Given this freedom, the temptation to order up rich, expensive wines for the occasion might seem the obvious thing. But an even stronger case can be made for more streamlined wines that will revive rather than compound the assault on the senses.
This approach has adherents in some fairly noteworthy culinary quarters. In Alsace, heavyweight specialties, such as foie gras, choucroute and Muenster cheese (real Muenster, the stuff skunks mistake for a long-lost relative) are mated with full-flavored, but not overly alcoholic, white wines. Emilia, the culinary capital of Italy, turns to a local product that you may have heard of called Lambrusco for washing down its rich pastas and spicy sausages.
I'm hardly suggesting that Gallo Chablis Blanc and Riunite are up to such a special occasion as Thanksgiving, but given the theme of harvest freshness and the inevitable diversity of preferences at such a time, think twice before choosing a complex wine that demands too much attention; you may be disappointed by the outcome.
With this principle in mind, here are a few ideas ranging from trendy to traditional, with the focus on American products for this most American of holidays. Prices are approximate and vary from state to state.
APERITIFS. Thanksgiving is the perfect excuse to begin laying in sufficient quantities of sparkling wine to tide you through the New Year. It is always an elegant opener, but die-hard lovers of the bubbly might even decide to serve it through the meal. Three top-notch sparklers from Sonoma are Robert Hunter's 1982 Brut de Noirs ($13 to $16), Chateau St. Jean's 1983 Brut ($14) and the 1984 Iron Horse Wedding Cuvee ($18). Last holiday season, I was also impressed by Wente's 1981 Arroyo Seco Brut ($9); the 1982 vintage (also $9) has now begun to appear locally.
More in line with the harvest theme are California's luscious white muscat wines, redolent of ripe summer fruits and fresh-cut flowers. Though slightly sweet, the best are balanced by crisp acidity, and their modest alcohol levels (typically a notch or two lower than bubbly) make them especially attractive as a prelude to something with the vast dimensions of a Thanksgiving repast. Kendall-Jackson (Muscat Canelli), Robert Mondavi (Moscato d'Oro) and Robert Pecota (Muscat di Andrea) all make fine renditions of this Italianate wine. Buy the youngest vintage available, and expect to pay about $10 a bottle.
Should you prefer a more local slant, start the festivities with a fresh, fruity seyval blanc or Riesling from Pennsylvania or New Jersey. Or if you're enamored of blush wines, Tucquan Vineyards' "Sunset Blush," made from Foch grapes epitomizes the best this genre has to offer: delicate berry flavors and a refreshing crispness often lacking in white zinfandels.
TURKEY WINES. To put a handful of candidates to the test, I recently whipped up a mini-Thanksgiving sampler of the essential flavor trinity: turkey with gravy; a traditional stuffing of bread, onions, celery and herbs; and candied sweet potatoes. I had desperately hoped that a tart, fairly dry Riesling might prove compatible with the turkey and its trimmings, but even the crisp, excellent 1985 Hogue Cellars Riesling (Yakima Valley, Washington, $6) proved no match for the classic, weighty autumnal comestibles.
Chardonnay fared much better. Youthful versions with firm acidity and not too effusive fruit worked best. Barrel fermentation also seems to help, imbuing the wines with a certain spiciness that helps bridge the gap between the meat and a well-herbed stuffing. Disparate 1985 chardonnays from Allegro (Pennsylvania, $9) and Saintsbury (Napa Valley, $12 to $14) were equals next to the food. Other widely available brands in the same general style are the 1985s of DeLoach ($13 to $15), Murphy-Good ($10) and Chateau St. Michelle (Washington, $10), and 1984s from Simi ($14) or Groth ($13). A well-wooded and somewhat more aged chardonnay (a 1982) seemed to bring out some unpleasant flavors in the turkey (maybe it was just the dubious quality of my gravy).
Among reds, pinot noir turned out to be an unqualified success, but a nice nouveau wine can also fill the bill. Both types, I should add, also tend to be real crowd pleasers, with broader appeal than, say, a California cabernet or Bordeaux. Don't expect the nouveau to really "go" with the food; the only dish it's likely to cozy up to is the cranberry sauce. The things it does have going for it (fresh, youthful fruit, light body and prickly acidity) all make it a great refresher between those palate-pounding mouthfuls. Last Thanksgiving, our Lancaster County bird was washed down with Pennsylvania nouveau. Many local wineries are now beginning to release their 1987 nouveaus. Stop by for a taste and judge for yourself. All will cost about $6.
Pinot noir, on the other hand, amazes with its knack of getting along with even the most problematic flavor on the table, namely the sweet potatoes.
Because this variety is now vinified with less extract and tannins than most other serious reds, it's a natural mate for lighter meats. Its inherent spicy- herbal qualities help it to stand up to strongly scented side dishes, and the faintly sweetish quality of the fruit, especially in a mature vintage (such as the 1982 Sea Ridge, $13 in Pennsylvania specialty stores), makes it perfect for the only-at-Thanksgiving duo of sweet potatoes and cranberries.
For seductively fruity pinot noirs, look to the 1983s and 1985s from Oregon, including those of Adams, Adelsheim, Knudsen-Erath and Ponzi ($17 in Pennsylvania specialty sections).
Good California pinot noirs can tend to be a bit spicier and more tannic and may be a better choice if you're planning a rich stuffing or will be roasting your bird in an outdoor grill. Saintsbury's 1984 from Carneros will be on our table this year (the 1985 is fruitier, a bit less concentrated but still superb). Both are in the $12 to $14 range. Another fine choice would be any of Acacia's pinots, available in State Store specialty sections for about $18.
The pinnacle of California pinot noir these days may be Calera's single- vineyard wines (look for the designations Jensen or Selleck and a $25 price tag). Be forewarned that these are intensely flavored wines more likely to overpower the food than the others mentioned here. But if you've got a wine- loving crowd, the group will certainly appreciate the treat.