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Wine Talk: Great Thanksgiving Wines!

 

Thanksgiving At Plymouth:  In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers—an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith and other individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World.  After a treacherous and uncomfortable crossing that lasted 66 days, they dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River.  One month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims, as they are now commonly known, began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth.

Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease.  Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew lived to see their first New England spring.  In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from an Abenaki Indian who greeted them in English.  Several days later, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition.  Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants.  He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years and tragically remains one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.

In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit.  Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days.  While no record exists of the historic banquet’s exact menu, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer.  Historians have suggested that many of the dishes were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods.  Because the Pilgrims had no oven and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled by the fall of 1621, the meal did not feature pies, cakes or other desserts, which have become a hallmark of contemporary celebrations.

I am sure your Thanksgiving celebration will consist of a much more interesting menu.

The Sparklers:  The fine bubbly bite of a great sparkling wine makes any event more lively and special.  Serve a flute or two as a starter as guests are arriving — or at the table; they’re wonderful companions for food.  If you’re serving a sparkling wine with dinner, be sure it is labeled brut (which means it is dry) and not a sweet sparkling wine such as Italy’s Asti Spumante.  I like Proseco.

The Whites:  Though the standby white wine for many is Chardonnay, generally, the oakiness and intensity of most Chardonnays is not ideal for the Thanksgiving feast.  Consider instead white wines that are refreshing, tangy, and fruity, such as:

  • Viognier: Floral and fruity, with essences of peach, apricot, and pear. Low acidity.
  • Chenin Blanc: Spicy and slightly sweet with high acidity.
  • Sauvignon Blanc: Light and crisp, with grassy or herbaceous flavors. Higher acidity.
  • Riesling: Can be dry or sweet; spicy, fruity flavor with touches of peaches or apricots and a floral fragrance.
  • Gewurztraminer: Can be dry or sweet.  The German word “gewurtz“ means “spiced”.  These wines are highly aromatic with floral touches and spice notes such as cloves or nutmeg.

The Reds:  Yes, you can serve red wine with turkey breast.  You may not want to serve Cabernet because it is generally too tart and high in tannins to match well with turkey, but you can serve a lighter red.  In fact, it is a red wine that has long been the classic choice for Thanksgiving because its light berry brightness contrasts well with the heartiness of the traditional menu.  But red wine doesn’t stop there.  Consider any of the following:

  • Pinot Noir: Younger wines are fruity with essence of plums, strawberries, cherries, and raspberries.  Older wines have a smoky edge to them.
  • Syrah: Strong spice and black pepper qualities.  Older syrahs are fruitier, with some smokiness.  Also called Shiraz if it comes from Australia.  These are my favorites!
  • Zinfandel: Lots of intense, plummy, jammy flavors with spicy or peppery notes and a smoky finish.

Whatever wines you choose Thanksgiving is a day for family and friends.  Enjoy being together on this wonderful holiday!  It is a time for good food, good wine and great company.  The wonderful memories we make will go on forever.  God bless you and your family.  Have a happy thanksgiving!  You will be glad you did!

Ray Spaziani is the Chapter Director of the New Haven Chapter of the American Wine Society.  He teaches wine appreciation classes at Gateway Community College, and the Milford Board of Education as well as Moltose wine and beer making suppliers, and is a member of the International Tasting Panel of Amenti Del Vino and Wine Maker Magazine.  He is an award winning home wine maker.  Email Ray with your wine questions and wine events at ray.spaziani@gmail.com.

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