If you want to impress your friends and family this Thanksgiving, show up with one of these terrific -- and cheap -- wines.
FRESH OR FROZEN, to stuff or not to stuff -- it seems like those were the only turkey decisions to be made 10 years ago. Today it's not so easy. Self-basting or free range? Brined or dry-rubbed? Roasted, deep-fried or bag-cooked? And now there are so-called heritage turkeys, which allow you to choose your pedigree. Will that be Jersey Buff, White Holland or Narragansett?
You're on your own with the turkey, we're afraid, and stuffing is no less complicated (dried apricots? chorizo?). Worse, buying 146 different gourmet ingredients will likely cost far more than going to a restaurant. The good news, though, is that we can help you select outstanding wines to go with your holiday meal -- and save you some money in the process.
We've asked two experts on wine-and-food pairings to recommend a $15 turkey-and-stuffing wine, a $10 party wine to serve throughout the day and a $20 pie-friendly dessert wine. And we asked them each to point out a wine that's more popular than it should be around the holidays -- so you can snicker snobbishly at friends or relatives who show up bearing one of these.
$15 Turkey-and-Stuffing Wine
"The turkey is meaningless," says Evan Springarn, a New York wine consultant and co-author of The Ultimate Wine Lovers Guide 2005. The meat itself, explains Springarn, goes with just about any wine. "It's the side dishes with sweetness that you have to think about," he says. Springarn recommends a Riesling: the 2003 Franz Kunstler Kabinett Reichestal.
Rieslings are white wines known for intense fruit flavor, crispness, lower alcohol and no oak flavor. Many of the best ones come from Germany, although Riesling is also made in the United States and Australia. Enthusiasts say Riesling has long been underappreciated in America, since it's thought of as being too sweet. But there are several different varieties of Riesling, of which Kabinetts, like the above Kunstler, are the driest -- dry being wine parlance for the opposite of sweet. (In order from driest to sweetest the Riesling varieties go Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beernauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein.) Springarn describes his Kunstler pick as a succulent blend of honey and fruit, and says it sells for around $13 to $16.
Philip Kotik manages one of Manhattan's most unique wine boutiques: Pet Wines, known for its carefully chosen selection of food-friendly bottles, and for the parade of retrievers, pinchers and schnauzers that pass through on their way to the dog kennel that shares the building. He recommends a red wine for turkey-and-stuffing meals: the 2002 Roches Neuves Saumur Champigny, which is a Cabernet Franc.
The Cabernet Franc grape is one of the genetic parents of the Cabernet Sauvignon. (Sauvignon Blanc is the other.) Cab Franc grapes have thinner skin than Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and ripen earlier, with lower acidity. They produce wines that generally have less tannin and more herbal and vegetative qualities than Cabernet Sauvignons. The Roches Neuves "is an all-around good food wine," says Kotik. "Its herbal characteristics go particularly well with root vegetables." A bottle fetches about $13.
$10 Party Wine
What about an inexpensive wine you can serve to big groups before dinner? "If you can go to $12, I've got something great and kinky," said Springarn. We were intrigued, and maybe a bit frightened. He told us about Eric Bordelet's Sydre Doux, a medium-sweet cider that's "elegant and autumnal" with "sparkles, which clean the mouth." Sydre Doux has less alcohol than wine -- only about 5% -- so it won't leave guests seeing double by dinnertime.
Kotik chose the Evans & Tate 2002 Gnangara Cabernet Sauvignon. He describes the taste as one of "beautiful, bright fruit," and says that this Australian Cabernet Sauvignon "isn't over-oaked the way Californian ones often are." A bottle costs around $9, but be careful not to confuse the Gnangara with Evans & Tate's Margaret River or Redbrook Cabernet Sauvignons, which cost about $25 and $40, respectively.
$20 Pie-Friendly Dessert Wine
Both of our pros picked Madeiras. Named for the Portuguese islands where it's made, Madeira is a fortified wine. That means that, like Port wines, it's made by introducing high-alcohol grape spirits partway through the fermentation process, which halts the further transformation of sugar into alcohol. The result is a wine that's very sweet, with plenty of alcohol.
Madeiras are made under peculiar conditions. They spend months in high heat to duplicate the effects of the long sea voyages that produced the first Madeiras. And they're exposed to oxygen during the process. That makes them fairly indestructible -- opened bottles of Madeira can keep for months. Properly sealed ones can keep for more than a century.
Nut and caramel flavors make Madeira an excellent partner with pumpkin, pecan and apple pies. Springarn says they're his favorite after-dinner drink, because they're "juicier than port and don't lay around on the palette," and adds that they make "amazing cheese partners." He likes the Broadbent Five-Year Madeira, which costs about $17 a bottle. Kotik says that he likes the fact that Madeiras, while sweet, "maintain some acidity, so they're not as cloying as some Sauternes can be." He recommends the Blandy's Five-Year. A 500 ml bottle sells for $19. (Standard wine bottles are 750 ml.)
More Popular Than They Should Be
Which are the overhyped stinkers? "I hate to sound like a wine snob, but I've got to say Merlot," says Springarn. "People walk into stores like they're on auto-pilot, and ask for a $20 Merlot." He says that's not a good match with the meal: "They're usually too oaky and too dry."
Kotik wasn't subtle about his pick. He calls Beaujolais Nouveau a "huge hoax perpetrated by the French on Americans." Beaujolais, named for the region in France where it's made, is a red wine that's often fresh and tangy and is seldom aged past a few years. But Beaujolais Nouveau takes this to the extreme; a third of the region's grapes each year are rushed from vine to bottle to store shelves in a matter of weeks. Kotik says the process is all about "immediate cash flow," and produces something "between grape juice and wine."
We'll leave you with one final piece of advice. Wine experts agree that there are some foods that absolutely refuse to go well with any wine. Among them are asparagus, artichokes and hot chili peppers. Leave those foods off the table and use any or all of the above wines for festive sipping that won't harvest too much of your cash.