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November 24, 2011

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US wines for American feast

I love living in Shanghai but every November I truly miss celebrating Thanksgiving in Connecticut with family and close friends. I especially miss the wonderful aromas, flavors and textures of a classic Thanksgiving feast and the feeling of being utterly stuffed at the end of the meal.

Not surprisingly wine always played a huge role in our meals. Because it is the quintessential American holiday we would only drink US wines on Thanksgiving.

In fond remembrance of these occasions, I shall restrict my wine recommendations in this week's special Thanksgiving column to American wines.

I'm highly cognitive of the fact that there are many wines, especially French whites and Spanish reds, that are sublimely good with typical Thanksgiving foods but in my mind that's cheating.

Save these Euro treasures for Christmas, the New Year or Easter. Because Thanksgiving is all about food, let's take a look back at the historic delicacies enjoyed at the first Thanksgiving.

First Thanksgiving

In September 1620, the Mayflower sailing ship left Plymouth England with 120 intrepid souls in search of freedom to practice their religion. The journey took 66 days and when they set anchor off of Cape Cod, they were exhausted from the trip and grossly ill-prepared for the approaching harsh winter.

After a winter of extreme privations when half of the settlers died, the survivors of Plymouth Colony built more sturdy shelters and with the help of Native Americans learned to harvest the abundant riches of their new land.

In late October or early November 1621, the settlers held a harvest celebration that lasted three days. This event to give thanks for the successful harvest would evolve over the centuries into the modern holiday we call Thanksgiving Day. Then as now, a major focal point of the celebration is food.

The only direct account of the first celebration is from the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Wilson who wrote of bountiful nourishments, dancing and gunplay. Commenting on the reason for the first Thanksgiving he wrote, "by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we wish expression of gratitude for our plenty."

According to Wilson the foods gracing the long wooden tables included wild fowl, venison, lobster, mussels, clams, cod, eels, bass, breads made of corn, barley and wheat and a bounty of local vegetables and fruits including peas, beetroot, wild onions, berries, plums and of course pumpkins. Was turkey served? Wild turkey is indigenous to the area, but was not specifically mentioned in Wilson's chronicle.

There's also no proof of wine being enjoyed at the first feast, but it's highly probable that the Pilgrims who were experienced brewers also served beer at the 1621 feast.

In fact, documents from the colony show that primitive brewery equipment was already in use by mid 1621, so in all likelihood the settlers and their native guests liberally quaffed down some early American brew.

Modern feasts

What would Thanksgiving be without turkey? This large bird has become a staple so ubiquitous to Thanksgiving that it has turned into the very symbol of the holiday.

Side dishes and tertiary foods include stuffing, mash potatoes, turnips, celery root, creamed onions, cranberry sauce, lots of gravy and pumpkin pie. To this day, I still remember how wonderful aromas totally enveloped our home as the turkey was being roasted and the various other dishes were prepared.

These enticingly savory and appetite-stimulating fragrances made the wait for the meal almost unbearable. The chaotic bustle in the kitchen, the elegant long dining table being set up with seasonal ornaments and center pieces of bright red and orange foliage and of course the incessant pre-meal chatter of family and friends together acted as an exhilarating opening sonata to the symphonic meal to come.

These memories are indelibly set in my mind and I'm sure they are shared by many who have experienced the holiday in the United States.

While the modern Thanksgiving celebration still revolves around copious amounts of food and overindulgence, it is also about family and friends so to successfully pick the perfect wines, you must take into account the tastes and preferences of everyone. Not easy, but with some effort and thought, eminently doable.

Bubbly start

As with any other important food or wine event, getting off to a good start is critically important. The first wine you serve should have freshness that cleanses the mouth and stimulates the appetite while leaving plenty of room for the heavy eating to come.

Bubbles are the answer. Keeping with my preamble requirement of choosing only US wines for Thanksgiving, one excellent solution is a well-made California or Pacific Northwest sparkler. In California, fine sparkling wine producers include Domaine Carneros, Mumm, Iron Horse and Roederer Estate.

Perhaps the best-value US sparklers come from the Pacific Northwest. There are many fine small producers but unfortunately their wines are hard to find in China; instead try a bottle of bubbly from the region's largest producer, Chateau Ste Michelle.

For those who may want to continue with a sparkler throughout the meal the Chateau Ste Michelle Blanc de Noirs is ideal because this 100 percent Pinot Noir wine is a great match with turkey.


When dining with a large group of family or friends who include people who don't especially know or care about wines, I usually choose a low-price wine that can be appreciated by wine novices and connoisseurs alike.

The concept is something analogous to the lowest common denominator in math. There's no sense in serving a great wine to indifferent palates, however, you still must please yourself and any other wine lovers present.

