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Nov 8, 2005
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Wine With . . . Roast Turkey

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

We've tried all sorts of wines with roast turkey over the years--red, pink and white, off-dry to bone dry, wines that are overtly fruit forward and those that seem subtly earthy, and just about everything in between.  But we've never actually compared the different styles and varietals side by side--at least until now.  

With the holiday season around the corner, we decided to systematically study what pairs best with this American favorite--and why.  So a couple of weeks ago we brined a turkey, filled it with bread stuffing enhanced with mushrooms and a hefty dose of fresh herbs, and roasted it until golden brown.  Then we invited some friends over for dinner, opened sixteen different wines, and got down to business.

Perhaps because turkey, particularly the white meat, tastes rich but restrained, we found that all of the wines we tried fared okay with it.  A full-bodied Washington State Syrah didn't really overwhelm it.  At the same time, a light, fruity Beaujolais managed to hold its own.  Though neither wine seemed an inspired choice, both certainly proved satisfactory.  Much the same was true of a Tuscan Sangiovese, a Gigondas from the southern Rhône, and a Gewurztraminer from Alsace.  An Oregon Pinot Gris, California Viognier, and Australian Grenache/ Syrah/ Mourvedre blend showed even better.  Our first conclusion, then, was that turkey and stuffing is a remarkably versatile dish.  We served our bird with sautéed brussel sprouts and a hash of sweet and gold potatoes--not quite the full Thanksgiving experience (no cranberries), but close--and no wine really disappointed anyone.

Some wines, though, truly excelled, and they shared a couple of stylistic traits.  First, all were medium-bodied, so neither too subtle nor too forceful.  Second, all showed some secondary characteristics--leather, earth, spice or minerality.  That combination of primary fruit and underlying non-fruit notes seemed to be what made them go so well with everything on the plate--white and dark meat, crispy skin, the stuffing, and of course the side dishes.  You might think that a meal featuring such a mélange of different flavors would call for a simple rather than a complex wine.  We found, though, just the opposite to be true. 

 

Selection

Approx. Price

 

Chehalem,
Willamette Valley
(Oregon)
"Three Vineyards"
Pinot Noir
2003
 

  $27

With its restrained so not sticky-sweet fruit, this young Pinot brought elegance to the meal.  A note of spice beneath the fruit made it go well with both white and dark meat, and it was exceptionally good with the stuffing.

 

Hardy's
South Australia
(Australia)
Sparkling Shiraz
NV

(Imported by International Cellars/ Pacific Wine Partners)

 

 

 $13

We had a clear division of enthusiasm over this Aussie fizz.  Since three of us were extremely enthusiastic, we've decided to recommend it, while noting that one of us demurred.  In addition to bubbles, it has a firm structure and deep, red-wine flavor, with an earthy undertone.  Those of us who loved it used adjectives such as "fun," "festive," and "fantastic."  The skeptical sipper among us muttered something about it seeming "weird."

 

Marqués de Caceres
(Spain)
Rioja Reserva
1996

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)

 

 

 

 

 $22

This Spanish dazzler was probably the top pick for all of us.  On its own it seemed a tad oak-heavy, but with the food it was transformed into a seamless match that carried through all the disparate dishes.  Endowed with just the right amount of complex leather and earthy undertones, it also displayed an herbal note that--as one of our guests pointed out--really connected with the sage in the stuffing.

 

Ravenswood,
Dry Creek Valley
(California)
"Teldeschi Vyd."
Zinfandel
2003

 

 

 

 

  $32

Since we like the notion of serving America's signature varietal with the All-American meal, we always have had a soft spot for Zinfandel on Thanksgiving.  This particular offering is chock-full of ripe berry flavors yet is beautifully balanced, so unlike many Zins, doesn't seem heady or hot.  It didn't overshadow the food.  On the contrary, it enhanced just about everything on the plate.

 

Saintsbury
Carneros
(California)
Chardonnay
2004
 

 

  $21

"Most people I know drink white wine with turkey, but I'm beginning to think that might be a mistake," concluded one of our guests.  (He was particularly enamored of the Pinot and the Rioja.)  But even he had to concede that the luscious texture of this rich Chardonnay, with its forthright vanilla and autumn fruit flavors, made for a terrific match.