Wines-and Ciders-for Thanksgiving

Nov 26

A reader (knightswhosayni) asked last week when I would post about what to drink for Thanksgiving. I was out of town over the weekend so I hope this isn’t too late for those of you still looking.

Here are some guidelines to what to drink for Thanksgiving:

1) Drink local. Thanksgiving is the original locavore feast. Every state (and most Canadian provinces) have their own wineries.

2) Due to the higher acidity and lower alcohol of the average wine from  Eastern North America (east of the 100th meridian), as well as a wealth of varietals and species not found in California or the “international” wine growing regions, Eastern wines pair very well with traditional Thanksgiving food.

3) Low-tannin, fruity reds and fresh, fruity whites with a little residual sugar (semi-dry) pair the best.

4) Local hard ciders (apple or pear); I recommend the semi-dry/sweet ones as better matches for the rich Thanksgiving fare because the dry ones are very  high acid.

5) Best Varietals for Thanksgiving


  • Viognier
  • Gewurztraminer
  • Pinot Gris (major stylistic difference from same grape labeled as pinot grigio)
  • Riesling (I recommend semi-dry to semi-sweet; completely dry will have very high acid and some residual sugar makes a better complement to sweet potatoes, etc.
  • Traminette (a Cornell hybrid of a French hybrid and gewurztraminer which is like a gewurztraminer on steroids)
  • Petit Manseng (an obscure French white with high acid and tropical fruit that’s usually made in a semi-dry to semi-sweet style. Sweet versions in half-bottles are great with pies).
  • Chardonnay. I’m only officially recommending this ubiquitous grape with the provision that you need to find the appropriate style. Avoid the extremes of steely high-acid, no malolactic Chablis-style which will clash with cranberry sauce, gravy, sweet potatoes etc. as well as avoid the big oak style; oak texture clashes with the food. Look for a chardonnay aged in neutral oak with richness, lemon citrus and butterscotch notes. Fine examples from Virginia include Michael Shaps 2010 Willow vineyard and Pearmund old vine Meriwether Vineyard;  King Ferry (a k a Treleaven) on Cayuga Lakes makes 3 fine chardonnays that would all be appropriate; my favorite was the 2011 reserve.
  • Vidal blanc. Often vidal is blended with riesling as with Linden Vineyards (VA) for better acidity, but vidal has a nice fruitiness and is a crowd-pleaser.
  • Valvin muscat. This recently released Cornell hybrid with a name like a wind instrument is very promising, with a classic muscat-like floral nose and delicate tropical fruit on the palate balanced with fine acidity. If you tasted it blind you couldn’t know it was a hybrid.
  • La Crescent. For those of you in New England or the Upper Midwest, this riesling-like cold-hardy hybrid from the U. of MN has fine fruit/acid balance and would be great with Thanksgiving fare.


  • Chambourcin. This red French hybrid is much like the gamay of Beaujolais; lots of crisp bright cherry fruit and low tannin.
  • Norton. Provided the wine is not over-oaked, fruit-driven and lacking that leathery funk you sometimes find, the deep dark damson plum flavors and bright acidity and low tannin make this Virginia original a great red choice.
  • Cabernet Franc. If you must drink vinifera red, cabernet franc today is more reliable than pinot noir. Pinot could work, but I find it is often too tannic and also too oaky. The solid black cherry with hints of black pepper and crisp, smooth texture without too much tannin make this a fine red wine choice.

There are some red hybrids which could work in some circumstances but you need to taste them first; Marquette (U. MN hybrid), Baco Noir (French hybrid, very good in the Hudson Valley, NY), and Chancellor (much like Chambourcin).


From Virginia to New England and west to Wisconsin,  local cideries are popping up like fungi after rain, and there is a wealth of choices across the East, with cideries that offer crisp, refreshing, low-alcohol and food-friendly ciders very traditional in style and very different from the fizzy alcoholic apple juice ciders of major national brands. I heartily recommend substituting sparkling cider for when you would have poured a sparkling wine (note: many local ciders are very dry and high acid; read labels and taste before you buy, looking for semi-dry to semi-sweet).

In Virginia, a recent tasting at Beer Run in Charlottesville showcased five Virginia ciders, from Albemarle Cider Works, Castle Hill Cider, Foggy Ridge Cidery, Old Hill, and Potter’s Craft Cider. All were good to outstanding. My pick for Thanksgiving is the Castle Hill “Gravity” an off-dry cider made exclusively with Grimes Golden apples. Fruity but vibrant and crisp without being austere, and only 7.1% alcohol.


