It's that time of year again: to ruminate on wines and turkeys. From the perspective of undoubtedly many a wine professional – spending Thanksgivings at tables with as many as a dozen different bottles of wine at a time (the most ever for me: some five dozen bottles shared with Greg and Gary Butch’s families at their restaurant, Elizabeth on 37th in Savannah... thanks, boys!) – I think I can do this.
But first, about our quarry:
• In kindergarten we learn that turkey is a native American bird that Pilgrims hunted with oft-times depicted (and oft-times erratic), flaired blunderbusses (precursors to the shotgun – imagine the damage Dick Cheney could do with that). As new parents joyfully discover to this day, turkeys are also kids’ favorite things to draw (just trace spread fingers, add feet, and color to your heart’s content).
• A large percentage of 16th century Europeans, when first presented with the North American turkey, thought it of eastern origin (or else, they thought America was part of Asia). Thus the French called it coq d’Inde (the “cock of India”); which, maddeningly enough, they do to this day. Good reason, I suppose, to boycott French wine every Thanksgiving (not...).
• Even before the first Jamestown Thanksgiving (circa 1620), the turkey was a favorite of European nobility. In 1549, for instance, Catherine de’ Medici served 66 of them in one feast. Considering her historical influence on French cuisine, it’s a wonder that a later monarch didn’t say les laisser manger coq d’Inde.
So considering the longstanding Italian and French connection, I suppose that wine lovers have been pondering the question for some time: what wine with turkey? A few years ago some of our hipper friends were tooling around with deep fried Cajun recipes (d’Inde frite, as Paul Prudhomme maddeningly calls it), involving 12 gallon pots (more like industrial drums) filled with sizzling lard or something more polyunsaturated. For safety reasons I think you should consult The Prudhomme Family Cookbook before proceeding further.
But what wine with a ten to twenty pound fryer? Well, if you’re a Prudhomme you might say that it doesn’t matter as long as it’s served in a wide mouthed mason jar (when K-Paul’s in New Orleans first opened house wines were served like that). But if you happen to live in the swampy Southeast, or a place perpetually sunny like Texas, Southern California or Hawai`i, I suggest correctly stemmed wine glasses filled with something white, cool and refreshingly fruity like a riesling from Germany; or perhaps better yet, an American style riesling like that of Washington's Pacific Rim and Oregon's Chehalem. Crispy fried skins practically scream for crispy white wines; and besides, cooking out in the open air (deep frying turkey under cover is an invitation to local fire departments) can sometimes work you up a sweat, so no-fuss, light and easy rieslings make all the sense in the world.
Riesling with deep fried turkey may be a gau-ron-tee (in the words of Justin Wilson), but what wine with turkey stuffed with the traditional croutons, sage and other herbs? After all these years (and I hate to break this to my hipper friends), I have to say that the best match for saged bread stuffed turkey is the traditional, super-oaked, big, bouncy California chardonnay.
So you “hate” chardonnay? Get over it. It doesn’t have to be uncool. Neyers Vineyards, for instance, makes classically balanced, creamy oaked chardonnays that are just as cool as any wine. I’m also partial to the California chardonnays by La Follette, Au Bon Climat (by the incroyable Jim Clendenen), DuNah, Porter-Bass, Dutton-Goldfield, Ramey, Costa de Oro, and Keller. It might be easier to find brands like Patz & Hall, Mer Soleil, or Babcock, but they have the guts to do the trick. From Oregon, I go for Ken Wright's Chardonnays; from Washington, Woodward Canyon's. Dudes, these chards abide: all lovingly barrel fermented the way it's supposed to be done (if you respect the original Burgundian methodology), giving the richly textured (and yes, smoky-charred) qualities that embellish the taste of herbs and roasted flavors in the skin and natural gravy of traditional turkeys. And if the turkey is roasted in a charcoal grill or hibachi, even more so a match for good ol' smoke-of-oak American chardonnay.
Have you heard of Marcelle Bienvenu’s paen to South Louisiana cooking, Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux? Check out her oyster-rice dressing, complete with chicken livers and gizzards. Stuff your turkey in similar fashion, sprinkle some chili flakes over the skin. Start at 425 F. at midnight, take it down to 300 F. and let it crisp up all night long; rest it in the morning, and dish it out at noon.
The perfect vinous foil for the Bienvenu turkey? Here, I go for something a little lighter, but no less flavorful, than a chardonnay: pinot gris, bay-bee (in the fall we all start talking like Dick Vitale). I’m talking about lush, creamy textured styles of pinot gris with just enough acidity to titillate the taste of an oyster stuffing: those of California’s Babcock, Handley and J immediately come to mind; and from Oregon, those of WillaKenzie, Soleña, Cristom and King Estate (including King's lower priced Acrobat pinot gris) absolutely rule. What the hey, you can do almost as good with pinot grigio from Italy (if it’s by Zenato, Tiefenbrunner, Kris, Lageder or Felluga); or from Alsace, France (if you’ve also forgiven the French, the Pinot Gris bottlings of Ostertag, Deiss, Weinbach or Zind-Humbrecht).
Then there is any one of the even more richly stuffed styles of turkeys: like cornbread with chile peppers (or ham hocks or collards), wild rice with wild mushrooms (or truffles, for the congenitally spendthrift), or with assertive breads like sourdough and brioche (mixed with lardons, celery, combinations of chervil, sorrel, tarragon, etc.). This is where red wines become the higher percentage match, although I say this with the eternal caveat: turkey can be a dry bird, and so red wine choices probably need to be lighter in (potentially) palate drying tannin. This means that you’re better off with gentle, soft tannin reds like Beaujolais from France (look for grand cru bottlings, like those of Morgon, Chiroubles or Moulin-à-Vent) or anything made from pinot noir, as opposed to more palate-jarring reds like those made from the cabernet sauvignon or merlot grapes.
California zinfandel and syrah (a.k.a. shiraz) can be robust with tannin, but I say they have the advantage over cabernets and merlots with richly stuffed turkeys because of their sweet toned, often jammy fruitiness (particularly good when you mix in the inevitable cranberry relish). For a current list of top zins, see Not your daddy's Zin; for the best and latest syrahs, see The state of Syrah.
But pinot noir remains the easiest yet most elegant match. Which pinots am I enjoying these days? From California: first and foremost, La Follette's stable of exotically spiced, cool climate Sonoma Coast pinots top on my list; followed by Kathy Joseph’s irresistible Fiddleheads (she makes great ones sourced from both Oregon and Santa Barbara), Au Bon Climat, Failla, Hitching Post, Costa de Oro, Pey-Marin, Alma Rosa, Badge, d'Alfonso-Curran, Belle Glos, Melville, W.H. Smith, Patz & Hall, Flowers, Etude, Babcock, Pessagno, Campion, Lane Tanner, Papapietro-Perry, MacPhail, Small Vines, Porter-Bass, and Merry Edwards... so many great pinots, so little time!
From Oregon, my current favorite pinot noirs are those made by Penner-Ash and Seven Springs, although I’ve always liked Rex Hill, Foris, Cooper Mountain and King Estate for value and accessibility; Ken Wright, Soter or Brick House for sheer purity of pinot-ness; and Cristom, Maysara, Bergström, Beaux Frères, and Chehalem for pure, unadulturated pinot power (in the refined, wild berryish Oregonian vein, of course).
Wine shoppers, start your engines – and enjoy the holidays!