It’s time for my annual Thanksgiving wine recommendations. As a locavore and also as a historian, I promote drinking locally, especially since Thanksgiving is an East Coast tradition (first celebrated at Berkley Hundred on the James River in Virginia, on Dec. 4, 1619). Here are a couple of guidelines if you plan to observe Thanksgiving with a traditional menu:
- You can find the best wine matches for the traditional menu with East Coast/Midwest wines instead of West Coast/European wines. East Coast wines have both vibrant fruit and acidity with moderate alcohol, and have a wide range of grape varieties whose chemistry favors complementing Thanksgiving fare.
- Think “ABC”, or “anything but Chardonnay and Cabernet.” You need vibrant, fruity wines with good acidity to match the rather heavy/fatty Thanksgiving fare, and reds should be low tannin varieties like Chambourcin, Norton, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir or Gamay.
Here are my picks for an ideal 2021 Thanksgiving in a traditional menu format:
For vinifera (European grape varieties), I recommend:
- Riesling: (for Thanksgiving, it’s better to go with semi-dry than bone dry, you could even go with medium-dry.
- Gewurztraminer: This fragrant, highly aromatic grape has a rich, full body and is not very acidic.
- Viognier: This Rhone variety was introduced to Virginia 30 years ago by Dennis Horton and is grown as far north as the Finger Lakes of NY. It has aromas of white flowers, honeysuckle and tropical fruit, but is less acidic than Riesling, so it’s easy to enjoy solo or with Thanksgiving fare.
- Petit Manseng: This exotic grape from the Jurançon region of France is like a blend of Riesling and Viognier on steroids. It’s highly aromatic with ripe tropical fruit, but has high acidity. Accordingly, it will make a dry to semi-dry table wine but also a rich yet zingy dessert wine.
- Traminette: This Cornell U. hybrid has Gewurztraminer as one of its parents. It’s actually a better bet in the vineyard and on the table than Gewurztraminer, since it’s more disease-resistant and has much higher acidity, on par with Riesling. It loses nothing in aromatic intensity, so you get the best of both worlds. You can enjoy it dry or semi-dry, or even a dessert version with pies.
- Vidal blanc: This French hybrid is widely grown from the East Coast to Missouri, and makes a Loire Valley style dry table wine with apple and pear nuances and firm acidity. It’s also found in many proprietary blends, and in late harvest and dessert wines.
For For vinifera (European grape varieties), I recommend:
- Pinot Noir: The famous red grape of Burgundy is moderately low in tannin, bright in fruit with mysterious and hard to define nuances ranging from truffle to forest floor to strawberry. The best examples are below 14% in alcohol and with minimal new oak, fruit-forward, with fresh bright acidity.
- Gamay: It’s a lot more than Beaujolais Nouveau, and is more affordable than Burgundian Pinot Noir. Gamay has bright, fresh red and black cherry fruit, moderate tannins, and zesty acidity; an ideal red variety for Thanksgiving.
- Cabernet Franc: This star of Loire Valley red wines and the Right Bank in Bordeaux (St. Emilion and its satellites) has been called “The Burgundy of Bordeaux”. Like Pinot Noir, it’s moderately low in tannin, does not handle new oak well, and has clean earth and black cherry nuances. Look for wines below 14% alcohol.
- Merlot: I don’t recommend West Coast Merlot, because the climate is too warm for wines that have Old World-style varietal character. Merlot from New York to North Carolina can give smooth tannins with dark fruit character that can still match a Thanksgiving menu, if it’s not ruined with too much new oak or alcohol above 14%.
- Blaufränkisch/Lemberger: This Austrian grape has moderately low tannin, aromas and flavors of blackberry with nice spice nuances, and a hedonistic fresh berry juiciness on the palate.
- San Marco: This new vinifera cross of Teroldego and Lagrein, two grapes from northeastern Italy, is now being grown in the Outer Coastal Plain of New Jersey and makes a smooth, fresh, briarfruit wine much like Blaufränkisch.
- Chambourcin: From the Finger Lakes to Roanoke, this French red hybrid is a reliable and versatile workhorse for the Eastern wine industry. It has dark ruby color, vivid aromas of red and black cherry, low tannins, smooth texture and a fresh crisp finish.
- Norton/Cynthiana: From Virginia to Arkansas, this accidental American hybrid has a distinctive character different from the labrusca varieties like Concord or Noah as well as from French hybrids and vinifera. Very dark purple in color, Norton has damson plum and spice aromas and flavors, with the lip-smacking zesty acidity of Gamay but low tartaric acid, and an assertive varietal character. One year I had two wines with roast goose for Thanksgiving, both from the 1996 vintage. The Burgundy was thin and tart; the Norton was a perfect match.
My Recommended Thanksgiving Wines for 2021
1. Veritas Vineyards Viognier 2019, Monticello, VA
Winemaker Emily Pelton consistently makes fresh, elegant Viognier balancing ripe fruit and fresh acidity. Nose has fresh-cut apple notes. Palate has good balance with fresh cut apple flavors and zesty acidity; stylish.
2. Red Tail Ridge Vineyards Estate Blaufränkisch, Finger Lakes, NY
This is a beautiful, fresh and flavorful example of this now-trendy Austrian red grape (also called Lemberger in Germany). The nose is fresh blackberry with spice notes, which follow on the palate. Tannins are low but smooth, and fruit is bright and fresh, so this is an ideal example of this grape that will be perfect with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
Red Tail Ridge owner and winemaker Nancy Irelan, left, with Virginia Tech enologist emeritus Dr. Bruce Zoecklein, right.
Bellview Vineyards San Marco 2020, Outer Coastal Plain, NJ
The San Marco grape is a new cross of the northern Italian varietals Teroldego and Lagrein. New Jersey grower Larry Cola had read that aside from being a complementary blend of the two grapes, the new cross showed better vigor, cold hardiness, and resistance to fungal disease. He arranged through the Outer Coastal Plain Vineyard Association to contract with Double A Vineyards in New York to propagate it for sale.
One of the Association’s members is Scott Quarella of Bellview Vineyards. “Potentially, San Marco could be better than Chambourcin in terms of disease resistance which is very exciting to us as growers and winemakers,” he says. Even in the wet, challenging 2020 vintage, Bellview vinified and bottled a varietal San Marco.
San Marco is in the grouping of fresh, bright, low tannin red varieties from northeast Italy, Austria, and Burgundy. The color is vivid, dark ruby. The nose is an attractive combination of fresh briar fruits with a hint of cardamon. On the palate, it has smooth, moderately low tannins, fresh acidity, and subtle flavors of briar fruits in a cool climate. It resembles Blaufrankisch/Lemberger and Gamay in its bright freshness and affinity for matching with Thanksgiving fare.
I tasted it at the annual American Wine Society conference in Atlantic City, NJ and Scott Quarella of Bellview kindly allowed me to take a bottle home with me.
For its vinifera finesse and superior yield, cold tolerance and disease resistance, this stylish Italian crossing could be a game-changer for wineries in the Mid-Atlantic and possibly the Hudson Valley or Finger Lakes.
Note: Bellview doesn’t have a permit to ship to Virginia residents; only to PA, NJ and NY residents.