My favorite Thanksgiving wine to match pies is late harvest (contrasted to ice wine which is much higher in residual sugar and acid). The outstanding choices for me are the Gray Ghost late harvest vidal blanc (a winner of perennial awards in wine competitions) and the late harvest vignoles (white French hybrid) from Hunt Country Vineyards in the Finger Lakes of New York.

Remember to “Think globally and drink locally.”

From all of us here at Richard Leahy’s Wine Report (me), Happy Thanksgiving!

“Wines of Eastern North America, From Prohibition to the Present” by Hudson Cattell to be Published by Cornell (NY) University Press in 2014

Nov 24

Hudson Cattell, long-time editor of Wine East and now Eastern editor for Wines & Vines, has published a career-long work of major research through Cornell University Press titled “Wines of Eastern North America, From Prohibition to the Present.” The book is a comprehensive reference work of 390 pages, which include 38 pages of footnotes, seven appendicies, and 28 pages of bibliography. As Cattell points out in his acknowledgments, when he began publishing the Pennsylvania Grape Letter and Winery News in 1976, there was no bibliography on the subject of the Eastern wine industry, so what he includes in this book is a valuable contribution to the collective memory of the Eastern wine industry which suffered a catastrophic disruption during Prohibition and indeed for decades afterwards. Cattell’s book is the sole one of the group devoted exclusively to the Eastern (and Midwestern) wine industry, specifically since Prohibition to the present. The notes, bibliography and index help make this a solid reference work on the subject.

The timing of the publication of this work is significant, since there are now more wineries outside California than in it, and every state in the Union now has its own wineries. Cattell is patient and methodical in documenting the background to the remarkable renaissance of the East, explaining the work of Philip Wagner in Maryland pioneering the planting of French hybrids, and of Dr. Konstantin Frank in New York doing the same with the fine cool-climate European vinifera grapes. Until their work, old heirloom varieties like concord, catawba and niagara had been the backbone of a thriving American wine industry pre-Prohibition. There has been a fierce philosophical divide since Konstantin Frank proved vinifera could survive the winter in cold upstate New York, between the pro-vinifera camp and the pro-hybrid camp over which species was better suited to either fine wine or sustainable crop production. This debate, documented by Cattell, has proved beneficial for the Eastern industry in the wealth of grape species, varieties and styles it offers for every palate.

He also points out the importance of farm winery legislation in creating a political environment in which winemaking was connected with grape growing, and therefore, family farming, a connection that continues to be vital in winning friends in state legislatures as well as with upscale suburbanites escaping the pressures of daily living through winery tourism which also includes scenic vineyards.

The book then proceeds chronologically from the 1970s through the present with subtitles for chapters mentioning major trends (“growing pains”, “winery promotion”, “consolidation”, “Neo-Prohibition and the French Paradox”, “the new century.”) Cattell skillfully divides the histories of the individual states and provinces of the East, summarized in the appendix, from the larger narrative of industry-wide development over the decades in the main text. This is a very useful narrative device to keep one from losing the forest for the trees.

Another valuable aspect of this work as a reference is that three of the seven appendicies are devoted to detailing Eastern wine grapes, from their evolutionary beginnings, to tables showing the original American varieties and the many classes of hybrid varieties (Munson, French, Swenson, New York and those of other research universities) which also detail the crossings. This is invaluable to grape breeders and researchers who want to either trace the origins of Eastern grapes or consider their own crossings.

Cattell was “present at the creation” and personally tape-recorded interviews with nearly all of the founders of the eastern industry in the U.S. and Canada, giving a wealth of primary source material in complete sentences. However, for a book officially published in 2014, I personally think that three chapters on industry development in the 1970s is probably two chapters too many.

In a work of this kind it is important to include maps as Cattell does, but while some state maps delineate official American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), others merely divide states into wine touring zones (such as with the Groundhog Region of Pennsylvania) While the maps don’t clearly distinguish between those which are terroir-based with AVAs and those that are tourism-based, there is an appendix which lists the current, extant AVAs by state.

