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Thanksgiving Wines From the Aisles

November 19, 2000|ANDY BADEKER | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The thing is, it's the day before Thanksgiving and you're in the grocery store, for probably the third time, scooping up that forgotten bag of cranberries or an errant yam. You don't have time for a trip to your neighborhood wine specialist.

With that situation in mind, we swept through the wine aisles at three supermarkets to see what potentially turkey-friendly wines they had to offer. The original idea was to set the limit at $15 a bottle, but that opened up way too much territory. A $10 limit still included more promising wines than we could hope to sort out. The days of supermarket wine racks holding only a dusty bottle of Hearty Burgundy and some Christian Brothers Sherry are long gone.

We started with 21 bottles, red and white, and tasted them blind, judging them on basic soundness and appeal. The 10 wines that earned at least four "yes" votes from our six tasters went on to be tasted with white- and dark-meat turkey the next day. Wines often suggested for the Thanksgiving table--a Beaujolais and several Sauvignon Blancs and Chenin Blancs--failed to make the cut.

Tasted without benefit of gravy or dressing, turkey turns out to be a difficult meat to match. Many of the wines sampled, though fine on their own, developed a metallic flavor when tasted with the bird.

Conventional Turkey Day wisdom says that tannic wines--whites with a lot of oak flavor and very dry, age-worthy reds--should be the worst offenders. And indeed tasters had a better time with softer, fruitier bottlings: an Australian Merlot and a California Pinot Noir among the reds, a California Gewurztraminer and a fruity California Chardonnay among whites. Individual tasters' favorites ranged from a German Gewurztraminer to a California Zinfandel.

All of this suggests two options for Thanksgiving wine buying.

Option 1: If you already have a couple of favorite dinner-party wines, buy what you like; the Thanksgiving table has enough assertive, even combative, side dishes, from cranberry sauce to Brussels sprouts, that any attempt at finding a perfect all-around match probably is doomed.

Option 2: Let the selections here guide you, without worrying too much if the grape type is unfamiliar. Though Gewurztraminer may strike some people in this Chardo-centric world as too floral and sweet, five of the tasters liked it best of all in this situation.

Tasters also sampled two under-$10, non-vintage brut sparklers--Rotari from Italy and Freixenet Cordon Negro from Spain--and a sparkling English hard cider. The cider didn't fare too well: 4.2 points. But the fizz, at 5.5 points each, finished as well as most of our still wines. And there's nothing quite as festive as that barely controlled "pop" when the cork comes out.

All wines were tasted blind and ranked on a nine-point scale, with nine being highest. Prices are approximate.

1998 Beringer Gewurztraminer (6.4 points, about $7.50): "Best white with turkey, especially dark meat." "Wakes up the turkey." "Thick, rich residual sugar."

1999 Gallo Sonoma County Chardonnay (6 points, $10): "Very good with dark meat." "Leaner than most; some elegance."

1999 Jacob's Creek Merlot (6 points; $8.50): This wine from Southeastern Australia was praised for "Good fruit; fine with dark meat." "A good match; not too sweet or sharp."

1998 Beringer Pinot Noir "Founder's Estate" (5.8 points, $9): "Bright, light cherry flavor." "Easy to drink." "Pretty good with dark meat."

1998 Beaulieu Vineyard California Coastal Zinfandel (5.7 points, $9): "Spicy." "Tastes dusty, but not bad with turkey." "Quite fruity; jamlike color."

Others that made it to the turkey round:

1999 Chateau Ste. Michelle Johannisberg Riesling (5.3 points, $8.50); 1997 Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir (5 points, $8); 1999 Matua Valley Hawkes Bay Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand) (4.6 points, $10); 1998 Valckenberg Gewurztraminer (Germany) (4.8 points, $10); 1998 Vichon Mediterranean Chardonnay (3.8 points; $7.50).

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