wine Features
Thanksgiving: Wines for Overtime…I mean, Dessert

By Jim Clarke
November 2008

Each year around this time, we wine writers turn to a thorny question: what wine to recommend with a Thanksgiving dinner? It’s tricky, given that so many different foods hit the table, ranging from the savory turkey to the sweet and tart cranberry sauce. Lots of good recommendations appear, some practical, like Beaujolais, some very practical – wines that will pair with a family’s diverse palates – and some patriotic, such as Zinfandel (long thought to be uniquely American).  We get so wrapped up in this problem that we often neglect the one item that we do serve on its own: dessert. Thanksgiving desserts focus on seasonal goodies like apples, pears, and pumpkins, and revolve around the pie pan.

Apple pie takes the cake for American-ness and fall harvest goodness, even if the Europeans scratch their heads when we say “as American as apple pie” – Johnny Appleseed was a relative latecomer, since the apple has been appearing in pies well before the New World was discovered. Experts have even found an English apple pie recipe dating from 1381.

A more recent creation, Mindy Segal’s Honeycrisp Apple Pie with Smoky Ice Cream adds a great savory touch of bacon. That adds an extra twist to the pairing; normally I’d say a late harvest Riesling, not too sweet and with clean fruit aromas, would be a good match, but here something with a bit of botrytis adds both flavor and body to match the pie’s character. Austrian producer Wenzel’s 2006 Beerenauslese Riesling ($38/375ml) shows a well-balanced touch of botrytis, courtesy of the country’s Neusiedler lake, which creates the fogs that make it happen; I’m thinking of the wine’s great pear, baked apple, honey, and  toasty aromas, concentrated and complex. It’s not as opulent as some, but that actually makes it more food-friendly.

Apple’s less-conventionally shaped cousin, the pear, is maybe not as common at the Thanksgiving table, but I know there are some of us who are thankful for it nonetheless. Barbara Goodman’s Autumn Pear Tart is garnished with raspberry or blackcurrant jam, giving us an excuse to move away from pairing a chilled white to something perhaps more suited to the season’s cool weather. However, a fortified Port would be too much, and less powerful dessert reds aren’t that common. In California, a few producers are making late harvest Zinfandels that would work well here; the grape’s bunches tend to ripen unevenly, which encourages growers interested in dessert wines to wait and give the less ripe berries a chance to catch up to their neighbors. Dashe Cellars delays picking for over a month to make their Late Harvest Zinfandel ($28/375ml); the 2006 is moderately sweet, with great brambly raspberry, blackberry, and vanilla notes. The sweetness softens the tannins as well.

Get a dessert that combines dark fruit with nutty or caramelly notes, though, and you may be ready to bring on some fortified wine. Port is often the default, but Banyuls, a Grenache-based fortified wine from the south of France, can be a bit more pairing-friendly, a bit fresher in its acidity and not as powerful (save the Port for cigars or some Stilton cheese, instead). Malka Espinel’s Three-Berry Tart, for example, pairs very well with the M. Chapoutier 2005 Banyuls ($25/500ml) with its dried, red fruit aromas balanced by notes of roasted walnuts, coffee, and cocoa powder. It doesn’t match the dessert’s flavors blow-for-blow; instead, the dessert actually brings out the wine’s fruitier side, “re-hydrating” the fruits into fresher, juicier times.

Those of us who really dig nutty flavors are going to give less play to fruit and, well, just “go nuts” for a dessert like Reed Hearon’s Pecan Raisin Pie. And they can do so with a patriotic tipple: Madeira. Now, Madeira is imported, it’s true, but it was the first wine to develop a fan club all its own here in the U.S.; the Madeira islands were an important stop in cross-Atlantic trade, so ships would stock up on the islands’ wines for their own consumption and to sell to our forefathers in the 18th and 19th centuries, aided by the fact that the wines survived the journey much more readily than continental Europe’s unfortified Bordeaux and Burgundies. The Rare Wine Company’s ‘Historic series’ Boston Bual NV ($40/750ml) is meant to replicate the style that once made Bostonians go wild; not as sweet as Malmsey, it has those walnut, toffee, caramel, and light fruit touches without going over-the-top, keeping its elegance and suavity so nut fans can get more of what they love without fatiguing the palate.

I’ve been dancing around the dessert that rivals apple pie for primacy on Thanksgiving Day. For many, as the football wraps up and we struggle up from our recliners on a quest for something sweet that we don’t really need, it’s the thought of pumpkin pie that drives us and overcomes the effects of turkey’s soporific triptophans. If we’re pairing it with wine, it lies at a middle ground: tawny Ports and Madeiras can be a bit too heavy, reds are too big, and most whites have a fruit profile that seems out of place with the caramel and baking spice flavors of the pie. A white with a bit more power is needed, and some Sherries, Tokajis, and Vin Santos fit the bill. To see what I mean, try Family Circle’s Caramel Pumpkin Pie with the Isole e Olena Vin Santo 2000 ($50/375ml); this classic Tuscan producer is known for their Chianti Classico and the Super-Tuscan “Cepparello,” but their Vin Santo is also very highly regarded, and deserves to be. Vin Santo gets its intensity and richness from the appassimento process, whereby the grapes are dried before pressing and fermentation, concentrating the sugars, flavors, and acidity. Here, the end result makes for intense dried apricot, spice, fig, and quince aromas, full and exotic. It also gives you an excuse for a quick espresso, too – it’s the Italian way, right? – if your team’s playing in the late game and your eyelids don’t feel like they’re going to make it.

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