Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.
[Photo: Benchun / Flickr]
Almost 400 years after the first Thanksgiving we're still fumbling to pinpoint the perfect wines to serve with this bonafide shitshow of a meal. My advice: pick interesting, affordable wines that are balanced (i.e. not too high in anything). With a meal this varied, and a crew as motley as this holiday is capable of assembling, it's best to keep things simple. So, in the spirit of this column, let's do it American style and let's make it fun.
Here, now, your guide to the perfect (ha!) all-American Thanksgiving:
CiderShocking as it may seem, only a few apple varieties (of the crab family) are actually native to America. The Europeans first planted their apples here by 1623 and brought their long tradition of cider making with them. By the mid 1600s it was New England's drink of choice.
Today it remains a bit obscure, marred by association with Martinelli's and misguided nights drinking Original Sin. But great, traditional sparkling cider is one of the most underrated Thanksgiving pairings. It generally clocks in below 8% alcohol and balances acidity with the sorts of earthy, savory flavors that pair well with traditional dishes. At Thanksgiving the key is to seek out a cider that's dry, as the sweeter versions are bound to weigh you down.
For something unique and off-the-wall try the 'Levity' Cider from Virginia's Castle Hill ($23), a bottling sourced from Albemarle Pippin apples that are fermented in clay amphorae (large clay pots dug into the ground) and left to age there on the lees for 4 months. It's only available by ordering from the winery's website, so if you're in a pinch grab a bottle of Farnum Hill Extra Dry Cider from New Hampshire ($17) instead. It deftly balances fruit and earth with the acidity required to aid your binge.
SparklingIf you're looking for something in the sparkling realm with adult alcohol levels, grab a bottle of Soter Vineyards Brut Rose ($60) out of Oregon. Famed winemaker Tony Soter's 100% pinot noir sparkler is easily one of America's best.
On the budget end of the spectrum, the clean and pleasantly toasty Anderson Valley Brut NV from Roederer ($25) is consistently one of the best values in American bubbly.
America is often chastised for not producing enough distinctive and affordable white wine, but there are dozens that challenge that perception. At Buty in Walla Walla, Washington winemaker Caleb Foster's flagship white—a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle à la Bordeaux— ($22) is one of the state's best. The 2010 is all lemon oil, spice, and white flowers with a creamy mid palate and bracing acidity.
Also worth snatching in this price range is Qupé's 2010 Marsanne ($18) out of California's Santa Ynez Valley. Qupé's winemaker Bob Linquist, one of California's pioneering "Rhone Rangers," is known for his unwavering commitment to lower alcohol, restrained wines. He picks his Marsanne grapes early, resulting in a wine that hovers around 12.5% alcohol, forfeiting sheer heft for freshness. It balances ripe fruit and a musky, earthy quality that screams fall.
Further north in the Anderson Valley there's LIOCO's 2009 Demuth Vineyard Chardonnay ($34)—one of the best releases from this exciting new label to date. Fermented with native yeast in stainless steel, and left to rest there for 6 months on the lees, it's rich and mineral-driven with a tinge of oxidation that adds a very fall-like savory element. (Also, if you're looking to keep things in the $20 range look to their entry level Sonoma Coast Chardonnay for a less complex, but still brilliant wine.)
Lastly, for the Riesling lovers out there, there's Ravines. Their entry level Finger Lakes Dry Riesling ($19) is a juicy, versatile introduction to American minerality. If you want to shell out a bit more, grab their 2008 Argetsinger Vineyard Dry Riesling ($32), which just might be the best American Riesling on the market.
Orange wine, once a niche category reserved for the most savvy of sommeliers is still niche, but burgeoning. Over the last several years the category—which refers to white wines that spend a prolonged period of time in contact with their skins—is beginning to lay down roots outside of its spiritual home (Friuli, Italy). Both structurally and aromatically these wines tend to find themselves somewhere between white and red. In other words, they’re the perfect go-between wines for a plate full of food that is half suited to red wine and half to white.
From the newly minted American orange brigade comes Donkey and Goat's 2010 "Stone Crusher" Roussanne ($28) sourced from California’s El Dorado County. It spends 15 days on the skins in open top vats with minimal manipulation throughout the winemaking process and combines aromas of baking spice and dried apricots with great acidity and a touch of tannic grip.
For the budget orange wine seeker, Long Island's Channing Daughters winery produces a skin contact pinot grigio called "Ramato" ($20), which means copper in Italian and refers to this same style of pinot grigio in the motherland. It's all baked red apples, spice and honey.
On the higher end, there's Ryme's Vare Vineyard Ribolla Gialla 2009 ($35), which spends 4 months on the lees yielding an intense, rich, and herbal wine; it’s undoubtedly one of the benchmarks for this style of winemaking here at home.
Donkey and Goat 2010 Stone Crusher. [Photo: Donkey and Goat]
Zinfandel is often touted as the ultimate pairing with Thanksgiving, but to me the last thing I want to drink with a garbage plate of contradictory foods is a 15.5% alcohol wine. What I want something light and fruit-forward with plenty of acid.
Heitz, the brilliant, storied producer of Cabernet Sauvignon in of Napa Valley produces a wine from the grignolino grape ($18, 2008), an esoteric variety native to Northern Italy that, even in California, yields a juicy, floral red wine that's like the bounce house of dinnertime wines.
In this same, gloriously frivolous, vein there's the Bebame Sierra Foothills Red 2010 ($18) made by the great fringe winemaker Steve Edmunds. It's a blend of gamay and cabernet franc that finds its inspiration in the brisk, low alcohol wines of Bourgeuil and the Coteaux du Loir. It's plush, herbal, and floral.
Also from California's budding Sierra Foothills AVA is La Clarine Farm, a beacon for the state's natural wine rumblings. Their 2010 mourvèdre ($25) is a pure, buoyant wine that's all mineral and plush dark fruit.
And lastly, if you're looking to splurge, snag Littorai's 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($40). It's purebred, cool-climate pinot with earth at its edges.