Once you've acquired a taste for wine, the hard part is over. After that, learning about wine becomes a pleasurable lifelong pursuit, to be taken at whatever pace you choose. We discovered much of what we know about wine by sipping it by the glass, by asking questions in wine stores, by visiting vineyards, and by sitting down to many dinners where the hosts, understandably proud of their selections, have been glad to share their knowledge.
Pairing wines to a rich, complicated supper is not as difficult as it may seem. In fact, choosing Thanksgiving wines can be among the most enjoyable and more relaxing stages in planning the dinner. At a minimum, you want to provide refreshment -- water and wines -- that flatters the meal's flavors. In many cases, a good-quality, medium-bodied red wine could carry the whole event. Or think of the meal as a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end: Choose one wine that suits the culinary and social mood of each chapter. If you're feeling more ambitious, match a pair of wines, a white and a red, for example, to each course.
Welcoming guests and relatives with flutes of crisp, sparkling white wine is always festive, whether your hors d'oeuvres are salted nuts or a lavish selection, and if you choose well, nobody would complain if this wine was offered throughout the meal. Although a soup or shellfish starter might be its ideal partner, the wine's bubbly assertiveness allows it to hold its own with more robust dishes. Many delicious and affordable fizzy wines are made close to home, using the method of France's Champagne. Most American sparklers, such as Gruet Brut from New Mexico, use a high proportion of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in their blend, lending them the character of the French original.
A traditional Thanksgiving offering of roast turkey and caramelized vegetables, sweet starches and tart relishes, tests the agility of a single wine, and so often it makes sense to offer two or more -- guests can sip from whichever glass suits the forkful at hand.
A red wine made substantially from Pinot Noir grapes is a fine partner for the distinctive taste of the dark meat of the turkey, and the black-cherry-like character of many Pinot Noirs, like the ones from Adelsheim Vineyard, in Oregon's Willamette Valley, evoke the cranberry sauce moving its way around the table. With the broad range of flavors on everyone's plate (say, candied sweet potatoes and buttery stuffing), you may want to consider introducing maturity and complexity in your wines. Try either the sun-baked earthiness you find in an Australian Shiraz or a Spanish Rioja, or a hint of mellow age, such as that found in many wines older than four or five years.
A well-crafted white wine can be a star of the Thanksgiving table, especially if it picks up on the citrus tones that are often present in the meal. Rich, concentrated white wines, such as a Viognier or a Chardonnay, with higher alcohol and a wisp of butterscotch sweetness, can enhance the turkey -- particularly the white meat -- as well as any red can. If the white is elegant and floral enough, it can be the perfect chaser for more herbal dishes, too, such as tarragon green beans.
With very little legwork, you can find wines like these in every price range, so taste several -- with your menu in mind -- before you commit, and buy accordingly, budgeting at least a bottle per guest to ensure there's enough for everyone (especially if you are offering different kinds for them to try). Once the wine is chosen, you can focus your efforts on creating a delicious meal, assured that the vineyards have already done the work of producing wine's miraculous flavors. All that's left, then, is to uncork it.
We like Chateau Meyney (about $25) for its vigorous plum flavors and adaptability to hearty food. Let it breathe a few hours for a mellower impression. We're smitten by Chateau Peyraud (less than $15) and Chateau Les Ormes-de-Pez (about $30).
Ink-red Rioja such as Marques de Riscal's cedary Reserva (less than $20) is a great sip along with roasted meats.
Cotes du Rhone
The notes of blackberry and pepper in Jaboulet's Parallele 45 blend (about $10) are great.We like E. Guigal's Cotes du Rhone (less than $15) and spicier Gigondas (about $25) with the entree.
Try less serious ones with an appetizingly tart edge: We like West Coast Pinots by Adelsheim Vineyard and David Bruce Winery (each about $25); the latter has some leathery elegance.
Frog's Leap (about $25) offers fresh lemony flavors. For vanilla-like, richer tones we chose a reserve Chardonnay from Dr. Konstantin Frank (about $15), from New York's Finger Lakes.
We like the floral, apple-and-pear character of Louis Latour Meursault and its Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet (all about $35), similar Chardonnay-based wines. Jadot, Drouhin, and Faiveley are equivalent brands.
American sparklers have come into their own. Try the grapefruit-tinged Gruet Brut (about $15), toasty Domaine Chandon (about $20), or an almost rose-scented Domaine Carneros (about $25).
Ceretto's Moscato d'Asti (about $20) has a palate-cleansing effervescence and a subtle orange-blossom flavor that lingers even after the table has been cleared.