Dan Berger

Dan Berger

Cabernet Sauvignon with candied yams? Pinot Noir with pickled beets? Chardonnay with cranberries?

It’s a rather bizarre set of flavors, to be sure — and it’s one reason I detest writing columns about which wines to go with Thanksgiving. Nothing really works — too many disparate flavors.

I dislike all columns in which a writer speculates on which wines go best with meals served to large celebratory gatherings, which usually include several kinds of foods with diverse flavors, and not everything is savory.

Most such festive dinner-table gatherings end up being complicated, especially when attempting to come up with the “right” wines. My rule of thumb: serve several tasty wines and ignore food pairings. No one is vexed about the perfect wine to go with prune parfait.

Matching up food-compatible wines on such occasions can lead to strange marriages. At such events, simplicity is usually best.

Also, don’t waste great wines on a crowd that couldn’t care less. I save my best wines for smaller gatherings attended by people who’ll appreciate the sublime elements that great wines deliver.

I’ll never forget one episode in the mid-1980s: I was asked to bring a fine bottle to a red wine tasting at which several people would be in attendance. I brought a 1970 Simi Cabernet. Those at the dining table were awed by it.

One tardy attendee, however, rushed in, grabbed the bottle, poured himself a good 7 ounces, took a sip, then went to the freezer to add several ice cubes to his glass. The heathen.

“Who was that?” I asked the host.

“Someone my wife invited,” he replied.

For the purpose of family-gathering meals, the best bets are simple generics.

Among the better varietal wines are Gewürztraminer and Riesling that can start the festivities and continue through the meal. Pinot Noir typically has less tannin and will appeal to a broad range of people. Often Cabernet is too tannic. Beaujolais is always jovial. Perhaps best of all is a young Chenin Blanc. It should appeal to a broad range of attendees.

I’ve been involved in several “Zoom meals” in which everyone is seated at remote tables. During the pandemic, it’s only prudent. And although not very exciting, it’s safer than gathering in the same room.

If everyone is interested in wine, one strategy is to identify one or two wines a week ahead and let people know which are intended for that meal. Ask that each venue offer at least one bottle of each wine so all can share the same flavors.

At holiday celebratory meals, try to have all white and rosé wines well chilled before starting the Zoom session.

The pairings listed at the beginning of this article are bizarre, and things can get even stranger than that.

I have longed recounted a “family tradition” dish of pickled onions, which always seemed to magically appear despite the fact that the manufacturer of this hideous relish always acknowledged that she knew it was the least appreciated item at such family gatherings.

“But it is after all our family tradition,” she always said in feeble defense, a line that was never corroborated by the person who would best know. Most attendees tried it, parsimoniously, mainly out of courtesy. The only wine I ever found that worked with it was a sweet sherry. And the sherry was always the best part of the pairing.

Sparkling wine typically starts large family gatherings. Festive though they may be, they contain carbon dioxide and that can pose a problem for those unused to consuming larger amounts of alcoholic beverages.

Sparkling wines with CO2 and alcohol head more quickly toward tipsiness. To guard against excessive alcohol intake, always remember that the best hangover “cure” is simply to prevent it from occurring.

If bubbly is flowing freely, one great strategy is to consume an equal amount of water for every glass of wine. Keeping hydrated is the best defense against an aftermath episode.

There is one wine I love to have available at Thanksgiving dinners — with their candied yams, glazed hams, cranberry sauces, and other such sweeter dishes.

The aforementioned Sherry (such as a simple Amontillado) can add fascinating flavors to such meals. It’s a perfect foil for one of my favorite bird-day preparations, turkey stuffing concocted from cornbread, several kinds of nuts, chestnuts, and mushrooms, to which I always add a good deal of Sherry. And served it alongside.

Oloroso Sherries are superb with this savory stuffing, and among those that will appeal most to wine lovers are the driest Olorosos, called Oloroso secco. A small glass (the Spanish call such a thing a copita) of a chilled, dry Amontillado can be a perfect accompaniment to nut-scented foods. One of the best is from Emilio Lustau ($15).

One esoteric wine suggestion for a Thanksgiving dinner table (which I admit usually is best served to lovers of older Rieslings) is a mature (7- to 10-year-old) Rheingau Kabinett.

Such wines have a slightly burnished quality and most often have the acidity (for which German Rieslings are noted) to work with richer, sweeter foods. They’re not easy to find, and can be expensive, but I adore their richness and almost diesel-like complexity.

However, you choose to celebrate, do it sanely and without pretense. And save your cellar treasures for a quieter event and a less diverse victual display.

Wines of the Week

Fre Brut ($9) — At lengthy dinners when lots of alcoholic beverages will be passed around, this is a delight! I often have a few bottles of this alcohol-free product, made by Trinchero in the Napa Valley. The best thing about it, besides the fact that it has no hangover-producing effects, is that it’s fragrant and drier than you might suspect, and it’s tasty. Scented a bit like green apples, it has good acidity. In my experience, some people never guess it has no alcohol.

NV Toad Hollow Risqué, Blanquette de Limoux ($16) — The word “festive” applies to this slightly sparkling, traditional wine from the south of France, imported and branded by a Sonoma County winery. The aromas from the Mauzac grape of the region, according to tradition, are more rustic than classic, leaning a bit on fresh celery (!) and fennel.

It was produced by the méthode ancestrale, an older variant of the bubble-producing system used in Champagne (in which the wine comes out clear). Here a slight haze may be found in some bottles since each bottle undergoes a separate secondary fermentation. So there may be bottle variation.

At only 6% alcohol and nearly 80 grams of sugar, it’s sweet and quaffable, but high acidity keeps it from being cloying. Since the wine is more like what the French call crémant, it has fewer bubbles than Champagne and should be served quite cold. The lower effervescence makes it easier to pair with food.

Watch now: For those considering Thanksgiving gatherings, quarantine starts now

Check out photos of the Table bringing Thanksgiving to Napans in need

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM