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You really can't go wrong

There are great wines for every Thanksgiving dinner, potlucks included. Match the mood, and guests will forgive the driest of turkeys.

November 16, 2005|Patrick Comiskey | Special to The Times

MOST Thanksgivings are grand affairs, if measured solely by the scale, the effort and the sheer volume of food set upon the table. Some celebrations are positively majestic, aglow with candles, warmed by crackling fires, with heirloom china and the fancy crystal -- so that by the end of the evening it feels as if no stop has been left unpulled.

Of course they're not all like that. Nearly every one of us, at one time or another, has been a Thanksgiving orphan, miles from our families on a day when no amount of squinting or complaining will make the apartment cozier, where the glow of the oven pilot is a poor stand-in for the glow of a hearth. Even so, we gather (there's comfort in numbers) and do what we can to pull off a feast. Happily, for every shortcoming in culinary skill there is usually a surfeit of effort and heart.

Each version of the traditional dinner demands a wine, or two or three, in sync with the mood of the feast. Depending on the feeling, they might be unusual finds from emerging regions (at bargain prices), or big guns from a famous chateaux. But the idea remains the same: to complete the meal, to fill out the feeling of celebration.

Orphans' potluck

Impromptu meals, potluck or otherwise, benefit greatly from wines that are versatile, forward and broad in sweep. It never hurts to have them flow freely, so moderate pricing is another attractive feature.

Begin with Beaujolais, perhaps the happiest red wine France produces, with a bottling from one of the crus such as Morgon. Beaujolais is one of the best Thanksgiving bargain wines for its delicious red berry fruit, light tannin and mild autumnal spiciness -- with plenty of stuffing, if you will, to stand up to the meal.

Or pick up a young Spanish wine from the Toro -- these are every bit as forward as Beaujolais but possess a little more richness and body to go with their jammy fruit. Plenty of Spanish reds are undervalued, especially if they have not been submitted to many months of aging.

And for a wine with a bit more grip, try a peppery Piemonte Dolcetto, whose dark clove spice scents and smoky meaty flavors will always have a place at the table, even if that table is a coffee table, or your lap.

Noble effort

It's a fact that Thanksgiving, however well-meant, is a leading cause of hazardous waste in the U.S., with burnt offerings turning up on the menu alongside respectable dishes. The cause? A host or hostess who can't cook. This scenario requires an intervention, distracting the cook in question with a well-choreographed carrot-and-stick operation (useful props: a cute grandchild, a cheese log) while someone rescues the turkey.

When you can't undo what's done, a particularly pleasing wine can at least soften the blow. It's time for a happy puppy wine -- one so smooth, forward, unchallenging and delicious, it will make anyone smile. By definition a happy puppy wine is all wiggles and warm tongue; it has no edges, no angles, not much complexity or nuance. It's obvious, and proud of it -- rich, smooth and uncomplicated, with lots of sweet fruit. Many American Chardonnays fall comfortably into this category, as do many Australian Shirazes; a good old-fashioned, broad-shouldered American Zinfandel makes nearly everything taste better, even an accidental case of turkey jerky.

Epicurean event

Maybe during one of your orphan absences you have the good fortune to hook up with some of your more adventurous foodie friends, the sort that can put the haute into any cuisine, even one as traditional as Thanksgiving. Such meals can be as thrilling as they are daunting: Who knew there were different breeds of turkey, so many unpronounceable squashes, or that something such as a pan sauce (augmented with a little foie gras) could render you speechless?

Fortunately, every self-respecting foodie is as adventurous with wine as he is with food. So if you ever wanted to bring something out of the ordinary, to feel that special nebbishy thrill of being a wine geek, this is the time. Any knowledgeable retailer will happily hold your hand through this scenario, but here are some suggestions.

Uncork a spicy Weissburgunder, and make sure you point out that the wine may be weiss, but it's not from Burgundy -- it's actually a Pinot Blanc from Austria. This is a grape that possesses a broadness of flavor (think fall apples and quince) with a nervy minerality that is thoroughly Austrian.

Or bring on a Malbec from a once-neglected ancient vineyard in Argentina's Andean foothills. Aromatically, old-vine Malbec is like opening a cigar-box with allspice, clove and blueberries inside, and it has a finely grained tannin that will cut into the meal's richness.

To really raise some eyebrows, trot out a sherry, preferably an amontillado or an oloroso. These sherries aren't sweet -- in fact they're bone dry, cleaning the palate for that next unctuous bite of celeriac gratin, or for that matter, sweet potato pie.

Intimate gathering

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