Most of us enjoy Thanksgiving. But some of us really find it difficult. It might start with nightmarish travel and end with stresses of dealing with our wacky relatives. And what do we put in the middle? The biggest cooking challenge of the year, conducted for guests who are packed with opinions and perfectly willing to tell you that they don't remember Granny's gravy being so lumpy.
Even the task of picking wine for the meal is daunting. I've got a simple solution for you, but we should face the fact that choosing wine for this meal poses some wicked problems. It is virtually impossible to get a single wine to harmonize with the far-flung foods in a typical Thanksgiving dinner. The taste of turkey breast is subtle, but stuffings are rich and often quite flavorful. Cranberries are tartly acidic, but candied yams are soft and sweet. Most wines can work well with one or two of these dishes, but very few are suited to all four, and many families serve two or three other items as well.
And let us not forget those opinionated guests: They are probably divided between those holding established loyalties to wines that are red or white, dry or sweet, light or heavy, delicate or strong. You couldn't perfectly reconcile all these different foods and personal preferences even if you were a master sommelier with a second career as an air traffic controller.
So what should you do? Buy three wines: Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir. Pinot Blanc isn't widely known but it may be the most versatile of all white wines for food-pairing purposes. Well-made renditions have an uncanny ability to harmonize with almost anything. You'd also be wise to meet sweet-wine drinkers halfway by serving a Riesling with a floral, fruity profile that suggests more sweetness than the wine really contains. Finally, you need a red that can stand up to stuffing and gravy without overwhelming the turkey breast, and no wine can do this as well as Pinot Noir.
I've tasted nearly 200 wines in these three categories in recent weeks, and have listed the best of the best in order of preference here, with regions of origin and approximate prices indicated in parentheses. To ease the challenge of tracking them down, I've also indicated the importer for wines from overseas and the Washington distributor for bottlings from the United States.
Marc Tempe (Alsace, France) Priegel 2001 ($24, Vintage '59 Imports): Complex, complete and remarkably fresh for a mature wine.
Toros (Colio, Friuli, Italy) Pinot Bianco 2003 ($20, Siema): Classic flavors and structure, with excellent balance and length.
Strauss (Styria, Austria) "Classic" 2003 ($12, Select): A superb wine with perfect balance between ripe substance and refreshing acidity.
A. Scherer (Alsace, France) 2002 ($13, Weygant-Metzler): Soft apple fruit with interesting smoky accents.
J. B. Adam (Alsace, France) Reserve 2002 ($15, Billington): Ripe and juicy, with lovely fruit flavors.
Adelsheim (Willamette Valley) 2003 ($19, Bacchus): Light and fresh but still full of interesting notes of almonds and bread dough.
ALSO HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Domaine Sylvie Spielmann (Alsace, France) Reserve 2002 ($13, Kysela); Albert Mann (Alsace, France) 2003 ($15, Weygant-Metzler); Hugel (Alsace, France) 2002 ($12, Wildman).
Bassermann-Jordan (Pfalz, Germany) Trocken 2003 ($18, Valkenberg): Juicy peach fruit is packed with flavor (but not sweetness) and is beautifully braced by zesty acidity.
Domaine Weinbach (Alsace, France) Grand Cru Schlossberg 2002 ($41 whole, Vineyard Brands): Smoky, spicy and fascinating, with lovely notes of honey and baked apples.
Hirsch (Kamptal, Austria) Gaisberg 2002 ($40 Theise/Skurnik): Full of flavor but clean as a whistle, with notes of nectarines, soft spices and minerals.
Egon Muller (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany) Scharzhof 2002 ($12, Wildman): Miraculously pure apple and peach fruit, with undertones of slate and citrus.
Tegernseerhof (Wachau, Austria) "Terrassen" 2003 ($23, Select): Vivid and vivacious, with lovely fruit, a dry profile and excellent lift and acidity.
Pewsey Vale (Eden Valley, Australia) 2003 ($17, Negotiants): A truly great Aussie rendition, with intricate notes all perfectly balanced and integrated.
Jacob's Creek (South Australia) Reserve 2003 ($15, Pernod Ricard): Superb as usual, with vivid apple and citrus notes and a fresh, symmetrical finish.
ALSO HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Anton Bauer (Donauland, Austria) Reserve 2003 ($19, Select); Lingenfelder (Pfalz) 2002 ($14, Theise/Skurnik); Gainey (Santa Barbara County, Calif.) 2003 ($15, Bacchus); Tin Shed (Eden Valley, Australia) "Wild Bunch" 2003 ($15, Kysela).
Voss Estate (Martinborough, New Zealand) 2002 ($43; Meadowbank): Complete and convincing in every respect, this was the top performer from the astonishing contingent of New Zealand entrants.
Domaine Drouhin (Oregon) 2001 ($42, Wine Partners): Marvelously complex, with deep black cherry notes augmented by a host of intricate flavor nuances.
Escarpment (Martinborough, New Zealand) 2002 ($45, Meadowbank): Concentrated and intensely flavorful, yet still delicate and graceful in proportion.
Domaine Bouchard (Burgundy, France) Volnay 1er Cru Caillerets "Ancienne Cuvee Carnot" 2002 ($55, Cliquot): The best of the Burgundies, this shows harmonious notes of dried cherries, smoke, spices and vanilla.
Foxes Island (Marlborough, New Zealand) 2002 ($25 Whole; Meadowbank): Very showy stuff, with pure black cherry fruit notes accented with lots of vanilla and wood smoke.
ALSO HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Keller Estate (Sonoma Coast, Calif.) La Cruz Vineyard 2001 ($36, Winebow); Cloudy Bay (Marlborough, New Zealand) 2002 ($31, Cliquot); Bethel Heights (Willamette Valley, Ore.) 2002 ($25, Henry); Lastrada (Marlborough, New Zealand) 2002 ($35, Meadowbank); Byron (Santa Maria Valley, Calif.) 2002 ($22, National); Morgan (Santa Lucia Highlands) "Twelve Clones" 2002 ($23, Bacchus).
TOP AFFORDABLE PINOTS
Parker Station (Central Coast, Calif.) 2003 ($13, DOPS): Juicy and inviting, with just the right touch of oak.
Estancia (Monterey) "Pinnacles" 2001 ($15, National): Deep, serious flavors and well-integrated wood notes.
Beaulieu Vineyard (Carneros, Calif.) 2002 ($11, Washington Wholesale): Amazing delicacy and purity for the money, with juicy, ripe fruit and perfectly balanced wood.
Cartlidge and Brown (California) 2002 ($12, Henry): Classic varietal flavors with nice accents of spice and oak.
Smoking Loon (California) 2003 ($9, National): Juicy and soft, with very pure -- if simple -- flavors.
Michael Franz will offer additional Thanksgiving recommendations and answer questions live at noon on Friday on washingtonpost.com.