However, these are minor points and the fact is that this new book is a landmark work with a wealth of primary source interviews and an intimacy of personal acquaintance over a 35 year professional career, that explains how the eastern North American wine industry rose from the ashes of Prohibition to become home to home to 2,782 wineries by 2011. As Cattell states in his conclusion, this process was nothing short of remarkable; “While the eastern wine industry was considered to be in its infancy in 1976, it is now increasingly being recognized as an important wine region of the world.”

Wine Enthusiast Names Eric Trump “Rising Star” of the Year…But Why?

Nov 20

When Dennis Horton claimed the Virginia Wine Governor’s Cup at the awards ceremony in 1993 for the Montdomaine Cellars 1990 cabernet sauvignon, he raised a lot of eyebrows when he referenced baseball star Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals who said of his team’s performance in 1949, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.”

Except that neither Horton nor his team had made that wine. What alienated a lot of people in the audience at that awards ceremony was that the Cup-winning wine had been produced by winemaker Shep Rouse prior to Horton’s purchase and ownership of Montdomaine Cellars, none of which was mentioned by Horton who implied rather bluntly that he was responsible for the award.

As Yogi Berra, another baseball philosopher would say, “It looks like deja-vu all over again.” When Wine Enthusiast magazine announced its annual industry awards recently, it awarded Eric Trump,  President of Trump Winery and EVP of Development & Acquisitions at the Trump Organization with their “Rising Star” award for 2013.

The Enthusiast mentioned as an apparent justification for the award that Trump Winery had won “Best of Sparkling” at the Jefferson Cup Invitational a year ago, and in this year, it received two gold medals at the San Francisco International Wine Competition and earned 91 points from Wine Enthusiast for its 2007 Brut SP Reserve, which Trump Winery General Manager Kerry H. Woolard says is “Virginia’s highest rated wine in history” (verified by Virginia Wine Marketing Director Annette Boyd).

While Trump owns the wine and as, with Horton, has technical claim to the awards, the fact is that these sparkling wines were fermented, processed and aged by the previous Kluge ownership and none of this was acknowledged by Trump Winery. Although the wines were removed from tirage with dosage added and then bottled by the current Trump team, this minor level of involvement hardly justifies the same bragging rights for the awards as having made them from crush forward under Trump ownership.

The situation is analogous to someone who bought a fine illuminated manuscript at an auction, and were given an award for having done the work themselves.

Ironically, the former Kluge ownership’s regimen for their sparkling wines was that they were bottled and released to be “young, fresh and vibrant,” according to a former Kluge winery worker. With the winery going into bankruptcy and waiting for sale by the bank, the sparkling wine stayed en tirage much longer than normal. In the case of some wines meant for early release and drinking, this would have been a problem, but for high-acid wines on the lees and with CO2 gas to preserve them, the wines actually gained in quality from the extra time aging. Top champagne houses release their regular label wines after a minimum of three years en tirage. The mellowness and complexity that results from extended time with the lees is a major part of champagne’s quality and claim to fame.

I’d like to point out that the Trump Winery has neither done nor claimed anything inappropriate, and I was more interested in why Trump had been chosen for this award than in the winery quite naturally publicizing it. Hadn’t Wine Enthusiast known that Trump Winery wasn’t responsible for producing these wines? Which other hard-working wineries (or owners) were overlooked who could claim more justification for this award, than buying a winery at a knock-down price in bankruptcy, then putting wines made by the prior owners on the market? Several queries to the Wine Enthusiast over a week for the criteria they used choosing Trump for this award were not answered.

The positive publicity from the Wine Enthusiast award is welcome at this time for Trump Winery, which is embroiled in controversy over its plans to build an 18-hole designer golf course on its property despite some of that property being in a conservation easement through the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. A public meeting was held at the winery on October 24th, at which concerns about water usage (county residents rely on wells), increased traffic and decreased quality of life were raised. Eric Trump presided at the meeting where according to Laura Ingles of the C-ville he said he plans to “comply with the easement 100 percent.” Trump and the VOF are still negotiating, says Ingles.

SF Chronicle Recommends Drinking Local Wines for Thanksgiving

Nov 19

Jon Bonne’, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has recommended in his column of Friday 11/15 that Americans drink local for Thanksgiving, based on the nation-wide bounty of fine wines with local character. He mentions a number of West Coast wines, but also points out leading wines in many states across the country. He also keeps the traditional Thanksgiving food in mind, making non-tannic red recommendations and mostly non-chardonnay white recommendations. To read the column, go to