20 November 2015

Wines for Thanksgiving


On my last visit to Napa I hired a bike. Keen to get away from the crowds and the manicured lawns of California’s most glamorous wine region I took off, cycling along the Silverado trail to the small town of St Helena. Crossing the High Street I kept going, past vineyards, a garage, some boys playing basketball in the street and a Church, until the road turned into a track following a stream, Sulphur Creek, up towards a wood where I happened upon an almost perfect circle of Redwood trees. Somebody had placed an old canvas sun lounger in the middle and dismounting my bike I laid down on it and looked up, a few minutes reprieve in what was set to be a busy 10 days.

I thought how lucky I was to be there tasting wines in one of the most famous wine valleys in the world. Sure, it’s come a long way since the days of the late 1960s when it was merely a rural backwater growing fruit and making a few wines of little international impact. But what it has lost in charm (the traffic in Napa can put downtown Manhattan to shame) is made up for in the quality of its wines, the generous welcome of its wine growers and the creation of its own wine culture based around hospitality, complete with five star hotels and Michelin star restaurants.

Wine writers are some of the most fortunate people in the world. Not only do we have the privilege of travelling to some outrageously beautiful places, we also get to meet the people, eat in their houses and break bread with their families. When I arranged to meet John Williams from Frog’s Leap he suggested we go out, I asked if we could stay in, nothing special, just a simple supper. It would be great to chew the fat around his kitchen table, which is exactly what we did.

Next week this timeless ritual will be repeated from Atlanta to Alaska as thousands of families down tools and take a few moments out from their busy lives to gives thanks and celebrate the virtue of gratitude. Thanksgiving has its origins in the Pilgrims, the forefathers whose Puritan legacy gave us Prohibition, a profoundly unmeasured approach to the dangers of alcohol.

I rather agree with the author and philosopher Roger Scruton who argues that the ritual surrounding the serving and consumption of wine helps us find balance and ward off the temptations of excess. He points to the elaborate process of preparation. Finding the bottle from the cellar, carefully removing the foil and pulling the cork. Then there is the sniffing, swirling and tasting before the wine is eventually served, carefully poured out to each guest around the dining table. As Scruton observes: “wine properly served slows everything down, establishing a rhythm of gentle sips rather than gluttonous swigging.”

Thanksgiving is a time when family and friends come together to break bread and enjoy a fine meal. Wine, when used properly plays a central role, promoting convivial conversation and oiling the wheels of friendship.

So what to serve? It goes without saying that as with Christmas, turkey is a mainstay for Thanksgiving. Whether it is glazed, deep-fried or simply roasted it is inevitably accompanied by a cornucopia of side dishes from stuffing, gravy, bread sauce and a host of sweet vegetables.

The golden rule with turkey is to find wines with plenty of fruit and flavour. Shiraz goes very well, as does anything from the Southern Rhône, juicy Zinfandels and also ripe Pinot Noir. Red Bordeaux is always a favourite. But my personal rule is always, when it comes to the wine not to overcomplicate matters. If your family likes Chardonnay, serve it. A luscious, easy going Grenache blend from the Southern Rhône? Put it on the table. If you want a juicy Zinfandel, pour it, by all means. Like Christmas this is the one day of the year where wine should bring pleasure, the cost and the grape variety are secondary.

Napa does Cabernet best. When they are good these wines exude the soft, warm flavours of black fruits, eucalyptus and violets. In the mouth the overall sensation is sensuous, they are mellow compared with the often drier, more intense European examples. Napa Cabernet has enjoyed its own stylistic journey from the Bordeaux imitations of the 1970s to the rich, late picked, high alcohol wines of the late 1980s and 1990s. Today the picture is more mixed with a trend towards early picking and lower alcohol. If this is your preferred style look out for: Grigich Hills, Heitz’s, Frog’s Leap, Montelena and Staglin. If you prefer something a little more rounded opt for Shafer and Silver Oaks.

Cabernet Sauvignon may be the King in Napa accounting for nearly 60% of the region’s total crop but let’s not overlook Chardonnay. For those bored of this ubiquitous grape variety may I suggest as Karen MacNeil does in the latest edition of The Wine Bible, a chilled glass of Chardonnay (my recommendation would be Saintsbury’s) with a fresh Dungeness crab and a slice of warm bread and butter. If this doesn’t win you over to the delights of this grape then nothing will.

But it’s not all big bold flavors in Napa. There are also some wonderful European or cool climate style wines to be found in the southern tip of the valley. Here the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes thrive. The old assumption that Chardonnay was over oaked, flabby with a large dose of sugar couldn’t be further from the modern trend of picking early and not using oak. For Chardonnay look out for Cakebread cellars, Clos Du Val, Pine Ridge Vineyards. For Pinot Noir I would opt for Clos Du Val, Cuvaison and Saintsbury. And for me? I’ll be drinking Chris Brockway’s delightful Zinfandel, one of the most exciting wines I have tasted this year. Enjoy!


2013 Vine Starr Zinfandel Broc Cellars, Sonoma County, California 12.5%

This is an absolute revelation. Bright cherry fruit, purity and refreshing acidity it is, as winemaker Chris Brockway says, a wine which you can very much pair with food.

2013 Chardonnay, Cakebread Cellars, Napa, California 14.3%

Cakebread’s Chardonnay is light and fresh with plenty of crisp apple and pear aromas. Once sipped the oak tends to shine through with a creamy, buttery feel. Serious Chardonnay from one of Napa’s old school wineries.

2009 Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon Napa, California 15%

The attention to detail on this estate is equal to anything found in Bordeaux. The 2009 is simply world class with aromas of woody spice and cedar. In the mouth it is incredibly silky with a delicate feel but that belies a huge concentration of flavor on the finish. Truly one of Napa’s great Cabernets.

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Will Lyons is an award-winning wine writer, journalist and broadcaster.