaux or Burgundy, you could do worse than explore the possibilities presented by top-notch Brunello di Montalcino and Rioja Reserva.

Then you too might be inclined to add a little fist pump to your wine tasting experience.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 5:03 PM