Few of us today experience seasonal harvests the way the Pilgrims did. Freshly gathered food is available year-round. Wine, however, is different. It connects us to our past through a well-defined harvest, one monumental period when the entire year's hard work comes to fruition ― or doesn't. Maybe more than anyone else, winemakers understand how the Pilgrims must have felt in the fall when abundant crops were in: thankful.
Because of wine's ineluctable ties to the harvest cycle, I've always thought that, more than any other beverage, it deserves a place on the table at Thanksgiving. I would add only one caveat: Thanksgiving dinner is comfort food at its finest, so the wines must be comforting too.
This year we offer a Thanksgiving menu inspired by Italy, a country that produces a myriad of wines worth celebrating. But a trip through the Italian section of a wine shop can leave you reeling from dozens of unfamiliar place-names, grape varieties, and producers. So let me help. Here's a brief Italian-wine primer matched to our menu.
The gravlax, albeit not exactly an Italian beginning, has a perfect Italian partner: sparkling wine. Northern Italy is a vast expanse of vineyards, and much of the wine made there is the sparkler known as spumante (foaming). A good bet for the gravlax would be a top dry spumante such as Bellavista or Ferrari. Or go with my favorite semisparkler: prosecco ― dry and refreshing but not quite as bubbly as spumante. The Italians call it frizzante (lightly fizzy).
The minestrone and pumpkin-stuffed pasta have the rich sweetness that comes out in vegetables when they're cooked slowly, making them perfect foils for a fresh white wine. Italian whites are generally fairly simple, sharp, and lively ― easy counterpoints to food. Among my favorites are Pinot Grigio (lemony and crisp); Orvieto (dry and almondy), named after the Umbrian town; and Tocai Friulano (snappy and herbal) from the province of Friuli.
The roast turkey with cornbread and chestnut dressing, the sweet potato gratin, and the onion confit are definitely territory for red wine, an obligatory part of any Italian meal. And there are hundreds of great options. One good plan of attack is to leave yourself in the hands of a wine shop that specializes in Italian wines (such as Traverso's in Santa Rosa, California, near where I live). But I also like the idea of heading straight for a Chianti Classico, made in the province of Tuscany from Sangiovese grapes. A great Chianti is neither powerful nor bold; it has sumptuous, earthy flavors ― quiet music compared to Cabernet's rock and roll. Sangiovese has good acidity, so it glides easily around the flavors of all kinds of foods.
Finally, the pumpkin cheesecakes call for something dramatic, something with pizzazz. No problem. One of Italy's best-kept secrets is its dessert wines. For the cheesecakes, I recommend two: vin santo (holy wine) from Tuscany, and the harder-to-find but glorious Malvasia delle Lipari from the tiny island of Lipari near Sicily. Neither is syrupy sweet, but then a great dessert wine isn't supposed to taste like bad wedding cake. It should be ethereal and a bit seductive ― the crescendo of a consummate Italian meal.
SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: Tiziano Chianti 1998 (Tuscany), $7. This is your basic spaghetti-and-meatballs Chianti: simple, tart, and cherrylike ― a flashback to those bohemian dinners in the '60s.
A CHOICE LIST FOR THANKSGIVING
Ferrari Brut nonvintage (Trento), $20. Dry, sassy, and sleek (not unlike the car that shares its name).
Arneri Prosecco nonvintage (Veneto), $17. Light and frothy, with subtle but delicious hints of lemon and almond.
Zenato Pinot Grigio 1999 (delle Venezie), $10. Vibrant, lemony, and floral, with light peachy notes.
Zamo & Zamo Tocai Friulano 1999 (Colli Orientali, Friuli), $24. Dramatically fresh, with a sharp, peppery character.
Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale 1996 (Tuscany), $24. Easy to find, this classic Chianti is a great standby. Supple and earthy, with hints of spice and orange peel.
Castellare "I Sodi di San Niccolo" 1994 (Tuscany), $40. Though it has a proprietary name, this top wine from Castellare is made in the Chianti region primarily from Sangiovese grapes. Ripe and very earthy, with a long finish, this vintage (the current one) is good; an older one would be even better.
Antinori Vin Santo 1996 (Tuscany), $33 (500 ml.). This vin santo, with delicate, creamy honey and roasted-nut flavors, isn't overly sweet.