I recommend picking a generously flavored, easy-going wine like a California Zinfandel or Syrah that has enough fruit for the beginners but still enough balance to please more discerning palates. Good California producers that offer well-made and reasonably priced Zins available in Shanghai include Beringer, Kendall-Jackson and Mondavi.

Slightly more expensive but well worth the money are the wines of Zinfandel specialist Seghesio. For good-value US Syrah wines I recommend Delicato, La Crema and Qupe.

All these reasonably priced reds feature generous amounts of ripe red, dark fruit and stimulating spicy flavors that make for friendly companions to the various foods of Thanksgiving while still retaining sufficient tannins and acidity to refresh your palate and help you digest the weighty foods.

Should you want something lighter and more invigorating, then an Oregon or Washington State Pinot Noir is also a nice choice. These fragrant Pinots offer all the fruit you need to embellish the flavors of your feast but are lighter in weight than the Zinfandel and Syrah wines, leaving more room for turkey and pumpkin pie. The intrinsically delicate and fresh nature of Pinot Noir wines will make it easier for you to get out of the chair at the end of the meal.

Something special

Some occasions in life merit the best. If the meaning or timing of this Thanksgiving holiday makes it a particularly important day in your life, then only the best wines will do.

In the world of US wines this means a Napa Valley red wine. While other regions of California and the Pacific Northwest are making excellent white and red wines, the best and most prestigious US wines are still Napa Valley reds.

There are a handful of great Napa Valley wines that can compete with the very best wines of the world and will grace your holiday table with elegance and power.

Among these apex wines, my personal favorites are Joseph Phelps Insignia, the original super premium Napa blend; Opus One, the classic Euro-style Napa red; Stag's Leap Cask 23, an iron fist in velvet glove; and equally impressive boutique producers Pahlmeyer and Viader. Your turkey may still be dry, but the profound beauty of these exceptional wines will make this Thanksgiving a glorious day to remember.

Large-format wines (this is just fancy wine talk for big bottles) can also make a special occasion even more memorable. Every Thanksgiving my father would serve magnums (equivalent to two 750ml bottles) or double magnums (four bottles) and at the end of the meal have everyone at the meal sign the label.

Even though Dad and many of his friends are no longer with us, when I go home and look at these large bottles the memories of great food, wines, family and friends deliciously live on.

Delicato Shiraz, 2005

Region: California

Variety: Shiraz, Malbec, Petit Syrah

Aging method/Potential: 1 year in oak/Drink within 5 years.

Serving & food pairing: Serve at 16°C; match with spicy BBQ and roasted meats as well as game.

Price/Importer: 139 yuan/Summergate



another great value from Delicato, the 2005 Shiraz features a dense purple color, scents of blueberries and oak and concentrated flavors of dark berries, black pepper and a touch of leather; this smooth wine has good weight in the mouth and a pleasing typically Shiraz spicy finish.

Pahlmeyer Napa Valley, 2006

Region: Napa Valley, California

Variety: 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot & 1% Malbec

Aging method/Potential: 18 months in 80% new French oak with additional bottle aging/Approachable now, but will evolve for another 5+ years and can be cellared for 20+ years.

Serving & food pairing: Allow 60-90 minutes for breathing and serve at 18°C; at 15.2% this is a big wine and perfect partner for US Prime steaks, preferably a NY or rib eye or other flavorful cut with good marbling; also very good with beef or lamb stews.

Price/Importer: 1,455 yuan/Roosevelt



sourced from three top vineyards, this wine showcases the best of Napa Valley power and old world elegance; features a dark purple color, rich aromas of blackberries and dark chocolate and concentrated black fruit and cocoa flavors with a wonderfully smooth and palate-coating tannic finish.

Joseph Phelps Insignia, 2006

Region: Napa Valley, California

Variety: 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot & Malbec & Cabernet Franc

Aging method/Potential: 2 years in oak/15-20 years

Serving & food pairing: Allow 1+ hour for breathing & serve at 18°C; match with full-flavored meat and cheese dishes including roasted game, wild pheasant and smoked wild turkey.

Price/Importer: 2,684 yuan/ASC



consistently one of Napa's best red wines, the 2006 Insignia features a dark black-purple color, robust aromas of sweet plum, chocolate and spices and concentrated ripe black and red fruit and exotic spice flavors, and a pleasingly long complex finish.

Domaine Ste Michelle Blanc De Noirs, NV

Region: Columbia Valley, Washington State

Variety: 100% Pinot Noir

Aging method/Potential: 24 months in the bottle/Lovely now and can be enjoyed over the next 3-5 years.

Serving & food pairing: Serve at 10°C; nice with many types of seafood and especially good with white meats including roasted chicken and turkey.

Price/Importer: 181 yuan/ASC



a whole lot of titillating bubbles and delicious flavors for a modest price, the Blanc de Noirs features a salm-on-pink color with persistent small bubbles, nose and flavors of strawberry, red current and other red fruits and impressively clean, palate-stimulating finish.


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