When it comes to wine, the best way to navigate the Thanksgiving meal’s funhouse of flavors is to find the middle ground. The wines you choose should not only have balance, they should not be too light or too heavy, neither too sweet and fruity nor too dry and tannic. The wines you choose should be nimble, lifted, focused and delineated. Like a good spouse, you want the wines to be supportive of the meal without being smothering.
Wines from all over the world occupy that middle ground comfortably — Spanish Albarinos, South African Sauvignon Blancs, Cru-Beaujolais, Chianti Classico, Australian Grenache, Chilean Carmeneres, Argentine Malbecs — but it seems to me that few wines can match an American meal better than the American classics below, grape varieties that seem to have a natural affinity for the place in which they’re grown. These wines bestow a sense of place with an ease of expression that almost seems iconic. These wines possess a wonderful range while remaining accessible, fruit-forward, crowd-pleasing and delicious. And each can meet the gamut of flavors in a Thanksgiving meal head on.
Finger Lakes Riesling
Some of the finest Rieslings in this country are found in the rural hillsides in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York. A region with a proud and long winemaking history, it has had tremendous success with its Riesling bottlings in the past decade. Their high tones, fine balance and pear-inflected flavors are great accompaniments to a harvest meal.
Producers to seek: Tierce, Anthony Road, Hermann Wiemer, Fox Run, Hazlitt 1852, Sheldrake Point
There is a disheartening sameness to most California Chardonnay — eight wines of 10 seem indistinguishable from one another — not to mention sweet, flabby and slack. But not those from Carneros. The Chardonnays from this cool, wind-swept appellation on the San Francisco Bay possess a fruit spectrum that can only be called “golden”: golden pears, golden apples, sometimes a hint of high-acid pineapple — a satisfying richness leavened by brisk, palate-cleansing acidity.
Producers to seek: Saintsbury, Patz & Hall, Ramey, Etude, Acacia, HdV
Willamette Valley Pinot Gris
In stark contrast to the thin, at times shrill, wimpy Pinot Grigios from Italy and California, Oregon Pinot Gris has a natural amplitude and richness to its texture, to go along with pleasing autumnal flavors of fresh apple, quince and pear. These generous and versatile wines will pair quite naturally with a wide range of dishes, from turkey breast to chestnut stuffing.
Producers to seek: King Estate, Elk Cove, Willakenzie Estate, Benton Lane
Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
One of the coolest Pinot sites in California — indeed, one of the coolest wine regions in the state, the Anderson Valley produces Pinots with a distinct flavor profile that falls squarely in the red cherries-in-the-sun fruit spectrum, while the daily fog incursions into this tiny coastal valley provide cool leafy firmness of tone to nearly every wine, with just the sort of grip to sic on the Thanksgiving repast.
Producers to seek: Navarro, Handley, Breggo, Londer, La Crema, Drew
Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel
Zinfandel has thrived in California for 150 years; it’s the closest thing we have to a native grape variety. It has also been grown all over the state, but the place with the oldest vines is in the Dry Creek Valley, which seems to strike the perfect balance between warm day temperatures and cool nights, yielding wines of tremendous depth and purity of expression that walks the middle path with aplomb.
Producers to seek: Dashe, Roshambo, Ridge, Bella, Preston, Quivira
Columbia Valley Merlot
For those of you who, because of a certain wine-themed movie, have abandoned this variety, you owe it to yourself to take another look. Merlot may lack the brawn of Cabernet Sauvignon, but it is an infinitely brighter, suppler wine than Cabernet — making it extremely versatile on the middle path. Without question, the best Merlots in the country come from the Columbia Valley in Washington State. The climate there seems tailor-made for the variety, with warm long days and cool autumn temperatures, which allow the fruit to reach an ideal maturity. These are balanced, earthy, succulent wines with a vivid core of black cherry and plum, firm, focused.
Producers to seek: Columbia Crest, L’Ecole No. 41, Tamarack, Nelms Road, Chateau Ste. Michelle
Central Coast Syrah
Even though critics and consumers have a hard time pinning down just what Syrah is supposed to be in California, there’s no question that the Central Coast appellations can cover the middle ground with ease. If you like your wines with forward fruit and a little bit of oomph, consider the wines from the warmer Paso Robles region. If you like a little wind-swept smokiness, uncork a cool-climate Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills or the Santa Maria Valley. If you want these aspects to meet in the middle, consider the extraordinary feral and dark wines of the Santa Ynez Valley.
Producers to seek: Tablas Creek, Herman Story, Saxum, Melville, Stolpman, Beckmen, Qupe, Holus Bolus, Samsara, Paige 23
Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.